Following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March 1953, the East German government was confronted with a crisis that would define the course of life in the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ state for the next four decades.
Since its founding four years earlier, East Germany had undergone a process of rapid Sovietisation – as collectivisation of agriculture, prioritised investment in heavy industry, and a crackdown on religious activity saw the young German Democratic Republic embarking on a path to “accelerate the construction of socialism”.
Cold War tensions between East and West had dramatically increased – and with the construction of the physical barrier of the Iron Curtain (the Inner German Barrier) in 1952, stretching from the Baltic coast to Czechoslovakia and beyond, the division of Germany into two distinct entities was beginning to look more and more permanent. Yet conditions were not improving for the population of East Germany at a pace anywhere near comparable to that in the West – in-fact, quite the contrary.
As a result of this disparity, around 40% of the wealthiest farmers in East Germany fled West in 1952, leaving much of the farmland in the country to deteriorate in state hands – and causing a drop in living standards and increase in food costs. In response to this, the East German government chose to increase work quotas throughout the country – announcing measures that would amount to a 33% wage cut for all workers.
Many would be unhappy with this enforced tightening of their belts – and choose to flee the country to the West via West Berlin – others would rise up against the state and make their voices heard by protesting across the country and in the de-facto capital of East Germany – East Berlin.
At the time, Soviet leadership in Moscow, still struggling to come to terms with the power vacuum left by Stalin’s death, would be openly critical of the East German government’s policies of collectivisation, investment in heavy industry, and anti-religious action. Hoping to halt further remonstrations from the East German people, the Soviet leaders even challenged the fundamentals of East Germany’s Five Year Plan – while stopping short of insisting that the idea of new work quotas be renounced.
On June 11th 1953, the official East German party newspaper – Neues Deutschland – printed an official statement from the government announcing that the previous approach to societal reforms had been abandoned, in favour of a focus on consumer goods rather than heavy industry, but that this ‘New Course’ would indeed see the introduction of increased work quotas.
Public demonstration against this new state policy would begin less than a week later, when on June 16th 1953, construction workers at a hospital in the East Berlin district of Friedrichshain downed their tools, along with fellow workers from the flagship Stalinallee construction project, and marched on the Free Trade Union Federation offices on Wallstrasse in the city centre. While some protestors made their way to the Socialist Unity Party headquarters, many descended on the House of Ministries on Leipzigerstrasse – the former Nazi Ministry of Aviation.
That while the image on the floor depicts the protestors in 1953; the mosaic nearby on the outer wall of the former Nazi Aviation Ministry was added as a vision of the East German Socialist paradise. Painted on Meissen tile, the artist was asked to revise the work no fewer than five times to correct this vision.
This gigantic grey structure made of reinforced concrete with a marble and limestone exterior had survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. It was constructed in 1936 to serve as the headquarters of the German Luftwaffe (Airforce), which had grown to such importance that it was no longer deemed acceptable that it should remain under the command of the Army.
After the war, the building fell into the hands of the Soviet administration, however on October 7th 1949, this would be where the German Democratic Republic would be officially founded – with Wilhelm Pieck as President and Otto Grotewohl as Prime Minister. The building later served as home to the council of ministers of the GDR, and thus acquired the name the Haus der Ministerien (House of the Ministries).
On June 16th 1953, as the protestors gathered outside this building on the square at Leipziger Strasse, they would call for talks with East German leader, Walter Ulbrich, and Prime Minister, Grotewohl. Instead they found only Heavy Industry Minister Fritz Selbmann and Professor Robert Havemann, president of the GDR Peace Council, present. A further demonstration – and general strike – would be organised for the following day, June 17th 1953, starting at 7am from Strausberger Platz on Stalinallee and destined again for the city centre.
As the protestors dispersed that day, the East German government ruling Politburo met and decided that following public pressure they would revoke the work quotas and instead make them voluntary. Despite this, the demonstrations would continue regardless, with up to 1.5 million people participating in cities, towns, and villages across the country.
Expecting chaos in the country, the Soviet command met with the East German leadership and decided to mobilise sixteen Red Army divisions to respond to any provocation and unrest.
By 1pm on June 17th 1953, martial law had been declared in East Berlin – and Soviet tanks were on the streets battling with protestors. The main mass of demonstrators had gathered again on Leipziger Strasse, outside the House of Ministries. By 9am around 25,000 people were calling for changes to East Germany’s policies – some demanding free and fair elections, others the release of protestors who had been arrested the day before.
The response from the government was direct and violent – as a result of the supression of this popular uprising by Soviet troops and members of the East German security services, some 10,000 people were arrested, with up to 40 people executed.
The lesson learned by the state would be that such sweeping transformations of society and immediate implementation would be problematic; and require more planning (such as with the construction of the Berlin Wall, in 1961). For the East German people, seeing the reaction of the state, many more would flee West, others choosing to remain yet faced with the knowledge that openly acting against the government would leave them exposed to repercussions from the Soviet forces stationed in the country.
Walking around this square today, it is possible to see a series of tablets explaining the significance of the square and its role in the uprising in 1953 – the panoramic image on the ground is one of the protestors gathered here before the Soviet troops arrived to disperse the crowd using tanks and soldiers.
While the reaction in the West of the city would be to rename the street on the West side of the Brandenburg Gate as the Street of the 17th June (Strasse des 17. Juni) and hold a national unification day every year on that day, it would take until the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification for the significance of this square to be celebrated in East Berlin. As any record of the uprising was suppressed from East German history books.
For decades, East Germans remained fearful of the Soviet presence in the country, else they rise up again and be confronted by soldiers and tanks. Fortunately, when the opportunity came to storm the border crossings in 1989 and smash down the Berlin Wall, these Soviet troops would be nowhere in sight.