Cajo Brendel

The Working Class Uprising in East-Germany
June 1953

Class struggle Against Bolshevism


Published: As pamphlet by Echanges et Mouvement, London IV 6 XX.
HTML-markup: Jonas Holmgren

The following pages were printed for the first time in Dutch as a pamphlet, published anonymously by the Spartacusbond, a Dutch council-communist group from which the author was a member at that time. They came out only a few weeks after the events as a bitter charge against bolshevist state-capitalism, unmasking the clumsy lies of its ruling class and doing justice to the thousands and thousands of nameless East-German workers who bravely resisted oppression and exploitation In 1978 the pamphlet was re-edited by the Dutch group Daad en Gedachte (Act and Thought) with only a few negligible modifications: here and there the author preferred a more analytic style to the emotional one of his charges of that time. For the rest and especially so far as his opinions are concerned there was no need of any change at all.

In 1979 a French translation of the second Dutch edition of the pamphlet was published by Echanges et Mouvement. This is a literal translation from the French, looked over by the author.

Nearly half a century ago the well-known Dutch Marxist Anton Pannekoek stated that the masters of Bolshevist Society were nothing but "a class that tries to perpetuate the worker' serfdom". The justness of his view was proved by those events which form the subject of these chapters:

"The wages policy obtaining in East Germany aim to achieve increased productivity by intensifying workers' output and lowering wages... Methods of payment by result are applied wherever possible ... earnings depend firstly on various skill-categories, secondly to the extent to which workers fulfill norm, i.e. on the amount of goods produced in a specific time.. By 1950 there were already enormous differences in earnings in East-Germany.. The Russian system that Russian managers were seeking to apply could only lead to even greater differences ..." (The Wage system in the Soviet zone in "Der Gewerkschafter" ["The Trade Unionist", a West German periodical] from July '53.)



It is about thirty years since, one summer morning in 1953, 80 to 100 workers on the building sites in the Stalin Allee[1] of E. Berlin laid down their trowels. They came down from the scaffolding and, joined by their workmates, moved towards the government buildings in the Leipziger Strasze: they went there in order to protest against the increase in work norms

They were unaware that by this action they were giving the signal for a workers insurrection which would spread like a brushfire over all of E. Germany. On trio 16th and 17th of June, 1953, the Bolshevik regime of the G.D.R.[2] was made to tremble. The wage slaves of state capitalism went into action even in the remotest Corners of the land. Wherever the spark of resistance touched, or one might say electrified them, there spontaneously they formed revolutionary councils. They were taking the first steps on a road which led not, as has been said, towards bourgeois democracy, but towards the far further goal of a working class democracy.

The insurrection was strictly proletarian in character, some-thing rarely seen before in other similar situations. It provided a living example to the world of what does and does not constitute a workers revolution. And with the same blow, the insurrection radically destroyed any myths on the subject[3] that had previously been tenable. What the insurrection in the East overthrew was the notion that no revolutionary practice is possible without a revolutionary theory[4].

What's more, it showed that the existence of a "vanguard" is not a necessary condition for revolutionary action by the" working-class; that instead of revolutionary storm springing from a "revolutionary conscicusnaas'11 it is the revolutionary storm which gives birth to the "revolutionary Consciousness". The events also showed how quickly small groups of workers, fighting over their work condition, can transform themselves into masses struggling for very much wider and more radical objectives. The Hungarian Revolution, 3 years later, was to demonstrate with what enormous rapidity the masses will change their demands in a similar revolutionary process, and how speedily their slogans will change from one moment to the next. We learn that it's not what workers think about their own actions that is important in the class struggle, but what those actions mean, and how the momentum of events shapes the way workers behave.

Young people of today do not always have a clear conception of what has happened in the past. It must be added, too, that history has been modified by the West[5]. The pages which follow represent an effort to reconstruct this past. We have based ourselves on several publications, the value of which lie's, above all, in the testimonies of those who were present at the centre of events.

We cite[6]:

- Arno Scholz in Werner Nicke "Der 17 Juni"

- the summaries published in the monthly "Der Monat" by Leithauser

- the article "Two days that shook the Soviet World" by Louis Fisher in Reader's Digest, December, 1953

- several essays in the West German Traade Union Press

- Stefan Brant, "Der aufstand" (The Uprising)


A Storm Blows Up

In the summer of 1953, the Eastern Zone of Germany, occupied by Russian troops, was the scene of very important revolutionary events. For the first time in 32 years there was sizeable movement taking place amongst the proletariat on German soil. In E. Berlin, Magdeburg, Rostock and "Warnemunde, Brandeburg and Rathenow, in Dresden and in Gorlitz on the Polish frontier, at lena; in the uranium-producing region of Aue, in Halle and in Leipsic, in Bitterfeld, Merseburg, Wolfen and in many other towns In the lignite basin of central Germany, workers left their factories all at the same moment and went out onto the streets.

It was started by the building workers. They were followed by considerable mass of the metal workers. Work stopped at the steel works of Henningsdorf, in the Bergmann-Borsig factory, in the foundries of Calbe and Furstenberg, in the Zeiss works, in the BMW motor works at Gera, in the Max foundries at Unterwellenborn, in the munitions factories of Schonebeck, and in the Olympia works at Erfurt, to cite only a few examples: work stopped everywhere.

For a brief moment, the workers could see power within their grasp. The Grotewonl-Ulbricht government, mere puppetry in the hands or the Russians, was in a state of total panic. It lost all initiative and lost its capacity to act. The existing regime gave way under the irresistible pressure of the masses.

In main streets and squares throughout the country assembled large crowds of workers who were all of a sudden aware that they had nothing to loose but their chains. In 1918, on the morning of the 9th of November, the insurgent sailors of Kiel entered a Berlin which was bubbling over; on the 17th of June 1953, the same Berlin was visited by the steelworkers of Henningsdorf. But there was this great difference: when the sailors of Kiel came down the Charlottenburg road, they came in small separated groups and had lost their cohesion. The workers of Henningsdorf stuck together and there were 12,000 of them.

