According to your political mindset – the uprising at the 17th ofJune 1953 was an event which revealed the surpressing communist system and Sovjets imperialism – or it showed that the German people wants to be united. According to the communists, it was a contra-revolutionary attempt by nazi’s. Much has been written about the uprise and its interpretation – but how has it (been) remembered?
Let’s start with the direct cause of the uprise. The SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the ruling communist party in the GDR) demanded the productivity quotas to increase with 10 percent for fabric and construction work. This rise of the labour standards would have started the 30th of June, as a gift to Walter Ulbricht – who celebrated his 60th birthday that day. For this reason, the first labourers stopped working at the 16th of June – symbollically enough in the heart of GDR’s post-war rebuilding project, the Stalinallee (now: Karl-Marx-Allee). The strikers started an inofficial protest march towards the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Free German Trade Union Federation) and walking through till the Ministry quarter at the Leipziger Straße – where a crowd of 10.000 people gathered in front of the former Haus der Ministerien (House of Ministries, now: Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus) at the corner with the Wilhelmstraße. In the meanwhile, free elections were demanded – and ‘The goatee should leave!’ – referring to Ulbrichts unmistakable facial hair. So to speak, asking for an impopulair birthday gift was highly counterproductive for the communist leader.
The uprise peaked at the 17th of June, when various governmental institutes – among them fourteen mayor offices, two Stasi building and even nine prisons were occupied. These actions took also place outside East Berlin. Nevertheless, in front of the Haus der Ministerien gathered 25.000 people that day. GDR’s politicians fled to Berlin-Karlshorst, were they were protected by the Sovjets. At 2pm, Otto Grotewohl declared at the GDR’s radio broadcast, that the decision to increase the labour standards was cancelled. Grotewohl also declared that this provocation was caused by foreign fascists and American capitalists – revealing that the SED won’t surrender but will strike back. The 20.000 Soviet soldiers and another 8000 from the GDR made an end to the uprising – though the Sovjet tanks were the most important in this. The number of victims during the knock-down of the uprise remained unclear, but estimated around the 70. A counter-intervention by the FRG or the Western Allies did not occur. The following days – four people where shot, hundreds were brought to working camps in Siberia and 1600 people were convicted by GDR’s law – among them, people were sentenced to death. The eventual number of death is estimated around the hundred. Furthermore, the SED fired 20.000 functionaries – among them anyone who ever was a member of the SPD (the former social-democratic party) – and another 5000 party members. One can say that the Stalinist line took more power and the Stasi was given more rights.
GDR’s officials defended the opinion that the ‘agitators’ were mainly former nazi’s – which happened not to be true. Though – a shocking high percentage of the German population still had sympathy for Hitler during the begin of the 1950s – and the denazification of Germany was still in progress, if it didn’t fail openly. Except for their self interest, a reason for the communists to believe their doctrine is that the strikers wanted to unify Germany. Nevertheless, the most active strikers happened to be relatively old and wanted to restore democracy – as they knew it from the 1920. Relatively often, they were no member of any party – or excluded from the social-democratic party. Nevertheless, the official GDR line was to remember the 17th of June as a black day.
Only five days later, the Berliner Senate decided to rename the Charlottenburger Chaussee as the Straße des 17. Juni – raising the question if it’s a coincidence that the Sovjet War Memorial with its tanks and Russian soldiers is located here. In November that year, the Straße des 17. Juni expanded till the Ernst-Reuter-Platz by annexing the former Berliner Straße. From the next year onwards, the 17th of June was celebrated as the German Unity Day in the FRG – which meant that West Germans had a day off. In 1990 – there were even two days of German unification – the 17th of June as well as the third of October.
Except for the GDR’s official line, there was a public opinion which must have regretted that the SED stayed in power. Bertold Brecht – who once was a supporter of the communist state – wrote an characteristic poem out of his rejection towards the agressive measures taken by the SED. The poem – of which the last sentence became the most known – was published posthumously in 1959. The poem can be translated by the following:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Fourty years after the uprise, the decision was made to erect a memorial stone at the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus. Since the year 2000 – a huge photo of the demonstration is situated in the square. Next to it are three information panels erected, informing the visitor both in English as in German in the following themes – ‘The Uprising of the 17 June 1953. The causes of the uprising’, ‘The 17 June uprising in East Germany and its consequences’ and ‘The 17 June Memorial’. In the meanwhile – the famous painting on the wall, made by Max Lingner in 1950-1953, is restored. The painting shows the utopian socialist society.
For remembering the fiftieth jubilee date of the uprising, a discussion started to erect a Stein des Anstoßes (Offending Stone) which should be located at the ‘Rosengarten’ between the U-Bahnhof Weberwiese and the Weidenweg – which is where the uprise began. Unfortunately, this neighbourhood still accomodates a high number of the former GDR elite – giving a double meaning to the upcoming monuments name. Given that the neighbourhood changed highly last ten years, I cautiously propose that a memorial could be erected a the 17th of June 2013 – or by then, the decission to build one could be made.
What did came for the fifteeth memorial, is the Max-Fettling-Platz – remembering the strike-leader who was killed by the SED. He is remembered with a small square in Volkspark Friedrichshain – unfortunately the square is more of a parking lot for googlemaps. Other memorial sites who are erected out Berlin’s centre seem to be somewhat dull. One is erected in Berlin-Tegel – where a sculpture is supported by a memorial table which informs about the steel labourers from the nearby Hennigsdorf “who marched till the city centre and fought for unifying the German people by free elections”. A wooden Freiheitkreuz (cross for freedom) is situated in Berlin-Zehlendorf. Outside Berlin’s borders – a street in Dresden is renamed the Straße des 17. Juni since 2003. In Jena, a memorial stone for Alfred Diener is erected at the Holzmarkt – where Diener was arrested before he was sentenced to death.
Although the Soviet War Memorial is still located at the Straße des 17. Juni and the photo of the uprising crowd is in front of Lingner’s utopian painting, I would like to see a memorial site to be erected at the Block 40 for the upcoming jubilee in 2013. One thing is for sure – the uprise will be better remembered than Walter Ulbricht’s birthday.