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
East German border guards along the Inner Border in the late 1970s. Wikimedia

6. The SED acknowledged past mistakes as it announced the New Course

The new leadership in the Soviet Union officially established policies to correct what it called “a serious threat to the political stability of the German Democratic Republic”. Those policies were force-fed to the East German SED. They ordered a decrease in the government subsidizing of industry, with a simultaneous increase in subsidies for consumer goods, health care, and food. They also directed the East German government to relax restrictions imposed on the churches, allowing greater religious freedom. The Soviet High Commissioner for Germany, Vladimir Semyonov, ordered Ulbricht to announce the new policies immediately while denouncing past policies as mistakes. For a professional politician to denounce his previous policies as errors is a rare event in history. Nonetheless, Ulbricht complied with Soviet demands. He announced the immediate reversal of his own Sovietization programs.

In his announcement, Ulbricht did not address the work quotas previously imposed on the East German workforce. Workers continued to labor under production quotas which effectively cut their wages. At the same time, subsidies went to benefit the agricultural workers and the bourgeoisie. Under the New Course, farmers, small businesses, and privately owned industries stood to benefit at the expense of the workers. The New Course, and the frank admissions of error in the previous policies, sent shockwaves across the GDR. Local party organizations, the backbone of the SED in East Germany, expressed dismay with their leaders. Demonstrations against the New Course and the SED took place, beginning in Brandenburg on June 12. They soon spread to other cities and towns. On June 14, Neues Deutschland published an editorial condemning the work quotas, alongside articles praising those who exceeded them.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Few places in East Germany were free from surveillance at all times. Wikimedia

7. Protests against the government in East Germany were fraught with risk

The government of the German Democratic Republic maintained its own military and police forces. They were far from the only such forces in the GDR. Soviet troops, military police, and secret police remained in the country throughout its forty-plus years of existence. The government of the GDR gradually absorbed responsibility for administering the state, under the watchful eye of the Soviets. East German schools taught the Russian language to all students, as well as the Soviet version of what they called the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Among the many state organizations of the GDR, the Ministry of State Security became the most feared. Known by the name Stasi, it grew to encompass over 90,000 men, with most of them operating secretly. Stasi agents appeared in nearly all areas of society, supported by paid informants.

They generated the same level of fear as had the World War II Gestapo, and operated in a similar vein. Alongside them were Soviet secret police, which monitored both the German populace and the Stasi itself. Speaking out against the SED or government policies thus presented serious dangers to those intrepid enough to do so. Stasi relied on informants, which reported those suspected of acting against the interests of the SED, rather than the interests of the East German people. Over the course of its existence, it arrested and imprisoned more than a quarter of a million people. In 1953 Stasi operated under the supervision of the Soviet KGB, ensuring Soviet domination of East German domestic policing. To overtly protest against the government, by extension against the SED, drew the immediate attention of the two feared secret police forces, neither of which were known for humane practices.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Otto Grotewohl, former head of the German Communist Party and Prime Minister under Ulbricht. Bundesarchiv

8. The SED refused to alter the work quotas despite criticism even within the party

During the second week of June 1953, the SED defended the work quotas in party-controlled media outlets. These included radio programs, newspapers, and magazines. Labor unions in the GDR, controlled by the SED, and their periodicals likewise endorsed the work quotas as economically essential for the welfare of the state. At the same time, several prominent members of the industrial and political communities condemned them as being anti-Marxist-Leninism. They pointed out the work quotas placed an undue burden on one group of the populace to the benefit of other groups. Ulbricht, with the initial support of the Soviets, refused to address the work quotas. In several East German industrial areas grumbling among the workers grew louder. Stasi infiltrated industries reported the unrest to their supervisors in East Berlin. The government took note but at first no action.

On June 16, construction workers at sites in East Berlin walked off their jobs. About 900 workers marched to the Free German Trade Union Federation building, bearing signs demanding a reduction of the work quotas to their previous (1952) levels. Such a deduction represented approximately 10%. They then marched on government buildings, SED headquarters, and the city center. Their ranks swelled as they demonstrated, additional political demands were added to their chants. At least two trucks equipped with loudspeakers were confiscated and used to recruit others to their cause as they marched. Standing before the government headquarters they demanded Ulbricht appear to hear their complaints. He refused. They then called for a general strike the next day. As the crowd swelled outside their offices the East German Politburo debated the situation for several hours. Ultimately, they decided to revoke the mandatory work quotas, keeping them in place voluntarily.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Protesters chanted against work quotas and demanded free elections while Ulbricht remained in hinding on June 16. Wikimedia

9. The workers returned to their sites late in the afternoon of June 16

By late afternoon, word of the decision to make the work quotas voluntary reached the striking workers, most of whom dispersed peacefully. By the time they dispersed several other issues were included in their protests. Word of the actions in Berlin spread across the GDR rapidly, as it did in Moscow. By late evening, Minister Semyonov informed the SED that Soviet troops, including tanks, were being sent to East Berlin. In turn, Ulbricht directed a massive propaganda campaign, claiming the strike had been the work of foreign instigators. Among the instigators Ulbricht announced was the United States. During the protest on the afternoon of June 16, the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) broadcast the events live, and continued to report on them throughout the evening. Contained in the American broadcasts were reports the strikers had added “We want free elections” to their demands that afternoon.