They marched arm in arm on a wide front. They came down the road which led from the north, still wearing their work clothes, and with their protective spectacles still hanging around their necks. They crossed through the French sector after cutting the barbed wire barriers. Some wore shoes with wooden soles which echoed on the paving stones. The sound was amplified against the buildings of Millerstasze at Wassing, till it became an approaching storm which could sweep the Bolsh leadership clean out of the political scene.

It was pouring with rain when the workers of Henningsdorf left their factories. Soon they were completely soaked. But nothing could have held them back[7]. There were women amongst them wearing light shoes bought from the shop of the Organization of Commerce in shoes, which weren't meant for heavy use like this. When their feet began to hurt, the women took off their shoes arid continued barefoot at no price were they going to be left behind, They were pushed for-ward by a common. desire and a common purpose. All had but one aim; get to Berlin. They had to cover a distance of 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles), and that was only going. Not one gave a thought to the return. And as for the consequences of their action, no one had any precise idea of that.

Everything was happening in a way once described by Henrietta Roland Holst: "the revolutionary spirit can carry individuals away only at the moment when logical judgment or the Consequences of their acts has more or less disappeared from their consciousness"[8]. So it was with the Henningsdorf workers. And so it was also for the many E. German workers who had started to act before them.

On the 16th of June for instance9 a procession of around 10,000 people passed by the front of the police headquarters of E. Berlin at Alexanderplatz. Behind the windows of the eight story building, officers touched fingers to, foreheads1 - it was just a few loonies. In a cafe on the Greifwalderstrasze, three workers were playing cards. Their first reaction on seeing the procession was also to say "they're mad". But for the masses once aroused, everything develops along different lines than for those individuals who possibly never will.

"Mad" is certainly what all those who rose up in E. Germany must have seemed in the eyes of those who took stock of the enormous power of the State and of the party which is why the bourgeois press of the West have always considered that what actually happened in E. Germany, in summer of 1953~ was impossible It was a most widespread belier that mass movements were impossible under a system like Bolshevism. Two German historians had expressed this opinion during the very week the insurrection broke out. Along with many others who thought the same way, they shared the firm conviction that the masses lack sufficient audacity to resist the Bolsh regime. Such resistance was held to be both improbable and unbelievable. Nevertheless, both the improbable and the unbelievable were happening.

Rosa Luxemburg had already stated that "the masses can become completely other than their appearance would suggest and can always advance in a manner which corresponds with historical circumstances. With the masses, there is a whole Series of possibilities. Today, they may appear indifferent and apathetic, tomorrow they might rise up with the greatest show of audacity. So we shouldn't make judgments based on their mood of the moment, but must take the basis of social development into consideration"[9].

The struggle against oppression and exploitation and against the working class condition is part of the development of capitalist relations. The moment that this struggle takes on the character of an insurrection or revolution, this law of social development surges to the fore and remorselessly sweeps away any myths and illusions myths and illusions existing everywhere, even today. So it was in June, 1953.


A Spontaneous Movement

It is fairly widely believed that a proletarian revolution cannot be realized without the prior creation of powerful organization which will put a firm leadership at it's head to formulate the slogans and point out the way. Only this organization and that leadership can stimulate the masses and lead then to any real resistance. Thus, a political vanguard would be the indispensable prerequisite for the decisive struggle which alone can break the power of the ruling-class. In the past, this concept has largely been destroyed by historical reality and the workers' insurrection in E. Germany in 1953 has once again consigned this conception to the kingdom

fables. The masses started moving without the tiniest bit of stimulation from any organization. It could hardly, in fact, have been otherwise. No organization which could fulfill this "historic task" existed in the State of Ulbricht and Gortewohl under the dictatorship of the one solo party, the S.E.D. Slogans and resolutions which might have told the worker.': "what was to be done" were simply non-existent. There wasn't a trace of anything resembling a leadership from above or from outside, and for good reason[10].

After the struggle, a worker at the Agfa film factory at Wolfen near Bitterfeid declared. "It wasn't planned at all, everything happened spontaneously. Workers from nearby factories didn't know what was happening in our factory until the moment we found ourselves in the street".

A Berliner who marched in a demonstration right across the capital describes his experience accordingly: "We reached the Lustgarten, the destination of our march, and no one could say what we ought to do next". And Dresdeners said, "We wanted to demonstrate in the Square of the Theatre. We didn't think up any other practical action. It was like being drunk for the first time. We had forgotten the most simple and urgent things".

That, too, is what a worker from a factory somewhere in the Russian zone by Berlin had to say: "It was disastrous that there were no Organization, or anything like that In our area, we were all people who had never gone on strike before It was all improvised. We had no linkups with any other towns or factories. We didn't know where to begin. But we were totally full of joy that things were happening as they were" All you saw in the crowd was faces beaming With emotion because everyone was feeling at last the hour has come, we're freeing ourselves from the yoke of' slavery". An eyewitness from Halbertstad, declared: "Every action was characterized by spontaneity - if that hadn't been the case it would all have worked out"

One of the first people to have written on the events of that summer concluded that "actions which took the form of a general strike actually developed without coordination and in a totally different way from what would have been the case if it had been a Strike called by the T.U. movement. The existing unions were dominated by Supporters o£ the system whose interest was only in serving those of the State. This explains the fact that the initiative was taken in several different places at the same time, in the houses of hundreds and thousands of workers who, as they listened to the radio on the 16th of June learnt of what the building workers of Berlin had done"[11]. Further on, the same author maintains that "from 7.00 AM on June 18th the concern was spreading throughout the Eastern zone without any communication at that time between the towns and villages"[12]

Other historians writing later have but confirmed this initial statement

All those who participated in the events, and all the eyewitnesses who reported the events are agreed on this point: that the insurrection (uprising) in Berlin in June 1953 has to be characterized in no other way than as a spontaneous movement of' the working-class.


