In 1953 no Berlin Wall divided the German people. Travel between East and West Germany, via Berlin, occurred with relative frequency. Residents of the Soviet puppet state saw with their own eyes the disparities of life between the two Germanies. Those in the West, then still occupied by the Allies, enjoyed relative freedom and steadily improving living conditions. Those in the East suffered under oppressive Soviet policies, economic failures, high unemployment, and poor working conditions for those who did find jobs. Beginning in 1952 the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) announced the implementation of programs to further “Sovietize” the country. Among such steps were the collectivization of agriculture and ruinous taxes on the few privately held industries which remained.
The immediate results of Sovietization included empty shelves confronting consumers in stores. The price of food shot up, when foodstuffs could be found at all. Average wages diminished, even as many worked overtime whenever possible. During the winter of 1952-53, power outages occurred in the larger cities, disrupted by a failing transportation system and the still not rebuilt power grid. In early 1953 the Politburo ordained workers in state-owned industries would produce 10% more for the same pay they received previously. It also increased prices for food, health care, and critically in the cities, access to public transportation. Despite the closing of the border between East and West Germany, people fled to the west in droves. Stalin died in March 1953. Immediate reforms were announced, though the increases in work quotas remained in effect. East Germany seethed with discontent. Here is the story of the uprising it launched.
1. The communist takeover of East Germany led to numerous political divisions
In April 1945, Walter Ulbricht entered the Soviet sector of divided Germany, establishing himself as the head of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland). Known as the SED, its leader had long experience in politics and survival. Ulbricht began his political career during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and survived the political intrigues of the post-World War I Weimar Republic, as well as the rise of the Nazi Party. Ulbricht spent time in Spain during the Civil War there, serving Soviet interests. He relocated to Moscow in 1937, where he sat out World War II while preparing to establish a communist state in Germany after the Soviet victory. In April 1945, with Berlin a smoldering ruin, Ulbricht returned to Germany with Stalin’s blessing and the support of the Red Army.
In 1949, the German Communist Party and Ulbricht’s SED merged, with Ulbricht taking power as head of the party. The former leader of the German Communist Party, Otto Grotewohl, served as deputy prime minister under First Secretary Ulbricht the following year. German Communist Party members were absorbed into the SED, which many resented. Grotewohl was widely viewed as having surrendered the party to Ulbricht. The SED, under Ulbricht, followed a course of Sovietization, viewing the new German Democratic Republic as a new opportunity to build a government under a cult of personality, with Ulbricht assuming the role in Germany held by Stalin in the USSR. Ulbricht’s career to that point resembled Stalin’s in some ways. His hands were well-bloodied from his activities in Germany, France, and Spain before World War II, and he had no problem sanctioning murder of political enemies.