The German-language broadcasts that night, which could be heard across a large section of East Germany, shifted to anti-Soviet language. The broadcasts, directed by Program Director Eberhard Schutz, claimed a victory over Soviet domination and encouraged all the people of East Germany to support the protesters. That evening some of the strikers requested RIAS broadcast calls for a general strike the following day. Schutz approved of such an announcement, though Gordon Ewing, the American political director for the station, overrode him. Ewing feared such an overt action would cause the Soviets to respond against West Berlin. By 11 o’clock that night, RIAS began its hourly news broadcasts reporting the workers’ demands for a general strike at 7.00 AM on June 17. It also repeated the demands for general support from the populace, beginning at a gathering at East Berlin’s Strausberger Platz in the morning.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
From West Berlin, American radio broadcast events as they occurred in the East. BBC

10. Soviet troops arrived in East Berlin in the early morning hours of June 17

While news of the events of June 16th swept across Germany Soviet combat troops arrived in East Berlin. Their presence in the city was quickly relayed to the Americans. By late evening, President Eisenhower knew of the uprising and the potential response of the East Germans and Soviets. In London, British Intelligence monitored the situation. Both Britain and the United States ordered additional intelligence operatives to Berlin. Ulbricht reported to the Soviets and to his own party in Berlin the demonstrations were the work of foreign agitators. He pointed to the broadcasts from RIAS as evidence supporting his claims. The broadcasts, repeating the demands of the workers for demonstrations the following day led to his next mistake in handling the crisis. Aware that Soviet troops were entering the city, he decided to order an increased police presence in several areas the following day.

The police deployed included the regular city police force, supported by units of the Barracked People’s Police, essentially an organized militia. Units were set up in several locations, including those in which the demonstrators had appeared. Ulbricht did not issue specific instructions over how the police units should respond to the demonstrators. Instead, he assumed the presence of police units would deter the people from gathering in large crowds. He believed that the fear of arrest for activities detrimental to the party would be sufficient to establish calm in the city. Subsequent events revealed his miscalculation. In the morning, as crowds gathered in the city, the police simply let the people pass. Without instructions to do otherwise, they became largely spectators during the morning of June 17th. Nor were the police prepared for the size of the demonstrations which ensued that day.

Why the East German Uprising of 1953 Was So Intense
Soviet tanks opened fire on demonstrators in East Berlin’s streets on June 17. Wikimedia

11. Demonstrations rocked East Berlin on June 17, 1953

Between dawn and mid-morning, thousands of protestors and demonstrators marched from East Berlin’s outlying neighborhoods to the city center. They used loudspeaker equipped vehicles to shout various protests, urge other citizens to join them, and communicate with each other. Messengers on bicycles ran between the various groups as they marched. Banners, posters, and statues dedicated to the SED, the Soviet Union, and the East German government were destroyed by the protesters. They carried banners deriding the SED, Ulbricht and other officials, and the Soviet Union. Among their chanted demands were those for free elections, lower prices, ending the work quotas, and others. As it had the day before, RIAS reported the activities and the progress of the protesters. By 9 AM approximately 25,000 demonstrators appeared before the House of Ministries (the seat of the East German Government).

Crowds of demonstrators appeared in other parts of the city, near Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz. At the House of Ministries, some of the demonstrators entered the building. The more than 500 police and Stasi present to protect against that eventuality either withdrew or were overrun by the crowds. By 11 o’clock in the morning, it appeared evident the SED administration itself was being taken over by the protesters. In other areas of the city, German police clashed with the crowds, as the protests took over the appearance of a riot. By late morning it was evident the police presence had not only failed to deter gatherings but had placed the lives of policemen and government officials at risk. Shortly after 11 AM, Soviet troop carriers, supported by tanks, appeared in the city center. Without further orders to the crowds to disperse, the Soviets simply opened fire on them.

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. A 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 demonstrators, 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 to 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 workplaces. 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 to 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 become 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

“The Soviet Union Hands Over Control of West Berlin (1945)”. History Collection. Online