Bolshevik Lies

The development of the mass movement in E. Germany delivered a death blow to all such theories, like the Bolshevik one which attempted to establish the need for a professional revolutionary party as the prerequisite for the proletarian revolution. As was to be expected the Bolsheviks of E. Germany tried hard to defend themselves against this blow which the workers had dealt them. After thinking about it for 48 hours, they claimed there had been no question of a class struggle, but of ... "a plot hatched well in advance" and of "the terror unleashed by Adenauar, Ollenhaur, Kaiser, and Reuter[13] in person" and of the action of "thousands of foreign, fascist, agent-provocateurs" who "failed thanks to the good sense of the workers of Berlin".

Their lies were outrageous and endless. In their own daily paper, the S.E.D.'s Neue Deutschland, in the issue of June 17,1953, the rulers of E. Germany were forced to concede that the workers who had gone on strike on June 16 had "carefully kept their distance from agent-provocateurs and trouble making elements". Later, they completely ignored the fact that the June insurrection had not fallen out of the sky, but was the outcome of a movement which had been broadening itself throughout the previous months; this was passed over in utter silence. Some weeks before the 16th and 17th, some strikes had broken out at Eisleben, Finsterwalde, Furstenwalde, Chemnitz-Borna and other towns. During these strikes appeared the same demands which were later to be made during the course of the uprising in June. The Bolsheviks had never maintained that these previous strikes were 'instigated' by provocateurs. All the same, the relation of these strikes to the movement which was unleashed later on in obvious as is this evidence itself; which alone destroys all the incredible myths about a supposed day 'X' on which an attack on the R.D.A is alleged to have taken place.

According to the Bolsheviks, "95% of the demonstrations in E. Germany had come from the western sector". That would mean that on the 16th of June 1953, several hundreds of thousand s of people, given the number of demonstrators, had passed across the control points at the borders of both East and West Berlin. A completely ridiculous statement, which wasn't taken seriously even by the bureaucrats themselves, to go by the impressive number of arrests which followed both in the factories of E. Berlin and in the popular districts of E. Berlin. And this despite the fact that their own newspaper, Neue Deutschland, had written the day before the arrests, that it was the working class districts of E. Berlin, in particular, that there lived the "intelligent workers who would not allow themselves to be provoked".

If the Bolsheviks want to go on claiming that the demonstrators came from the western sectors of Berlin, then they're forced to admit that they've arrested innocent people from the various districts of E. Berlin, and that they've sentenced innocent people to long terms of imprisonment and even to death. If, on the other hand, they maintain that those people serving sentences are 'guilty'. Then little remains out of all their allegations about the origins of the demonstrators.

So what was the actual crime for which those people were imprisoned or shot? Even the E. German newspaper Vorwärts wrote on the 22nd June, and Neue Deutschland on the 23rd that on the building sites on the Stalin Allee where almost all the workers were S.E.D. members, and at the cable factory in Kopenick as well as in Leipsic region, strike committees, elected by the workers had been in operation. Does this mean that the crime with which dozens were charged, and for which they were sentenced, was to have elected or to have been elected onto a strike committee? That was certainly the actual fact. But there was no question of their being overtly charged with it. The ruling class of E. Germany couldn't possibly admit that it was harassing workers solely on their waging class struggle, and that this fact was a threat to the power of the Bolsheviks. And, in spite of the contradictions discussed above, the Bolsheviks have stuck to their contemptible interpretation that the uprising had been "the work of agents from the west and of provocateurs". The (Eastern) newspaper Berliner Zeitung formulated the same interpretation in this way: "The agent-provocateurs were wearing cowboy shirts" and thus, without this hardly penetrating article even explaining how they were immediately recognizable as "agent-provocateurs" because ... they were dressed that way. Maybe because nobody had actually seen any of those men disguised as cowboys.

The daily paper Tagliche Rundschau on June 24th put forward another interpretation according to which the "provocateurs" and "western spies had disguises themselves" as building workers. But this time they didn't explain how the so called spies had been able to get hold of such clothes such as those worn by E. German workers (and of the same lousy quality and all!).

On the 20th of June 1953, someone called Kuba delivered yet a third interpretation. He spoke of "hooligans", meaning the type of people who "mixed with the working class crowds of E. Berlin and who were immediately recognizable by their appearance". In all of these interpretations of the events, the Bolsheviks become increasingly entangled in the chain of their own lies.

They had little alternative. They were a long way from believing that the action of the masses of the D.D.R. stemmed from the social relations themselves and that the regime established by the S.E.D. opened up perspectives of a proletarian revolution as does the capitalist order of Europe and the U.S.A. The selfsame Kuba, who we have just quoted, told E. German workers: "The need to struggle exists only when the reasons for doing so exist, and you don't have any such reasons". The idea that the very fact that they were struggling demonstrated precisely that they did have reasons for doing so, did not seem to occur to him ...!

There existed this chasm between the E. German ruling class and working class. For the ruling class socialism meant piece-work, wages and bonuses. To them "the interest of the proletariat" consisted in an exploitation more intense than in the west. The resistance of the working class to such a situation arose according to the ruling-class out of a "misunderstanding"; a misunderstanding that had to be clarified by the Russian Army and the people's police, the Volkspolizei.


The Prelude To The Spring

The German working class used different forms of struggle in that great class uprising of 1953. They used nearly every means of proletarian resistance, either one after another, or sometimes several at the same time. Strikes, demonstrations, mass factory occupations, replaced and succeeded one another, and each occasion showed that one method of struggle was being substituted for another as soon as a point had reached where the movement had either evolved to a particular level, or had exhausted the possibilities of one particular form of action.

It had all begun very early on in the Spring. On the 16th of April, 1953, a hearing took place at the Zeitz Power Station near Halle, which had come about as a result of general pressure from all the workers involved in the plant[14]. At this meeting, the sorters were protesting about the catastrophic Consequences of the bonus-system. According to an account published several weeks later, on Nay 29th, in the Freiheit de Halle" newspaper the workers there were mounting in effect a violent attack on the Party itself. As quoted in that paper "a worker named Walter got up and said, 'Comrades, what's going on now is downright humiliating to the working-class. Karl Marx has been dead for 70 years, and here we are still discussing our most basic needs ..." And a worker named Meyer sarcastically inquired of the factory official Kahnt, how much his own bonus amounted to and how much he had produced for it." On the same day that this report appeared in the Freiheit newspaper, the government announced an increase in work norms. Also on that day, the "Neues Deutschland" gave evidence of a growing concern over what was happening in a factory in Leipsic which produced goods for the railways.

