FIFTY YEARS ago, on 15 June 1953, sixty workers on a hospital building site went on strike. They were faced with a new pay deal which meant wage cuts of up to one third unless they increased output by 10 percent. The employers insisted that ‘productivity’ must come first. A familiar enough scene, repeated time and again around the world. But this was in East Germany.
Germany had been carved up by the victorious powers in 1945. Russia, under Stalin, had occupied East Germany and Eastern Europe. The West had taken West Germany and West Berlin. Officially East Germany was a ‘People’s Democracy’, marching towards socialism with the enthusiastic support of the working class.
To its enemies in the West, East Germany was a ‘totalitarian’ state, where workers were so enslaved that it was impossible for them to rebel (just as we were told about Iraq). They were supposed to await liberation from the West, which was frantically rearming. Those 60 builders proved them all wrong.
There was deep discontent among East German workers. Measured against prices, wages were lower than they had been before the war, under Hitler. Things were beginning to move. Stalin had died in March, and his successors were deeply split. They knew things must change, but they were terrified the whole edifice Stalin had built might collapse around them. Workers sensed their rulers’ weakness.
The following day the strikers demonstrated, visiting other sites. Workers flocked to join them. One observer in an upstairs flat described how they ‘came running from all sides in their working clothes, attracted like iron filings to a magnet’.
The movement became political. There were demands for free elections. The most popular slogan summed up the workers’ sense of their own power. ‘We are workers and not slaves!’ Within two days, by 17 June, there was a general strike. On the government’s own figures, 300,000 workers were involved.
Most major towns were affected. In Merseburg 10,000 workers marched from the Leuna factory singing revolutionary songs and invaded the police station. In Halle 8,000 railway workers occupied council offices and the party headquarters. The strike developed far beyond the wages question. Workers attacked jails and released the prisoners. Police stations were attacked, judges beaten up and police lynched.
In some areas cracks appeared in the state machine. Police refused to fire on strikers. Some army units abandoned their weapons. In places it was only Russian troops who protected the secret police (Stasi) from workers’ anger.
But 25,000 Russian troops were too much for workers. The rising was crushed. Casualty figures are hard to establish – at least 19 workers, and perhaps ten times that number – were killed. Some 1,300 were executed. Yet strikes continued into the autumn, and party officials who tried to address factory meetings were shouted down.
The government had to make concessions. Wage cuts were cancelled and some wages increased. Later these were reversed. The spectre of 1953 continued to haunt East Germany’s rulers. Archives show how the regime was obsessed with studying public opinion. As the old Russian saying puts it, they spent half their time finding out what people were thinking, and the other half trying to stop them thinking it.
It was clear there were too many critics for pure repression to be possible. In 1961 they had to build the Berlin Wall to stop workers running away from the supposed socialist paradise.
The East German authorities blamed the rising on ‘fascist provocateurs’ – very odd fascists, who defended workers’ rights and built a general strike! Most Communists around the world believed them.
Equally repulsive was the hypocrisy of the West. Western politicians talked endlessly of ‘rolling back’ Communism and bringing freedom to Eastern Europe. But they were terrified by the thought that such liberation might come through workers taking things into their own hands.
Strikers who sought arms in West Berlin were firmly refused – they had to fight tanks with bottles and crowbars. A radio station, West Berlin, normally devoted to directing Cold War propaganda to the East, urged them to be ‘reasonable’.
The mole of revolt went back underground. When it re-emerged three years later in Hungary it was in the form of a full-scale rising with workers’ councils. Russian tanks responded with a massacre. Communist Parties around the world were split. The long death agony of Stalinism had begun.
The sharpest comment on June 1953 came from playwright Bertolt Brecht, who lived in East Berlin (and publicly supported the regime). Noting the efforts of the government to regain popular support, he asked: ‘Would it not be easier/…for the government/to dissolve the people/and elect another?’
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth