Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense

Larry Holzwarth - June 15, 2021

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Soviet tanks in East Berlin broke up the crowds, and mass arrests followed in their wake. Pinterest

12. Simultaneous uprisings occurred throughout East Germany

The RIAS broadcasts and word of mouth communications ensured cities and towns in the GDR were aware of events as they transpired. More than 120 similar demonstrations took place in the GDR on June 17. Strikes occurred in over 330 factories and industrial sites. An estimated 225,000 workers walked off their jobs and demonstrated in cities including Leipzig, Potsdam, Magdeburg, and others. In the industrialized region around Halle more than 100,000 strikers protested against the SED and the East German government. Soviet troops moved to disperse the crowds, showing considerably more restraint than they had in Berlin. Some violence took place, often against party-owned businesses and shops. Incidents of arson and looting were reported in several cities and towns. In agricultural areas, some farmers withdrew from the collective farms in protest. Soviet troops largely ignored the farmers.

Demands from the protesters varied. Many wanted free elections, others the restoration of the Social Democratic Party. The party had merged with the German Communist Party to form the SED under Soviet pressure in 1946. Others protested against the work quotas, rising prices for consumer goods, and the shortages of food. In several communities, demonstrators demanded the release of political prisoners. Some jails were seized by protesters. Local SED functionaries fled from the crowds as word spread they were to be jailed, or worse. The protests which began on June 17, roiled the GDR for the next several days, as the Soviets and SED officials struggled to bring the country under control and restore calm. Little word of events in East Berlin reached the rest of East Germany during that period. Having crushed the demonstrations in Berlin, the Soviets imposed martial law on the city by noon on June 17.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Clashes between the demostrators, Soviet troops, and German police units continued for several days in East Germany. Wikimedia

13. Fighting in Berlin continued throughout the day on June 17

The Soviets, later joined by the East German police, opened fire on the demonstrators in the late morning. They then moved methodically through the city, pushing back the crowds before their advance. Tanks used machine guns against the demonstrators, firing into crowds and buildings. The demonstrators fought back, though they had little chance of stopping the Soviet tanks. Those trapped and forced to surrender went into Soviet and Stasi custody. Suspected ringleaders from the labor unions were arrested, and some summarily shot. Some Soviet soldiers refused orders to fire into the crowds. They too were arrested, at least 21 shot by Soviet or German operatives. Their bodies were placed in an unmarked mass grave near Magdeburg, where they were discovered in 1994. Likely executed by SMERSH, a Soviet counterintelligence agency, they had been tortured prior to death.

As the fighting between the East Berliners and the Soviets began to die down that night, Stasi and Soviet agents implemented mass arrests. Estimates of over 10,000 arrests in East Berlin alone are deemed by some scholars as low. The Soviets imposed martial law. They established roadblocks and barriers preventing entering or leaving East Berlin, and shut down all public transportation. Railroads, buses, and trams all shut down. The Soviets clamped down, preventing nearly all transit between East and West Berlin, and similar methods were used in other East German cities. Soviet military leaders downplayed the level of violence used quashing the demonstrations, which they referred to as “insurgencies”. By June 24th, Berlin appeared relatively calm. Though there was no longer violence in the streets, the protests against the government were far from over.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
The death of Josef Stalin removed a valuable ally to Ulbricht, though he managed to survive threats to his power. Wikimedia

14. The Soviets sought to remove Walter Ulbricht as the General Secretary of the SED

On June 24, the senior Soviet ministers in East Berlin, led by Semyonov, reported their findings regarding the uprising to Moscow. The report whitewashed their own culpability over policies which preceded the strikes, and placed the blame on Ulbricht. Ulbricht had long aligned himself with the policies of Josef Stalin, and with the Soviet dictator dead had few allies in Moscow. When the East German Politburo met in early July, Ulbricht found he had little support there as well. Once again, events in Moscow took precedence over those in East Germany. On June 26, Stalin’s longtime enforcer and executioner, Lavrenty Berea was arrested. The arrest took place as Nikita Khrushchev seized power in the Soviet Union. The coup elevating Khrushchev shook the Soviet power structure, and a decision to maintain the Ulbricht in East Berlin came as a result.

Encouraged by events in Moscow, Ulbricht took steps to consolidate his own power in East Germany. He managed to expel his opponents in the Politburo, and despite his growing unpopularity retained his hold on the SED. Meanwhile, the Soviet crackdown on access to East Berlin led to ever more evident shortages of food and medicines in the city. By early July food shortages reached a crisis level. Intelligence sources relayed the food crisis to their agencies in the United States and Great Britain. John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State, devised a relief program to aid the city which had only weeks before arisen in protest against their government and the Soviets. On July 10, President Eisenhower announced the program, scheduled to begin on July 27. The United States pledged $15 million of food, to be sent to West Berlin for distribution to the East.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought ton exploit the tensions in East Germany, to little avail. Wikimedia

15. The Eisenhower program failed in its mission to encourage further dissent

Eisenhower’s program, veiled under the image of a humanitarian mission, was presented by Dulles as a means of further destabilizing the East German government. In West Berlin, distribution centers were established at points with relatively easy access to the East. In all, 35 different distribution centers appeared throughout West Berlin. The centers stocked food packages containing flour, fats, dairy products, and vegetables. Eventually, over 5 million packages arrived in West Berlin for distribution. Without acknowledging the American largesse, Ulbricht quashed information regarding its availability. Stasi and the city’s police increased the difficulty of crossing from East Berlin to West Berlin. The East German government responded by eliminating rail, tram, and bus traffic between the divisions of the city. Dulles had planned the operation as demonstrating the East German government’s failure to feed its people.