Readers of the Neues Deutschland of June 2, 1953 were informed about "hard-hitting discussions" going on amongst the workers of the "peoples" foundry, and amongst the workers in the machine tool factory in Berlin-Lichtenberg, where a machinist, Adolf Schermer, and many others had reacted violently against the augmentation of work norms.

On June 7th, the party leadership in Magdeburg was criticized in the Neues Deutschland" editorial for not apparently having been able to cope with the turn the situation had taken in the course of the "violent discussions that had gone on in the workshops".

In Magdeburg, as in several other towns such as Wilhemsruh and Lena, workers went further. At Rosslau, for example, they not only demonstrated their revolt against the increase in their workload but also openly criticized the entire policy of the Party and of the government. In other towns, some of which have been mentioned in previous chapters, work stopped altogether.

At first there were demonstration discussions, then discussions linked with political protest, and then strike action, like climbing one by one the first three steps of the staircase. In all these strikes of the spring 1953, the number of workers involved in each action was always small. In every instance the strikes were of short duration, neither were they unleashed at the same time. But behind all these movements, for one thing, all bore witness to their being the diverse elements of a far larger movement, and for another it was the frequency with which they broke out; one movement here, the next elsewhere, one after the other right across the country. Tension was mounting all the time. During the course of a party branch meeting in the Druckhaus (printing press) at Leipsic, someone named Zaunert had categorized all against the case for augmentation of norms as "idiots who did nothing more than give orders". Another speaker named Raulan declared that "if a genuine election were held, the party wouldn't get anywhere at all"[15]. On the 28th of May, the carpenters at the workshop G-north in the Stalin-Allee in E. Berlin went on strike. Neues Deutschland reported it on the 14th of June. Two editors of the paper recounted how one brigadier-roche had referred to the augmentation of norms as a "direct blackmail". They also said that the workers had at that time been complaining for some months that what they received inside their wage packets didn't tally at all with what was written on the outside. Four days before the uprising, on the 12th June, there was anew strike in Stalin Allee, this time in workshop C-south. This one was the workers immediate answer to a letter announcing that norms had been augmented by 10%, retroactive to the 1st of June. The strikers refused to return to work until these measures were annulled.

At about 2:30 p.m., 15 officials appeared on the scene, comprising of members of the party, the Bolshevik Trade Union and the workshop management. They mingled with the workers and tried to calm them down. But they came out with what the workers called "the same old stories": "You've just got to wait, because as soon as you're working a bit harder our life will improve because production will have gone up. You won't be falling behind If you're working harder because everything will become cheaper ..." "we've been hearing rubbish like this for 5 years and we're still getting less to eat" answered one worker. Another took up the point: "you've got fat enough bellies, but take a look at ours. You don't take home 144 marks, you get 1200."[16].

A union official A union official took it upon himself to explain, "There's no such thing as a strike in a people's factory, which is your own property. If you strike you're striking against yourselves." This led one worker to reply, "we're not striking for our own pleasure and we know exactly what you're doing." So the official tried another tact: "If you want to go on strike today, Okay, but you must advise your Trade Union." The workers let him understand in no uncertain terms their strike had nothing to do with the trade unions.


Not Only The Stalin Allee But The Whole Of All Berlin

This conflict which was welling up in workshop C-south on the Stalin Allee on June 12 resembled in every respect those of the pre-ceding weeks. However in, in the early hours of the morning of the16th June, the movement entered a new phase. Up until that point, the various dispersed actions which comprised it, had failed to achieve any concrete results. The workers of Block 40 who stopped work that Tuesday realized that their strength lay in their numbers, that they had to appeal to other comrades and that extending their struggle had become a necessity. And for this reason their resistance took a completely different form.

Very early that morning a representative of the management appeared in the workshops; he repeated, "work harder, to start with, then later you'll be able to lead more human existence". It was the straw which broke the camels back. No sooner had the workers mounted the scaffolds than they came back down again. An eyewitness relates "I was climbing up a ladder with 15 mates from our section - 'Listen, d'you agree with what's going on?' - The first man was already laying down his trowel. A few seconds later the ladders were swaying beneath the weight of the workers descending in masses, letting their tools drop simply to the ground as they came. Our numbers had suddenly grown by another hundred."

The movement was progressing irresistibly. The effect of this small, isolated strike developing into a widespread action was enormous, but it had the further effect of changing the character of the action itself. The demonstration which in so short a time was growing out of the strike was itself turning into a demonstration of the masses. And very quickly, the first slogans were shouted by the crowd, the first mass slogans: "We are workers not slaves".

Towards 11a.m, the crowd was approaching Alexanderplatz. The demonstrations had already to a massive 10,000 men and women. Alexanderplatz is a large square. Once there, the crowd became aware how many they were. This made them feel that nothing could overcome them. One participant said afterwards: "By that time we had already become a single united entity. I mean an entity which was conscious of its power". The workers could see with their owns eyes the Volkspolizei pigs beating a hasty retreat before them. This reinforced the sense of their own power; and they reacted by hurling slogans: "Down with the government. Down with the Volkspolizei. We demand the reduction of work norms".

After Alexanderplatz the demonstrators entered the wide avenue of Unter den Linden. You could have crossed it by stepping over Heads! By the time first marcher were entering Wilhelmstrasze, the augmentation of norms was quite forgotten, and the chant was; "We don1t want to be slaves. anymore, we want to be free". Suddenly, one single thought filled all hearts and minds.

The effect of this mass demonstration was the same as is always produced by all mass demonstrations. With one action it unified the different sections of the working-class into a coherent entity, It demonstrated to the workers themselves, as well a." to their enemies the very foundations of working class power: their numbers, and their common fate.

