East Germany 1953-83: Repression and Recession


Thirty years ago, in June 1953, occured the largest and most significant movement of the German working class since 1923. In response to declining real wages, food shortages and finally an increase in work norms (productivity) by 10%, discontent led to the outbreak of a massive strike wave in East Germany. Sporadic incidents culminated in construction workers in the Stalin Allée building project striking against the new norms , and marching on the trades union(FDGB) offices in the city centre. Ulbricht, head of the government and the Socialist Unity Party (SED) commented, "It is raining. People will go home." However the next day, the 17th the strike was general throughout Berlin and large crowds marched to the centre and set siege to government buildings, By midnight the Soviet Army had restored order by massive arrests and the imposition of martial law .

The movement then spread to the rest of East Germany. In Jena workers at the Zeiss factory struck. 25,000 stopped Work at the Leuna Chemical Works in Halle. The railways were paralysed, and the strike spread to Dresden, Leipzig, Rostock, and elsewhere. But Soviet troops quickly spread repression, and the movement was crushed, with 25,000 arrested and 42 killed or executed. The movement was unambiguously proletarian in its class composition, with little support from the intelligentsia and demonstrates in practice the existence of a class struggle, i.e. classes and the capitalist mode of production in the so-called 'socialist' part of Germany. The workers showed great courage in fighting with crowbars and cobblestones against Soviet tanks, and soldiers with orders to fire. Government offices were stormed and sacked, prisoners freed from jails. Yet the failure of the movement to rise to greater heights was not only due to Soviet repression, but to its own internal weaknesses.

Spontaneous action by individual workers played a great role in the struggle; the small group of building workers who discussed the possibility of a strike on a secret boat outing prior to 16 June, the building workers who toured central Berlin that day in a truck calling for a general strike. But the workers failed to organise themselves in order to generalise the struggle. One worker later described how the building workers actually ran out of steam and returned to work on the afternoon of the 16th:

From the start the construction workers lacked leadership, for no strike committees had been chosen on the two _construction sites ... a worker called for a general strike … this was greeted with loud applause. But without organisation and leadership no concerted action was possible. After only five minutes more the workers started to drift back to their work sites, to Stalin Allee._

(Arnulf Baring Der 17 Juni 1953_,_ pp 58, 62.)[1]

As a result the building workers went back while others came out. The movement was actually defeated in Berlin before it had spread to the other industrial regions like Saxony. And the strike was far from general; out of a proletariat of over 4 millions, only 300,000 actually struck. Had communists been active in the movement, the call for the election of strike committees, and their centralisation into workers councils would have been made, and could have found an echo.

But the working class needs not only organisation to struggle, but also consciousness. Here too the movement thirty years ago was permeated by limitations on class consciousness, stemming from the traditions of the German proletariat, and its domination by social democracy. The aims of the strikers, where they were not simply for a reduction in work norms tended to be nationalistic and social democratic. "Free and secret elections in all Germany", was one of the more prominent demands, and demonstrators waved red, black and gold flags (the German flag). Red flags were torn down, as were pictures of SED dignitaries, Stalin and Lenin (though not of Karl Marx!). No demands were made during the movement for a return to 'private ' capitalism. All these factors are consistent with a social democratic consciousness; indeed railway workers in Magdeburg chanted, "Neither Ulbricht nor Adenauer, but Ollenauer" (the SPD leader). Limited by such perspectives, the fate of the uprising was sealed. The anniversary of this movement offers the chance to survey developments in East Germany since 1953, and to assess the prospects for the class struggle there today.


The establishment of a pro-Soviet regime in East Germany came about almost by accident. The imperialist carve-up of the world between the USA and USSR at Tehran and Yalta left the German question 'open', and the division of the defeated Germany at Potsdam into zones of occupation was seen as a temporary solution. Stalin's policy was to neutralise Germany, and demilitarise it, to prevent its incorporation into the US bloc. But the US decided that Europe was only safe for American imperialism if Germany was integrated into the N.A.T.O. bloc, and this meant the unification of the western zone in 1947 into the Federal Republic (F.D.R.). Stalin's creation of the GDR followed in 1949, after the forced unification of the KPD and SPD in the Soviet zone into the SED. But Stalin’s policy remained the same, and the GDR was a pawn that could be abandoned to achieve this. As late as 1952 Stalin offered ‘free elections and reunification’ if Germany were demilitarised, and kept out of NATO. Meanwhile, true to its imperialist nature, Russia continued to plunder East Germany, (compared to a loss of 15% of industrial production by war damage, 26% was lost via reparations to the USSR. And till 1953 15% of current production was yearly transferred to Russia by the occupation of 200 key industrial units.)

