The Soviets drove tanks into the crowd

To this day, historians argue about what message the popular uprising of 1953 conveyed. Was it an uprising of workers fighting for a human face of communism, or German resentment - after all, one of the strikers' demands was the revision of the Oder-Neisse border with Poland. Was it an expression of dissatisfaction with increasingly deteriorating living conditions or a conscious desire to return to a united Germany?

Hitler's rule brought National Socialism to Germany, and after him and the war he unleashed came Soviet socialism. At least in the zone of occupation that fell to the USSR and which later became the German Democratic Republic. The introduction of the new system went extraordinarily smoothly. The public, stupefied by Nazi ideology, was receptive to another, supported, of course, by the Soviet occupation. Even the communist youth organisation Freie Deutsche Jugend was a simple adaptation of the structures and mechanisms of the Hitler Youth. Only the brown uniforms were exchanged for blue ones.

What is truly extraordinary about East Germany is how quickly a completely new political, cultural and ideological system was created after the end of the World War II. While the fires of war still burned in Berlin, they reset the clock to Soviet times. They brought painters, poets, and musicians from Moscow, and soon they had a whole new educational system, new teachers who taught them how to be an exemplary socialist citizen.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE As in other countries dependent on the USSR, it was necessary to first bring native communists to power. One of them was Walter Ulbricht, a pre-war NKVD agent and terrorist who proved himself as a Red Army officer during the war and was responsible for German-language propaganda to soldiers in the Wehrmacht and later to compatriots in prisoner-of-war camps. This carpenter's apprentice from Leipzig had already been working since the spring of 1945 on the founding of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany. Socialist Unity Party of Germany), in accordance with his own maxim: "Everything should look democratic, but it is we who hold the power in our hands." The new authorities in the East introduced communism with a zeal that exceeded the Soviets' expectations.

The "liberators," on the other hand, were primarily concerned with looting everything that could be loaded onto trains and carting the booty eastward. Even before they handed over parts of Berlin to the Americans and British, the Soviets had stripped the city of everything of value. They even established the Soviet Joint Stock Company, which managed the remaining assets to cover the Soviet Union's claims to German war reparations.

But that was not the worst of it. At that time, the economy of East Germany was being strangled by the delusions of Ulbricht and his people, who nationalised everything in sight: they took everything away from farmers and even the smallest stores from their owners, and created a network of HO trading posts with ration cards. The Communists' idea was to switch production to heavy industry, even though these particular German areas were not as heavily industrialised as the West.

As a result, food became scarce and the authorities further tightened working conditions. Stalin also refused to adopt the plan of the American Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, so all the aid earmarked for Germany was used up by West Germany. In the East, they had to make do with the alternative, the Molotov Plan, which contradicted the principles of economics and the free market economy.

- The two parts of Germany began to "diverge" even before the war ended, Prof. Felix Roesel, a German economist at the University of Braunschweig, told TVP Weekly. - Many companies, such as Siemens and Audi, moved production from the East to the West, and masses of people also fled the Red Army. After the occupation of Germany, the Russians exported entire production lines and even railroad lines to the East. Later, the Americans financed the Marshall Plan, which enabled everyone to find good jobs after the war. This was also the reason for the migration of the brightest and best educated minds from the East to the West.
1949, Moscow. Celebrations of Stalin's 70th birthday. The picture shows, from left, Mao Zedong, Stalin and Ulbricht. Photo: Wikimedia/ Bundesarchiv
The result? The Marshall Plan became one of the cornerstones of what would later become the "Miracle on the Rhine," making West Germany the continent's leading economy. Meanwhile, food in East Germany was already more expensive than in West Berlin by the end of the 1940s, and the Communists were arguing all along that the belt needed to be tightened a little more for socialism to retain its dominance over capitalism.

- Even the availability of food was much higher in the West than in the East. Wages continued to diverge, and in the GDR an industrialization program along communist lines was being pushed forward, Roesler continued.

To make matters worse, the Second Party Congress of the SED in 1952 promulgated a program to "build the foundations of socialism" along Soviet lines. From quarter to quarter, the country headed more and more toward collapse. It even went so far that after Stalin's death, Lawrenti Beria, who had been in power for some time, issued new directives to the horrified Ulbricht, Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl and GDR propaganda chief Fred Oelssner. They were to stop the forced development of heavy industry for the time being and prevent the establishment of collective farms in the countryside. Finally, on June 9, 1953, a "New Course" was announced in the name of the Politburo SED. At the same time, the Central Committee in Berlin passed a resolution in honor of Ulbricht's 60th birthday: workers' activists should increase labor productivity by 10 percent. The party bosses assumed that the Germans would put up with anything.