Henrietta Roland Holst, whom we have already quoted above, has described phenomenon: "Demonstration transform individuals into an active crowd, which is amazing, and which enthusiastically confirms to itself it's own strength and it's own audacity. It's thus which explains that self-confident participation; each individual seeming to experience the strength of the mass enhancing his or her own power"[17]. This is exactly what happened on one 16th in E. Berlin. The crowd was transformed into a mass. They were more than 20,000 when they besieged the government building in the Leipzigerstrasze at 1 in the afternoon.

They yelled, "Down with Ulbricht and Grotewohl". The 2 ministers dared not show themselves. Two of their colleagues, Selbmann and Rau, appeared instead, but the sight of them failed to appease the crowd: "we want to see Ulbricht and Grotewohl. We're the one who decide who we wart to Listen to".

At 2:30, Selbmann stood up on a small table that someone had brought outside. "Dear colleagues", he began. Immeditately9 the crowd interrupted him: "You're not our colleague, you're a shit and a traitor", Nonetheless, Selbmann tried once more to have himself heard. He admitted that the augmentation of work norms had been a bad decision, and announced that they were going to annul it. But he spoke in vain. Such a promise made no sense. It might have had some effect that morning; in the afternoon it provoked only laughter and anger. A Mason knocked Selbmann off the table with one blow of his hand and mounted it himself. From the crowd came shouts of approval. The mason spoke: "We' re not in the least interested in what you have to say. We no longer wish to be your slaves. we' re opposed to more than the work norms, and we don't all come from Stalin Allee. We are all of Berlin.

There wasn't one unnecessary word in all of that. What had begun as a demonstration by the workers of one enterprise had turned into the resistance of an active city. At 4.p.m government cars with loudspeakers were all over the town. The authorities made it known that they were annulling the augmentation of work norms; but with no effect. There was nothing left of their authority. On the Rosentalerplatz, official cars were turned over. The slogan "General Strike" flew from mouth to mouth, which filled the air.

By 5 p.m. people had begun to attack party officials before the very eyes of the helpless police. In the early hours of the evening the crowd was chanting "Down with the S.E.D." A little later they were tearing Bolshevik notices off the walls. In front of Barnimstrasze womens prison they called for the immediate liberation of the prisoners. By 10 o'clock revolutionary fever had swept through the entire population of E. Berlin. The night shift on machine making; the big factories failed to turn up for work.

An eyewitness to the events which took place on Leipzigstrasze told how the workers were taken by surprise by their own audacity. "when I went home on the night of the 16th June, I had but a single thought, I hope we'll be strong enough tomorrow and I hope everyone will be part of the movement. During the night of the 16th and 17th of June it became clear it became clear that we had to fight no matter what the consequences, and that we had to fight until the end. The 16th of June had transformed us all".


The Revolutionary Tide

The 16th of June changed everything and everyone. The 17th brought even more changes. This was because the mass demonstration coincided with the mass strikes, and therefore the interaction of these two forms of proletarian struggle rapidly provoked chain reaction. Because the workers had experienced their power as a class, they began to act as a class. Because they began to act as a class, the sense of their power grew stronger.

To be able to demonstrate you just have to stop work. Then wherever the workers demonstrated, they headed first for the factories were more hesitant comrades had not yet joined the struggle. Strikers became demonstrators, and demonstrators stimulated strike activity. The workers could sense that their unity was a fact. To prevent it being smashed, to prevent the continuation of their struggle and, at the same time, the very struggle itself being smashed, they had each moment to take steps, each one of which took the global struggle a pace further and elevated it to a higher level.

All over E. Germany, workers were forming their own strike committees to run their affairs in factories, in whole towns and entire industrial regions. So power was in fact continually shifting. Organisations which had been formed during and for the struggle were steadily gaining authority. The power of the Party and the Government was fading away as the country slipped out of the grip of all these institutions that had previously existed. To the extent that the workers were increasingly governing themselves, so were these institutions losing their governmental functions. The strike committees took on the character of workers' councils, not only in practical but also in the formal sense. So an organization was born significantly, not formed with the express aim of overthrowing the social order, but on the contrary, evolving out of a revolutionary process. The mass strikes as a whole take on the character of a general strike, it is the quantity which alters their quality.

This qualitative change was also apparent, as is change in consciousness. At first they were striking to abolish work norms, without any thought of bringing down the government. During discussions at the central hydraulic station in Zeitz on April16th, a worker named Engelhardt shouted "We just want to live like human beings, that's what we want". But the moment all the factories had come to a halt, it had become another situation. They were demanding the downfall of the regime in order to be able to live like human beings. What they were actually doing was transforming social relations AT first they were shouting "Down with the augmentation of norms"; a little later the slogan was "Down with Walter Ulbricht". This is what characterized the revolutionary process.

No organization had made the revolution; it was the revolution which had created its' own organisation. No revolutionary consciousness had precipitated the revolution: the revolution had given rise to a new revolutionary consciousness. They were interlinked. The new organizations, non-existent before, seemed to have sprung up by magic. In reality they sprang up due to the initiative of quite unknown activists pushed forward by the masses whose very actions amazed even themselves. Caught up in the sudden excitement of events they were swept forward, until, in the social turmoil, the consciousness of all had been transformed. On the other hand this transformation was enormously stimulated by the forming of the new organizations; and there are numerous examples of this.

In the town of Gorlitz on the Neisse, on June 17th, the rebelling crowd seized loudspeaker installations in the town. The first speakers came forward: immediately 20 00 people were listening. The sound was poor. In spite of this they spoke one after another: workers from Lowa, the big coachwagon factory, workers from other factories, artisans, a café owner, and an architect, white-collar workers, then more workers. Most of them had never been in front of a microphone in their lifes, but their enthusiasm and joy at being part of events like these helped them overcome any nerves. They were addressing thousands, and speak they did.

In Magdeburg on the evening of June 16th, the musician 'K', a man never before involved in politics, performed Johann Strauss' 'Die Fledermaus' in frock coat and tails before a full house, little aware that next day he would be leading the workers demonstrations in that industrial town, and forced to flee to W. Berlin on that account.

