Soviet T-34-85 in East Berlin on 17 June 1953 Soviet T-34-85 in East Berlin on 17 June 1953. Source: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F005191-0040 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The first significant rebellion against the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe happened 70 years ago, on 16 June 1953. East German workers rebelled against the imposed pay cuts and work intensification. Michael Lavalette tells the story

Germany came out of the Second World War a defeated and broken country. Initially divided into four zones (controlled by the Americans, British, French, and Soviets), by 1949 the zones had coalesced into two states: the German Federal Republic (established out of the merging of the American, British, and French zones in September 1949) and the German Democratic Republic formed out of the Soviet-controlled block in October 1949.

Life for ordinary Germans in both states was exceptionally harsh. During the last stages of the war, vast amounts of German industrial plants were damaged or destroyed. Agriculture was slow to recover. Jobs were scarce and poverty rife.

In 1947 the British zone was rocked by large strikes and demonstrations as thousands took part in protests against food shortages and against the slow progress of ‘denazification’.  

In East Germany, economic recovery was further hampered by crude asset stripping. Factories, plants, and machinery were dismantled and removed to the USSR. In some areas of economic activity, such as aviation, even workers, such as skilled engineers and scientists, were transferred to the USSR. Where production did restart, it was often Soviet-run and much that was produced was transferred to the USSR as reparations.

Exacerbating the situation was the effect of the developing Cold War.  The Western powers implemented an economic embargo which further hampered East German recovery. And, in the East, basic civil liberties were increasingly curtailed. The Cold War also saw the growth of military budgets east and west, draining valuable resources from other areas of the economy.

In response to these economic difficulties, the new Communist regime in East Germany adopted a centralised ‘Soviet economic model’ whose goals were rapid re-industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation. Both these strategies brought high levels of labour exploitation and work intensification. 

Finally, there was a conscious attempt to suppress workers’ consumption. Basic commodities were rationed, including meat, sugar, margarine, and coal. The consequence was growing levels of hardship, poverty, and exhaustion. 

By 1952, the East German economy was in crisis. Strict austerity was already in place, so the regime tried to implement further work intensification. In March 1953 the state-run trade union agreed to a ‘voluntary’ increase in work quotas. By May, the State had decreed a quota hike of 10%. The consequence was to increase workloads and slash wages: real wages fell by as much as a third in the space of a few months.

Faced with these conditions, a relatively spontaneous strike wave broke out against the East German regime. The strike started amongst building workers on Stalinallee – a prestigious building project being undertaken in East Berlin. Shop stewards and activists had been holding meetings for a few days before they took the decision to act on 16 June.

On the morning of 16 June, the building workers started a sit-down strike. They then decided to march on the local party headquarters to demand an end to the work quota increases. But as they marched, workers from other building sites and factories came out to join them. What had started as a trickle became a torrent as thousands joined the march. And as the march grew, so did the workers’ confidence and with it the political demands. Originally concerned with work quotas, the slogans developed to include: Workers Join Us! Unity is Strength! We Want Free Elections!  

The next day every major city in East Germany was strikebound. Demonstrators broke into prisons, the offices of the ruling party were attacked, school students joined the protests and workers fought with the police. Best estimates are that around one million people took part, 10% of the population.  One historian of the movement notes:

‘Strikes … occurred in well over three hundred towns, but we now know that, together with marches and other disturbances, such as school students strikes and the storming of prisons, at least 701 cities, towns and villages were affected’ .

GARETH DALE (2003) The East German rising of June 1953, Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 11:2, 107-163

Of particular interest was the fact that the sections of workers who were at the forefront of the movement had been amongst the most left-wing sections of the German working-class movement of the Weimar era. It is estimated that somewhere in the region of 68% of Communist Party members later purged from the party for involvement in the protests in 1953 had been members of the Communist Party before Hitler’s rise to power! The ideas of solidarity, class struggle, and socialism had suffered a huge defeat under the Nazi regime, but these ideas were never quashed and in many of these old militants the rising was a continuation of their struggle for workers’ control that they had dedicated much of their younger life to.

Faced with the uprising, Russian troops were sent in to quell the rebellion: 25,000 Russian troops and 300 tanks moved into Berlin. Martial law was declared and an order was passed banning gatherings of more than three people! Within a few days, the strike wave was over. Many leading activists were arrested and imprisoned, some of the leaders executed. 

But the importance of the 1953 events should not be forgotten, it showed the power and strength of organised workers – in the face of the most difficult and trying circumstances – to fight against poverty, exploitation, and political repression. And it emphasised that, no matter how deep they may be buried, the ideas of solidarity, class struggle, and unity in action can never be fully extinguished.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.