Tanks in the Stalinallee

Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin is deceptively reminiscent of Warsaw streets. When you are there, you have the feeling of being on the Żoliborz section of Jana Pawła II Alley, Marymoncka Street or Broniewskiego Street. It is as wide as it is depressing, two-lane asphalt road and the rows of flat blocks of large slabs that also look familiar. In 1945 this was the street through which the Red Army tanks entered Berlin (it is the exit to Frankfurt/Oder), but at that time it was called Grosse Frankfurter Strasse, and on Joseph Stalin's birthday in 1949 it was renamed Stalinallee.

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In 1953, the patron was already dead when a crowd began to gather on the thoroughfare on the morning of June 17, 1953. The day before, dozens of workers at the Friedrichshain Hospital construction site had gone on strike. They had stopped work after being presented with a plan to raise standards while keeping wages the same.

The crowd grew larger and larger. The scale of the gathering was surprising. So many people had previously gathered only at May Day marches. And the Stalinalle in Berlin is not the only one - rallies are taking place in 700 other cities in the GDR that day. In total, up to 1.5 million people take to the streets. And they are not peaceful protests. Stones flew at the windows of party headquarters and newspaper editorial offices. In Halle, where up to 90,000 people demonstrate, 248 women are freed from prison. The crowd demolished police stations and newspaper headquarters. And all the while, anti-Soviet and anti-party shouts are raised, demanding the resignation of the government, free elections and German unity.

When Soviet tanks appeared on the streets of Berlin at noon, they were showered with a hail of stones. The Soviets did not hold back. They drove into the crowd, sometimes shooting. Twenty-four people were killed in Berlin (it is estimated that there were more than 100 victims nationwide). Several thousand people were arrested, a state of emergency and a curfew were imposed.

The workers' uprising on June 17, which later became a holiday in West Germany - German Unity Day - was immediately identified in the GDR as the work of fascists. Thus, the authorities could proclaim with even greater emphasis that West Germany was in fact an American protectorate in Europe and "a hotbed of war, a hotbed of criminality, militarism, neo-Nazism, reactionism, revanchism," "a centre of espionage," and "a delayed-action bomb." The country should be saved from civil war by the brotherly soldiers of the Red Army. For this reason, members of Volkssolidaritaet, a social organisation affiliated with the party, presented gifts to the Soviet soldiers in gratitude for their "intervention on June 17, 1953, the day of fascist provocation."

“A totalitarian regime, equipped for almost four years with all the means of a modern dictatorship, was condemned in less than twelve hours to total impotence and forced to take refuge behind the tanks of a foreign army” - concluded the famous German columnist Sebastian Haffner in a text that appeared in the British 'The Observer' in June 1953.

To this day, however, historians argue about what message this popular uprising of 1953 conveyed. Was it an uprising of workers fighting for the human face of communism, or German resentment - after all, one of the strikers' demands was the revision of the Oder-Neisse border with Poland. Was this an expression of discontent over increasingly deteriorating living conditions or a conscious desire to return to a unified Germany? Historians agree on only one point: the workers of June 17 lacked structure and leadership.
Members of the Volkssolidarität give gifts to Soviet soldiers in gratitude for the “intervention on June 17, 1953. Photo: Wikimedia/Bundesarchiv
When the turnaround attempt failed, people began fleeing the GDR en masse. - The actual number of GDR escapees and their demographic and occupational profiles are still unknown and the subject of research, but we estimate that there were more than 2 million people between 1947 and 1961, of whom 1.2 million fled after the 1953 protests, Roesler adds. - My grandfather, a doctor from Saxony, fled to Bavaria but could not adapt and missed his village. He decided to return, which was a very rare case, and the people who did were monitored even more by the Stasi, says the economist.

A tunnel to the west

Closing the border thus became a crucial issue, but no one expected the authorities to do so with such vigour. On August 13, 1961, the GDR's uniformed services, put on combat readiness, began to carry out "Operation Rose." A barbed wire fence separated the western part of Berlin from the GDR overnight. From then on, the People's Democracy was to become a People's Prison. First, 156 kilometres of the border were 'hard-wired' with 150 tonnes of barbed wire. Soon after, the construction of the wall began. The monumental, 4-metre-high structure became a symbol of divided Europe. The phenomenon took on such proportions that it was given a special name: Republikflucht - escape from the republic. In the GDR, it was punished as desertion and the most serious betrayal of ideals. As early as 1957, leaving the GDR and East Berlin without official permission was punishable by up to three years in prison.