A certain Richard S., inhabitant of the town of Dresden and 34 years of age, led strikers (demonstrators) in that town from one factory to another appealing to the workers to join the action. He went into the main workshop in each factory, jumped onto a lathe and gesticulated until the machines were turned off and the driving belts disconnected. Then he'd begin to speak. "Have you heard the news from Stalin Allee? We've got to support them. Come out! Onto the streets". He and two others formed a revolutionary committee. They stopped passing lorries and persuaded drivers to turn around and join in the action. In no time, they had a motorized division at their disposal which by 11:00 a.m. had already transported some 15,000 workers. Later S was to say "I felt as if I had been reborn. I sent 50 cyclists to occupy the radio station ..."

That was an attempt which failed in Dresden but succeeded in Halle. The local radio station was occupied by 30 rebelling workers who made sure that communiqués issued by the central organization of the strike reached the largest numbers. Like an avalanche did the Events of the 17th June,1953, gain momentum. The day had hardly began when workers entered battle throughout all the towns and villages of E. Germany and in virtually every factory. As in E. Berlin, it began with strikes and demonstrations. A few hours later, people were disarming the police. They surrounded Party HQs, tore up S.E.D. propaganda literature, invaded the prisons and freed the inmates. But only after these demonstrations of popular fury did the spontaneous insurrection begin to take on more obvious characteristics of proletarian revolution. It's no coincidence that this process was more clearly to be seen in the most industrialized parts of E. Germany, which also contained the greatest concentration of working class people. It is where the coal seams are to be found; and thus was where the first flames were kindled. In Halle, Wolfen, Marseburg, Bitterfeld, Rosslau, Gere and in other towns in that region, organizations sprung up which for a short while took executive power into their own hands. They set up a new structure which was neither Bourgeois nor statist: a structure conceived for the express and single purpose of creating real liberty for the working people.

At 1:30, there was a meeting in a factory in Halle of representatives from the strike committees of nearly every factory in the town. They elected a council which they called "initiative committee" but a closer look reveals it was and in every way functioned more like a workers council. It proclaimed a general strike, took the decision to occupy the offices of a local newspaper in order to produce a manifest; and the workers were actually engaged in this activity when they were stabbed in the back by police informers and forced to stop.

No need to ask which class was on the move to Halle. From early morning columns of workers poured in from the metallurgical factories on the outskirts of the town, intent on marching to the center, just as the workers from Henningsdorf had invaded E. Berlin. A crowd of over 50,000 demonstrators assembled in the market square in Halle.

Similar events took place in Marseburg: 200,000 workers marched on Uhland square in the town center, from the Leuna factories[18] and had brought with them workers from the Buna works at Schkopau, from the Gros Keyna coal mine's, from the Geisel Valley oil fields and from three other factories. The strike organizer convinced that the workers greatest power lay in their workplaces, that were advising demonstrators to go back and fight for their demands in their own factories. The kind of demands they were making were clearly evident from earlier on in that day. The entire personnel of the Leuna works had assembled outside the management building. One of the accounts demanded amongst other points was that end be put to the incessant speeding up of work rhythms and that the factory police be immediately disarmed. Workers occupied the factory radio post.

The scenes which occurred in Bitterfeld on the afternoon of June 17th were such as never had been witnessed before. Workers in overalls from every factory on the outskirts of town advanced on a wide front. Miners still black with coaldust amongst them. The whole town was in festive mood. The President of the strike committee got up to speak in the Square of the Youth. He was still speaking when word came that the police had arrested several workers. On hearing this, the strike committee immediately decided to occupy the town. At this point, the strike committee started functioning as a workers council wielding the executive power in Berlin. Public employees were to carry on working: firemen received orders to remove all S.E.D. notices in the town; whilst the strike committees, at the same time, prepared for a general strike, not only in their town and the surrounding area, but throughout the whole of E. Germany. In a telegram to the so-called government of the G.D.R in E. Berlin, the Bitterfeld striking committee demanded the "formation of a provisional government composed of revolutionary workers".

At Rosslau on the Elbe the workers similarly took over the town for a while. The kernel of the resistance there was the workforce of the naval shipyards.

In every factory and town of significant size or importance, events paralleled the situation in the country's vital center. In Dresden, workers from all the big factories, including Zeiss, were on strike and demonstrating. Embattled workers in the province of Brandenburg transportation works, the Elizabeth coalfield and the Kirchmoser coach building works (under Russian management). Work came to a halt in every single factory in Falkensee, a in Leipsic, Frankfort, and the Oder, Furstenburg, Greifswalde and Gotha, not to mention the towns were workers had come out onto the streets. Even the Uranium mines on the Czech border were on strike; as was even the northern part of the country with the least dense concentration of population.

None of this however, prevented the Neues Deutschland a month later, July 28th, from proclaiming that the strike had been organized by 'putschistes' who failed because the majority of the workers had refused to listen to them and that a mere 5% of the working class had come out on strike. The reality was that the Bolshevik ruling class had to confront resistance from an entire oppressed class.


Neither Ulbricht Nor Adenaur

When the augmentation of work norms was announced by the S.E.D. in the spring 1953, a section of the E. German working class had hoped to 'neutralise' its effects by moving into a higher income bracket, a hope which was soon, however, to prove quite worthless. The Neues Deutschland wrote that such a demand ran completely contrary to the workers own interest: but the workers had quite different ideas as to their own interests. They did some rapid sums and discovered that a worker earning 20-24 E. German Marks per day would only bring home 13-16 Marks after the establishment of the new work norms; which they refused to accept. It was a revolt on such a brutal attack on their standard of living, not a stand for political aims or revolutionary ideals. The workers embarked on a struggle against the governments wages policy, which developed into a struggle against the government as such; but this was through no initial intention on the workers part: it developed this way from the nature of the struggle itself and it's class character. It was this class character which guided the workers action and which played a decisive role in the content and form of their movement.