Instead, most of the food which actually made it into East Berlin went into the black market. The Soviets responded by increasing support to East Germany, which strengthened Ulbricht’s relations with the Soviets and within his own party. America’s allies in Europe viewed the increased tension between East and West Germany with growing alarm as 1953 drew on. A new government in the Soviet Union, increased tensions in Germany, and the intervention by the United States all caused them to protest the American actions. They recognized the humanitarian aspects of the mission, but also viewed it as an unnecessary provocation. By late summer Eisenhower agreed, and the program officially ended in October. By then, Ulbricht had firmly re-established himself as the power in East Germany, with the endorsement of the Soviet Government in Moscow.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
The Soviets and SED attempted to suppress the information regarding tanks firing on protesters in the aftermath. Wikipedia

16. Protests continued in the labor unions throughout the summer

For workers across East Germany, the violent suppression of the protests on June 17 increased their discontent with the SED. Of particular concern was the knowledge that East German police had joined with the Soviets in shooting at their fellow citizens. Workers across East Germany, especially in the larger cities, began to leave the party. Hundreds of workers in East Berlin, Halle, Potsdam, Leipzig, and other industrial centers abandoned the SED. Hundreds of others abandoned their trade unions, refusing to pay the dues which ultimately supported the East German ruling party. The SED lost an important source of knowledge regarding the labor movement as the number of workers supporting the party dwindled. Ulbricht knew his hold on power remained tenuous in the face of continued worker discontent. He responded to the workers with several new measures.

In September, Ulbricht directed the formation of a new militia. The Combat Groups of the Working Class comprised units of armed personnel to protect factories and industrial sites from perceived enemies. Though the militia formed in late 1953, it did not receive its official name until 1959. Years later it protected the workers building the Berlin Wall. Ulbricht conceived the militia as a paramilitary arm of the SED. The party recruited its members from work places. Officially, service in the militia was voluntary, though all party members were required to join as a condition of their membership. Military training and equipment made the militia a de facto army serving the ruling party, rather than the people. The Combat Groups of the Working Class disbanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Walter Ulbricht inspecting a production collective near Rostock, East Germany, in 1953. Bundesarchiv

17. Surveillance of workers increased following the protests of June, 1953

Believing the protests had arisen first in the workplaces, the SED decided to increase surveillance of workers on the job, during union meetings, and even in their places of leisure. Stasi expanded rapidly following the protests. Informants and spies infiltrated the factories and construction sites throughout East Germany. Often, they served alongside similar agents from the Soviets, unwittingly. Union halls were subjected to wire surveillance, as were telephones in industrial sites. Speaking disparagingly of the party, or of work conditions, or quotas, made the speaker liable for arrest and detention. Any form of protest against the policies of the party became a crime. Failing to report another worker for such activities was equally a crime. Most of the surveillance activities reported through Stasi. Some though, reported directly to the SED.

Officially, the increased work quotas which led to the protests in June were established as voluntary. In practice, many remained in force when the trade unions yielded to SED pressure and announced they would “voluntarily” comply. Their members had no choice but to go along with their leaders or leave the union. Ulbricht’s strict monitoring of the work force came from his fear of another uprising, which would have the effect of ending his hold on party leadership. He also believed another uprising would lead to his losing the support of the USSR. Despite his claims of supporting the peace and unity programs emanating from Moscow, Ulbricht remained a Stalinist. He unapologetically applied Stalin’s techniques, while Moscow looked the other way.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Nikita Khrushchev ensured little information regarding the Soviet actions during the uprising reached the West. Wikimedia

18. The uprising remained little known outside Germany and the Soviet Union

Although newspapers and radio broadcasts reported the June uprising in the west as it occurred, it received little follow-up coverage. The Soviet Union immediately quashed reports of the events in the Eastern Bloc, downplaying their significance. Both the BBC and the Voice of America broadcast reports of the events in East Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. The Soviet Union began jamming broadcasts into the Eastern Bloc in 1949, and the reports that did reach Eastern Europe were countered with their own propaganda machine. Nonetheless, reports of the events did cause considerable concern and embarrassment for the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev. They revealed the so-called workers paradise was not the idyllic state they claimed it to be. Soviet propaganda blamed the uprising on foreign agitators.