Only with West German entry into NATO in 1954 was the continued existence of the GDR, and the prevention of its re-incorporation into a pro-western Germany, seen as vital to Soviet interests. The GDR was then integrated fully into the Russian bloc via COMECON and the Warsaw Pact. Hailed by its Berlin agents as a shining example of "proletarian internationalism", Russian intervention in 1953 was a brutal and cynical move to keep its bargaining counter for imperialist manoeuvres, and a fall back source of plunder should these schemes fail.

Once up for sacrifice, today the GDR is a vital cornerstone of Soviet imperialism. It is no exaggeration to say that with the continued instability in Poland, the loss of the GDR to the western bloc would lead to the undermining of the whole Soviet bloc, without the GDR, Russia's whole northern flank is indefensible. The 400,000 Soviet troops in the GDR are an insurance policy against such a risk, which in effect can only become reality via a world war.

The GDR bureaucracy is the most slavishly pro-Russian in East Europe. The only suspicion of disloyalty is that Ulbricht provoked the events of 1953, to prompt Soviet intervention and make any withdrawal more difficult: Since then GDR clocks have been set by Moscow time — supporting the intervention in Hungary, backing Russia against China and taking part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There is little doubt that had the Russians gone into Poland to maintain Jaruzelski, the GDR would also have invaded. The GDR also supplies surrogate military technical advisers to many Soviet clients such as Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique, where there are 3,000 GDR 'advisers'. Under Honecker as under Ulbricht, the GDR remains Russia’s most loyal ally.

But the importance of the GDR to Russia is not simply political and military, but also economic. The GDR is COMECON's most sophisticated industrial economy, and it supplies Russia and the Warsaw pact with much of their vital technology, at well below world market prices; COMECON takes 65-70% of all GDR trade. The GDR is Russia's largest source of machinery imports, amounting to 25% of goods in this field. The USSR is the GDR's largest trading partner, accounting for 36% of all trade and taking 45% of GDR exports of plant and machinery. The cost of replacing these sources of chemicals, microelectronics and electrical equipment would be astronomical for the USSR.

The USSR also, in return for supplying oil and other materials to the GDR, procures funds for raw material extraction, and the supply of skilled labour, e.g. for the Siberian gas pipeline, at lower than 'world market' prices. In the period 1980-85, the USSR obtained 100bn dollars of investment from COMECON , interest free, and although no break-down was given, a large part must have come from the GDR. The USSR also has a large balance of trade surplus with its COMECON partners, and especially with the GDR, which now only publishes figures for total trade with the USSR, rather than imports and exports. Clearly, a large part of the surplus value created by the GDR proletariat is creamed off by the USSR ruling class. While its nature has changed from one of direct plunder, to one operating via economic mechanisms, the relation of the USSR to the GDR remains one of imperialist domination. But the GDR workers must avoid the trap of nationalism and anti-Russianism, and in future struggles, hold out their hand to their Russian class brothers.


Since 1953 the GDR has undergone phenomenal economic expansion; it is the 'Wirtschaftswunder' (economic miracle) of the eastern bloc.

Growth has given the GDR today, with its 17million people, an industrial output greater than that of the entire German Reich in 1939, and made it the 9th industrial power in the world. Both per capita GNP (at $6,808 in comparison with Britain's $5,895) and labour productivity are higher than Britain’s, though only 70-75% of West Germany's. If these facts disprove any idea that there is a ceiling to growth under decadent capitalism, they do not disprove the idea that this accumulation has been of a capitalist nature. Other countries, e.g. Japan have accumulated even faster, without becoming non-capitalist, neither has this accumulation been crisis-free.