This class character has been largely ignored by both East and West, and for the same reasons. Acknowledgement of it by the Bolsheviks would have meant renunciation of all the myths surrounding their own society; while the bourgeois democracies saw nothing whatsoever to be gained from underlying any social significance which might trigger off repercussions amongst workers in the west. So political leaders in the F.G.R. referred to it as a popular uprising against the Russian occupying force, and were more readily able to back up an interpretation favorable to the ruling class by giving major importance to events which had been happening over on the fringes of the movement. So, too, was the ruling class in the west able to refer to it as a "struggle for German unity".

During a sober demonstration in Rudolf Wilder square in Shconeberg district of W. Berlin in June 1923, Chancellor Adenaur declared "members of the German Nation living behind the Iron Curtain have made us aware we must not forget them ... I declare before the entire German nation that we shall not rest as long as they remain unfree, and until the whole of Germany is reunited". And the mayor Reuter added "No power in the world can divide the German people. The youth tore down the flag of servitude in Brandenburger Place: the day will come then that same youth will plant in its place the flag of liberty ..."

It's true that on June 10th some young people had pulled the D.D.R. flag down from that historic gate and had then tried to replace it by the F.G.R. flag. It is also true that one of the chants on several occasions had been "Freedom! Freedom!" and that some of sections of the marches had brandished the flag of the Bonn government. But all that proves is that some of the participants in the movement had no clear idea of why they were doing what they were doing. If the workers only gradually became aware of the significance of their actions, then it must certainly be that not all of them became aware at the same time.

The workers of E. Germany made it clear during the course of their action that in their view they were against the S.E.D. government not the Russian army stationed on E. German territory. And in marked contrast with distinction, their attitude of hostility towards the police force and to officials of the Party, the workers showed no particular hostility towards the army until right at the end, when that army openly participated in the struggles.

If one asked whether all the E. German workers saw their action as a class movement the answer would undoubtedly be negative. But that in no way alters the uncontestable fact that what the workers thought about it was less important than in the totality of what they did. In spite of the F.D.R symbols and the fairly naïve slogans of "Liberty" and "Unity", what is certain is that the working class had no desire to live in a unified Germany. Magdeburg railway workers painted in huge white letters all over coaches in the sorting yard, "Not Ulbricht, not Adenaur, but Ollenjaur". They were saying here that they thought of a Social-Democrat like Ollenjaur representing their own class, but they were at a Germany governed by either Ulbricht or Adenaur. What they were saying here, however confusedly, was that they saw their struggle as not just against state capitalism but against capitalism as such, and they had no intentions of changing their Bolshevik masters for bourgeois ones.

German political leaders have made June 18th a national holiday, a day of "German unity". This completely ignores that fact that the revolt was above all expressing a rejection of the class division, which German workers had demonstrated during the course of that day, was their implacable enmity as workers to a society based upon class oppression.


Bolshevism Unmasked

Faced with the spontaneous movement of the E. German workers the Ulbricht government was completely paralysed. In several instances the ordinary police seemed unsure of themselves, and even where they remained firmly supportive of the bureaucrats they seemed far too indecisive. In several towns they were so ineffective that their resistance crumbled instantly.

The Bolshevik bureaucracy was normally licked before the battle had even started. The obvious rottenness of the regime began to show through from the afternoon of June 16th. None of the more senior ministers had dared appear before the furious crowd which massed outside their windows in Leipzigstrasze and that same evening saw quite a few leading Party bureaucrats packing their bags to leave. At this junctive the streets were already under control of the masons, welders, type-setters, and carpenters; Columbushouse and Potsdammer Place were not yet burning, that was to happen the next day, but certainly all the dreams of the ruling-class had already gone up in smoke. Whilst the working-class had not yet seized power it was certain that the government no longer possessed it.

And the German Bolsheviks would never have been able to repossess this power without the Russian Amy and Russian tanks. With-out their entering the action, in Berlin and many other rebellious towns, if the Russians had not gone ahead with a state of siege with mass arrests and with executing quite a number of workers, the fall of the regime would indeed have been settled.

In December 1905, Tsar Nikolass II's Cossacks put down the workers uprising - under the command of one General Semjonow, high commissioner to the U.S.S.R who put down the E. German uprising in June 1953. Russian soldiers fired into the crowd, and workers were crushed under tanks which they were trying to oppose unarmed; acts of heroism, which have since inspired fellow workers all over the world.[19].

Bolshevism once more lost its mask in the summer of 1953. Not since the Krondstadt uprising of March 1921 had the contradiction between the working class and the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party been demonstrated as sharply and as openly as this. Not since then had so significant a number of workers had such blatant experience of the ruthless bolshevism directly experience as it blocked their path to freedom.

Russian tank divisions entered the battle towards the end of the afternoon on June 18th, with an impressive display of force; but they failed in their immediate task of putting an end to all resistance. At 1p.m the Russian Commandant in Berlin, General Major Debrowa, announced a state of siege in the city. This was soon extended to cover every town in E. Germany, which still failed to end the hostilities. Though the streets of E. Berlin were undoubtedly desolated on the 18th, strikes were still going on.

The struggle for the first time, on that same day, June 18th, workers of the Warnemunde laid down their tools. In Dresden, Chermitz, and Rostock, the workers in a whole series of 'workers factories' went on strike. Civil servants in Potsdam did likewise. A number of towns sustained serious damage. All boat traffic on the waterways was brought to a halt.

In the evening of June 18th, a division of 800 'peoples police' occupied the Zwickau and Delsnitz coal mines. The police were confronted by 15,000 miners demanding the release of their arrested comrades. Demonstrations at the nearby Leuna factories continued: 300 police took sides with the demonstrators and the Russian infantry began shooting, and occupied factory buildings. Workers set fire to a section of these buildings shortly afterwards.

On that same day revolt broke out in the mining area of Ertsgebergte which till that point had remained quiet. It's 80,000 miners came out on strike, demonstrated, and took by storm, offices. Furious street battles were fought with police and with heavily armed Russian troops, in Johanngeorgenstadt, Marienberg, Eibenstock, Falkenstein and Oberschlema.