The remains of Nazism received some of the blame as well. In several sites across the GDR, Soviet and East German symbols and banners were vandalized during the protests. In many cases, they were defaced with swastikas and other Nazi symbols and slogans. Several Soviet propagandists claimed the uprising had been fostered by the last vestiges of Nazism in Germany. The Soviet and East German response had been to quash those last remnants. At the time of the uprising in June, the Soviet Union still held German prisoners of war, who were used as forced labor. At least 85,000 German prisoners remained in Soviet hands in 1953, in part justified by the Soviets by the belief they had not been de-Nazified. Not until 1955 was Konrad Adenauer able to negotiate the release of the remaining German PoWs held in the Soviet Union.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Khrushchev and Ulbricht share center stage at the SED party congress in 1958. Bundesarchiv

19. Ulbricht continued to pursue his policy of construction of Socialism

The policies which created the conditions leading to the June uprising continued to be favored by Ulbricht following the crises of 1953. Despite being thoroughly denounced by the Soviets, Ulbricht wanted to build a socialist society with himself as its head. The June uprising did not deter him from pursuing that goal, though it forced him to reevaluate his tactics. His government came to the realization that Sovietization could not be accomplished through a speedily executed force-feeding. Instead, it required time and most importantly, the retention of talented workers and professionals. The trade unions were to be given the image of greater representation of the needs of the workers, though in fact they remained under the firm control of the SED. East German society needed to appear as equivalent to West German, if not superior.

In order to accomplish such a feat, it was clear to Ulbricht that the draining of workers to the West must cease. With the approval of the Soviets, Ulbricht increased monitoring of the borders with the West. In July, 1953, less than a month after the uprising, Ulbricht dissolved the individual states within the GDR, establishing the central government as the sole authority. Police units answerable to the SED and Stasi operatives patrolled the access corridors to the West. By the end of 1953, most refugees fleeing from the GDR did so through Berlin. They provided a dual problem for Ulbricht as he attempted to cover up the extent of the uprising. They denied their skills to the GDR, and provided additional information to the West as to the depth of dissatisfaction within.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
East German paramilitary troops stand guard during the construction of the Berlin Wall, August 13, 1961. Bundesarchiv

20. Ulbricht controlled the GDR government for another 18 years following the uprising.

Although the June uprisings in East German temporarily weakened Ulbricht’s control of East Germany, by the end of the decade he had consolidated it to himself. He managed to stabilize the country’s economy, though the standard of living in the GDR never rivaled that of West Germany. In 1961 he addressed the continuing flight of citizens to the West by lobbying Khrushchev to allow him to build the Berlin Wall. At first hesitant, Khrushchev conceded, and construction began on August 13, 1961. Ulbricht mobilized his paramilitary forces to deal with any protests across East Germany and to protect the workers involved in the construction in Berlin. Almost overnight, Berlin went from being the easiest place to escape to the West to the most difficult, as well as the deadliest.

The Berlin Wall, which proved successful in curbing refugees fleeing to the West, became a personal disaster for Ulbricht. It created a public relations nightmare, both with the West and with the post-Khrushchev Soviets. In 1968 Ulbricht managed to void the constitution enacted in 1949, replacing it with a communist constitution. The new constitution formally established the government under the control of the SED, eliminating any semblance of a true democratic republic. He angered the Breshnev government in Moscow by rejecting the policy of détente with the West and demanding greater autonomy. In 1971, under pressure from the Soviets, Ulbricht resigned his positions in the party and government, citing reasons of health. Erich Honecker replaced him. The GDR continued to operate under more or less the same lines until 1989. Only when it collapsed did the true extent of the East German uprising of 1953 became known in the West.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The East German Leadership, 1946-73: Conflict and Crisis”. Peter Greider. 2000

“Our Five Year Plan for Peaceful Reconstruction”. Walter Ulbricht, German Propaganda Archive, Calvin University. Online

“Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund”. Article (English), Brittanica. Online

“How to demolish villages and treat people as mere vermin”. Derek Scally, The Irish Times. August 13, 2009

“Communique on the Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the German Democratic Republic (June 11, 1953”. German History in Documents and Images (GHDI). Online

“The Lingering Trauma of Stasi Surveillance”. Charlotte Bailey, The Atlantic. November 9, 2019

“60 Years Later, Germany Recalls its Anti-Soviet Revolt”. Alison Smale, The New York Times. June 17, 2013

“Keeping the Pot Simmering: The United States and the East German Uprising of 1953”. Christian Ostermann, German Studies Review. 1996

“Transmitting Revolution: Radio, Rumor, and the 1953 East German Uprising”. Michael Palmer Pulido, dissertation. Marquette University. 2009. Online

“The East German Uprising, 1953” Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“The Last Division: A History of Berlin, 1945-1989”. Ann Tusa. 1997

“The 1953 Revolt in East Germany: violence and betrayal”. Anthony Glees, Opendemocracy.net. June 30, 2003

“Ulbricht: A Political Biography”. Carola Stern. 1965