Growth rates have been far from uniform, as apologists of a crisis free accumulation would have us believe. Originally huge rates of 20% declined to 8% in 1953 (the year of political as well as economic crisis), rose to over 10% for most of the rest of the 50s, to fall to 2% in 1961 — the economic crisis that led to the closing of the border with West Berlin to stem the flow of refugees to West Germany.

This crisis was resolved by economic reforms which eventually led to the establishment of Kombinats, more oriented to market forces, which pushed up the sluggish growth rates of the 1960s (average 3.2%) to 4.8% in the 1970s (compared with 3.3% in West Germany). At the same time, agriculture was collectivised in the 1960s to free labour for industry, after the exodus of 2.5 million refugees 1949-61. Collectivisation also allowed the state to obtain the surplus value of the exploitation of rural proletarians, rather than the peasantry.

So clearly economic growth in the GDR is cyclical rather than steady, a factor along with the exploitation of wage labour, production for the market rather than needs, and huge social differentials it shares with western capitalism. In the latter case, the ratio of earnings in the GDR is as follows, taking a skilled worker as 100: factory manager 453, government minister 596. But this economic growth has given the GDR the highest standard of living in COMECON, higher for example than Britain, Italy or Austria, and even a consumerist illusion; ownership of consumer goods (e.g. cars) reaches Western levels. These factors, along with repression and regimentation, are the material basis for the absence of social movements in the GDR similar to those seen in Poland and Rumania, as well as Russia itself.

But although there are no food queues as yet, and although unemployment and inflation are still negligible, the crisis is finally hitting the GDR, just as it is hitting even the most favoured of Western capitalist economies. As yet, however the crisis is undeveloped, in contrast to Poland, for example, and on the surface the GDR is still booming. Growth rates are still steady,(in %):

1978 1979 1980

Net material product 4.0 4.0 4.8

Industrial production 5.4 4.8 4.7

Foreign trade 5.6 12.4 12.0

This was followed by a 5% growth in NMP in 1981, a figure echoed in 1982, which also saw a record harvest in the GDR. Labour is in short supply, and the GDR imports unemployed Polish and Yugoslav workers. But behind all the statistics of optimism, even the most successful of the state capitalist economies is heading for the shock of overt crisis.

The GDR’s growth has been the result, not of Socialist planning, but of foreign borrowing. In the 1970s huge loans were taken out from western banks to fund accumulation. At approximately $14bn today, the GDR'S debt is equivalent to Poland's. Most were taken out in the heady days of Ospolitik, and used to purchase western capital goods, e.g. a 1.1bn mark Hoeschst PVC plant, a £40m GKN forge for lorries, etc. Like other east European rulers, the 'marxists' of the GDR didn’t realise the western economies were in crisis, and hoped to payoff their capital borrowings by an export drive into western markets. The only success of the GDR has been in penetrating the west German market (where its goods pay no tariffs), which takes 50% of its non-COMECON trade and with which it recorded its first surplus in 1982. Otherwise, the GDR's export drive has failed to cover its import bill, and its trade balance with OECD areas is deteriorating;(in bn. dollars)

1977 1978 1979

-54.0 -82.8 -780

The GDR's cumulative foreign debt from 1976 to 1980 was 28 bn. marks. This clearly leads to pressure on its ability to pay its debts, and for the first time ever the GDR is negotiating debt rescheduling for 1983/4.

Further problems loom on the horizon, even allowing that renewed deliveries, and payments from Poland are a godsend at this time, following Jaruzelski's restoration of normal exploitation. The USSR supplies the GDR with 90% of its oil, on a 5-year moving average of world market prices; as the price of oil falls, the price paid by the GDR and other COMECON countries will rise in real terms, further blunting the GDR's competitive edge on the world market. In this context the GDR's rulers will be forced to do what they have feared to do since 1953; to attack directly the living standards of the working class.

Already the regime has announced a series of price 'reforms', where essentials will remain the same, but luxuries such as consumer goods will rise in price, thus reducing domestic consumption and freeing goods for the export market. Industrial productivity (i.e. exploitation) has been increasing sharply: 5|% in 1978, 4.4% in 1979 4.5% in 1980, which averages about half as high again as the growth in wages. Further productivity gains are planned in the coming years, to be largely achieved not by new investment, but by re-organising existing labour practices, i.e. absolute exploitation.