Participatory dictatorship

Preventing escapes became one of the most important tasks of the Stasi security service, which was founded in 1950.

The social system that prevailed in the GDR between 1949 and 1990 has been called a “participatory dictatorship”. This view is held by Prof. Mary Fulbrook, among others. In her book "Divided nation", she points out that a significant percentage of citizens were de facto functionaries of the regime's institutions. In the GDR, this was up to one-sixth of the population, not only party members, uniformed members of various state services, but also people who belonged to a number of organisations controlled by the system, to the Stasi and its agents. The infamous security service still employed 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 informants in the 1980s (meaning that nearly 2 percent of the GDR population was linked to the state surveillance system).

- But they became more sophisticated as the years went by - they wanted to come for you, they wanted to arrest you, they wanted to stop you from doing something before you had even done it. And the main way they were able to have so much control was through information. Helena Merriman, BBC journalist and author of 'Tunnel 29,"story of a group of friends who dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in 1962 (it won the 2023 British Podcast of the Year Award), tells TVP Weekly. –So they spread informants all over East Germany and some in West Germany, in every single area. Through the police, through the church, through the schools, through the companies. There are estimates that up to one in six people may have worked for the Stasi in some way. They called these informants the "breathing organs" of the party, and they used this information to try to exert control. They put microphones in people's homes, they hid them in cameras and light fittings. They had microphones, they had cameras, they could record your conversations. And I heard a lot of those tapes. It's a very strange thing to listen to those tapes and hear that every minute of people's lives is being recorded... It became a serious offence against the state if you planned to leave East Germany - adds the journalist, who is currently working on a script for a series to be filmed based on her project.

Official instructions to the services spoke of opening fire on escapees. Even after reunification, this was considered a state crime coordinated from above. Especially since the Germans in East German service uniforms were extremely cruel, consistent and disciplined toward their compatriots. In 1964, they even shot two children, aged 10 and 13. Border guards who managed to capture fugitives were rewarded with medals, special leave or cash bonuses.

- One of the most heartbreaking stories about someone separated from friends and family by the Berlin Wall was that of a man named Gunter Litfin. He was a tailor. He was 24 years old when the Berlin Wall was built, and he lived in East Berlin, but his whole life was in West Berlin. He would cross to the West to do his work. He made costumes for the theatre. He was the first person shot at the border - says Helena Merriman. - A few days after the border was closed, he decided to escape through the Spree River. The eastern border guards began to shoot at him. Although he was wounded, he continued swimming and was hit just before he reached the western side.

Thus, people who wanted to help their compatriots trapped in the East came up with the idea of digging tunnels under the Wall. The tunnels were made in the middle of the city, often between sewer pipes and the foundations of other buildings. In the 1960s, more than 70 tunnels were created. Only in a few cases did the escape succeed.

The story of 'Tunnel 29' is about an action in 1962, when just such a number of people escaped to the West. One of the diggers from the west was Joachim Rudolph, who was 15 years old during the workers' uprising of 1953 and witnessed the intervention of Soviet tanks, later escaping to West Berlin. A 22-year-old student at the polytechnic, he and his colleagues installed a light, a line with earth carriage and ventilation and a telephone communication system in the tunnel. As it later turned out, an American television station also played a significant role, agreeing with the three students to help finance the entire operation in exchange for the right to record the action. This is how the moving documentary 'The Tunnel' by Reuven Frank, later head of NBC, was made.

In 1964, 57 people managed to escape through another tunnel. A group of students dug a passage 12 metres deep and 145 metres long. - The tunnel diggers also risked their lives. If the border guards heard any activity underground, they could dig into the tunnel and throw grenades or shoot into it, Helena Merimann points out.

In total, about 250 people were killed crossing the border; to this day, it is not known how many people were punished or arrested at the border for trying to escape. in 1979, East German authorities amended the penal code and introduced a penalty of up to eight years in prison for escape attempts.

The Wall remained standing until 1990, when it was dismantled on the street under which 'Tunnel 29," Bernauer Strasse, ran.

- Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

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