By June 19th, the entire mining region was in open insurrection. 110,000 people were on strike and demonstrating. No fewer than 65 wells in the uranium were sabotaged some with explosives and others by flooding. The Russians were finding themselves having to deploy more and more strength in this corner of the G.D.R than they had had to use in 1945 for the conquest of Berlin[20]. In spite of the wave of arrests and shootings which ensued, the revolt continued. When following this on the 21st June came an intensification of the siege, the workers responded by lynching a number of police officers. It took then days of furious combat for the Russians to regain control.

Workers were still embattled on the Friday and Saturday, 19th and 20th of June throughout the rest of Eastern Germany. Warnemunde and Rostock saw scenes of violent conflict. In Dessau on the upper Elbe there was no more bread to be had in the entire town, but no one dreamed of capitulation. Police divisions in Mecklenbug and the Harz refused to fire on workers, and began to withdraw. By the end of the week new strikes had begun in several more towns, this time in smaller enterprises. Here again, workers immediately formed strike committees. It was these committees which announced that they would only return to work when the state of siege had been lifted and the soldiers had left the factory.

In the final reckoning, the massed strength of the workers was forced to give in to the superior might of the Russian troops. They were driven out of their workplaces and machine-gunned in the back. After that the S.E.D. bosses got their courage back. They had trembled at what they had seen of working class power during the workers act of revenge. After the proletarian revolutionary 'high tide', a wave of terror passed over the land.

The resistance of the workers was caused by the social contradictions which were far from abolished. The forces that came to the surface during the June uprising couldn't be destroyed, of course, as they were embodied in the working class itself and were the result of the production process.

As long as any society is based on wage-labour, a revolt of the wage-labourers is the fate to which it is bound; like Damocles sword. The E. German workers showed us how we must imagine a proletarian revolution.



[1] Stalin Alice (Stalin Avenue) before the war called the Frankfurter Alice (Frankfurt Avenue) and rebaptised thus in 1956 during de-Stalinization, was in 1952-53 a massive reconstruction site, where war ruins were cleared and the centre of Berlin and the regime had been built.

[2] German Democratic Republic as opposed to the Federal Republic of Germany (F.R.G.)

[3] Unlike what has been said in German propaganda (and June 17 has been made a national holiday in the F.R.G.) the white-collar workers, petit-bourgeoisie peasants, and the non-working classes stayed completely outside the insurrection.

[4] In this way Lenin's words are generally quoted. However, the quotation isn't entirely correct. In "What is to be done?" Lenin says: "No revolutionary movement is possible without a revolutionary theory". In fact, there is no practical difference, because to Lenin, revolutionary practice and the movement (of professional revolutionists!) are one and the same thing.

[5] The two propaganda appear to be to oppose each other but in reality they compliment each other.

[6] Amongst other articles accessible in French, we cite the best study to have appeared on this subject: "Combats ouvriers sur l'Avenue Stalin", Les Temps Modernes, Oct 1953., p. 672 et sec., by Benno Sarel This text is reprinted in this authors work La classe ouvriere d'Allemagne Orientale (Los Editions Ouvrieres). A criticism appeared in I.C.O number 43, Nov, 1965 (p. 16) of the book by ArnuIf Baring, "The 17th June 1953" (in German, Cologne 1965). In a rather romanticized form the end of the book "Berlin" by Theodor Plivier contains nil evocation of this period.

[7] In the critique of Arnuf Baring's book in I.C.O. (see above) it is reported that Ulbrict refused to speak to the strikers, replying that it was raining and the demonstration would soon disperse. Gustav Noske, at the start of the German Revolution, counted on rain to make the demonstration go home (see Noske, "Von Kiel bis Kapp" 1920 n 17)

[8] Henriette Roland Holst, "Revolutionaire Massa-aktie", 1918, n. 372.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Mathilde Wurm, written Feb. 16, 1917 in the Wronke prison. Paul Frolich, "Rosa Luxemburg, Gedanke und tat", Hamburg 1949.

[10] Certain people have endeavoured research into its "traditions". Willy Brandt, the social Democratic leader held that the events were influenced by the pure working-class tradition of the old unionists and political movement (others even saw fit to trace it hack to 1919 and 1921). According to Baring (see above), nothing would allow for this kind of conclusion, uprisings having occurred as much in districts which elected communist deputies during the '30 s as in any others. "In any case, in the streets the "tradition" followed by the 'old school' was absent: since the Social Democrats of Weimar, then the Nazis, and finally the O.G.P.U., had in effect, murdered all of the active members of the working-class." (I.C.O, p' 19)

[11] Joachim G. Leithauser, Der Monat, October 1953, p.46

[12] Id. September 1953, p. 613

[13] Adennuer was the Chancellor of the Federal Republic

(Christian/Democrat) Ollenhauer was the leader of the Social-Democratic Party. Kaiser was the leader of the Christian Democrats; and Reuter was the Socialist Mayor of W. Berlin.

[14] The S.E.D. hesitated for a long time in deciding whether or not to authorize this or that meeting. The green light would be given at the very last moment. This was how "the full right to free expression of opinions guaranteed by the law" worked, which was later referred to by Kuba in the Neues Deutschland.

[15] Quotation from the Leipziger Volkszeitung from May 25,1953.

[16] As recorded by building workers to the Der Monat editors, see Der Monat, September 1953, p.601.

[17] Work mentioned above, p.16. Things like that happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, The German Revolution of 1918, and in other revolutions.

[18] The chemical factories in Leuna are the biggest in East Germany.

[19] Over three years later, at the end of October and beginning of November 1956, the German example was followed in Hungary. Workers in Budapest, and other Hungarian towns were able to incapacitate Russian tanks with Molotov cocktails which they themselves had made.

[20] The figures were published by Der Monat - in October 1953. In addition to the numbers of Russian troops there had been given precise details about the precise weaknesses of the Russian forces. It resulted from the fact that Russian officers and private soldiers had a definite sympathy with the embattled workers. There were certain Russian officers, as well as some German Policemen, who faced the firing squad as a result of this sympathy. Others managed to flee to the west. The Russian Major Nikita Ronschin was amongst these. According to his evidence, at least 18 Russian soldiers were shot. Reported in Der Monat, October 1953, p.66).


Last updated on: x.xx.2011