Although as yet at an early state, the economic crisis of state capitalism is coming into operation even in the GDR. (For a fuller account of the nature of state capitalism, and of its crisis see "Theories of State Capitalism”, in Revolutionary Perspectives 19.[2]


The working class in the GDR is one of the most skilled, and highly concentrated in the world; 77% of all industrial workers work in units employing over 1,000. It is a proletariat which can see daily the effects of the crisis of state capitalism via FDR television, and the crisis in the FDR via its own; they know about the food queues in Warsaw and the dole queues in the Ruhr. It is also a proletariat that, in the heart of Europe can see clearly what the economic crisis is leading to re-armament and world war. When the GDR workers move into action again the 30 years development since 1953 should ensure that they do so without many of the illusions of that epoch.

In those 30 years reported incidents of class struggle in the GDR have been few. Reports of strikes have emerged in the western press, to be denied by the GDR bosses, though one at the Narva works in Berlin was confirmed by Robert Havemann a leading GDR dissident, in January 1978. Others, among Rostock dockworkers in 1980, remain unconfirmed. What is clear is that these have been isolated incidents, otherwise they would have been visible; no ruling class can hide a mass strike. What workers can expect when they do move into action was shown when 3,700 West Berlin railway workers (employed by the East German state railway) struck in September 1980. Denounced as 'terrorists' by the GDR authorities, the strikers were isolated from the East Berlin railway workers, and the strikes broken by the police. This a dress rehearsal for the GDR authorities for their own class battles tomorrow.


If the economic crisis and class struggle still underdeveloped in the GDR, so is the political crisis. The SED is, and always been, the most monolithic of the East European ruling parties; there have been no Titoist or Dubceckist factions, indeed no factions at all. The development dissidence has been an individual affair, with Havemann (shouted down by the workers in ‘53) as the main advocate of state capitalism with a human face till his death in 1982. A new factor has emerged in the early 1980s with the emergence of the Protestant Church into the political arena, calling for general disarmament. This has resulted in huge, unofficial demonstrations, which have undoubtedly attracted large layers of youth. The regime, fearing a Polish situation, has responded by courting the Church, and preparing massive commemorations of the anniversary of Luther's birth.

Meanwhile for the middle class and bureaucracy the regime has been rehabilitating the 'Prussian' past with its traditions, and for the proletariat there is the constant spectacle of the GDR’s sporting achievements.

When we today recall the struggle of the German workers in 1953, we do so not to worship spontaneity, but to assess the strength and weaknesses of the movement, so as to contribute to its victory next time. This means working towards the construction of an underground communist movement in the GDR; the failure of such an organisation to exist in the Polish mass strikes proved fatal.

In many ways the construction of such a network in the GDR could be easier than in other east European countries. And from the minority who could be induced to break from the flotsam and jetsam of dissidence and pacifism, and move from the idea of reforming state capitalism, to that of its overthrow, the core of this future organisation could be built. Its message would be to destroy the imperialist blocs and reach out the hand of solidarity, in the first instance, to the proletariat of West Germany, and raise the red banner of civil war in central Europe against the war preparations of the bourgeoisie.


The statistical material for this text was provided by the following sources;

"The DDR' s Frozen Revolution" G.Minnerup New Left Review, 132, 1982.

"German Democratic Republic" Economic Report, Lloyd's Bank 1980.

World View 1983 (Pluto/Maspero) 1982

[1] Our German comrades of the Gruppe Internationaler SocialistInnen have criticised us for using this source. They tell us that “A. Bahring is well known reactionary and nationalist (we would say fascist) historian, a promoter of the myth of the "Volksaufstand" (“People’s Rising” as opposed to workers’ rising. It is like trying to rely on R. Pipes or David Irving (which some left communists have done in the past, over Dresden for example) but we should avoid such things”. We were not aware of this in 1983 and thank them for drawing this to our attention.

[2] Long out of print.

Friday, July 12, 2013


a few remarks:

- back in 1983, Baring was only recently expelled from the SPD (for supporting the liberals in the elections), his trajectory towards the fascist and anti-semitic right was probably not foreseeable back than

- there were a number of strikes and protests by foreign workers in the GDR during the 1970ies, e.g. in 1975 involving 6000 workers, see rosalux.de (in German)

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