Remembering East Germany 1953

60 years ago the workers of East Germany rose in revolt against their Stalinist exploiters. To commemorate this we are presenting a translation from our German sister group, the Gruppe Internationaler SocialistInnen [GIS] which amply demonstrates not only the state capitalist nature of the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe but also the great capacity for self-organisation of the working class. It also gives us a chilling reminder of the limitations of spontaneity if it is not translated into clear working class goals and revolutionary organisation. After this we reproduce an old article from Workers’ Voice (1983) which takes in the revolt of 1953 but also follows up the history of the German Democratic Republic. It has the merit of underlining the same themes as the GIS document but also points to the growing crisis of the Eastern bloc which would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany. As the GIS article in particular shows it is a history from which we can learn much.

17 June 1953: Workers’ Uprising Against the Party Dictatorship!

As early as 3 July 1953, the 17 June was elevated to a “national holiday” in West Germany, in order to commemorate the so-called “people’s revolt”, which had been defeated by Russian troops. This denial of a proletarian movement, which started as a protest against an increase in productivity targets, and insistence that it was a “day of German unity” proved to be a skilled piece of bourgeois propaganda. The workers’ resistance of that time has been largely forgotten today. Instead, the myth of a “national people’s uprising” has embedded itself in public consciousness. At the same time, the 17 June is a difficult fact for those state-obsessed “Lefts” who conceive of “socialism” exclusively in the bourgeois categories of money, wage labour and surplus value. All their formulas to explain and justify the events of that time fit into the propaganda of the bourgeoisie, as they all aim to attribute to the late German Democratic Republic [DDR] a “progressive” or even a “socialist” character. But the alleged “freedom”, which is today so eagerly discussed in the bourgeois media was already possessed by the working class under the DDR — the “freedom” to sell their labour power, the “freedom” to throw surplus value into the hands of the state.

The DDR’s Character

A worker, K. Walter, stood up and said:

comrades, what is happening here is shaming us as workers. 70 years after the death of Karl Marx, we still have a debate about the most elementary needs of life. If Karl Marx had an inkling of this, he would turn in his grave.

What sort of thing was the DDR? In the DDR, just as in the other countries of Eastern Europe, state capitalist regimes came to power without workers’ revolutions and often under the direct or indirect control of the Russian army. The Stalinists gained control over the state apparatus through participation in the bourgeois coalition governments of the “people’s democracies” and sought to carry over the Russian model of society by “revolutions from above”. Private property in the most important means of production was declared to be abolished and transformed into state or people’s property. Nevertheless, we cannot speak of a socialisation of the means of production. Instead of production and distribution characterised by workers’ democracy, a centralised managed economy was constructed, in which the state took the place of the private capitalists and made bureaucrats its managers, who assumed all the powers of an exploiting class. The bureaucracy ruled over state property as a collective. It had full rights over firms and social wealth. Its politics disguised it with all sorts of “socialist rhetoric” and implemented its domination in this way. Nevertheless, the economic structure of the state-capitalist regimes was, as before, governed by the law of value. Consequently, the plans drawn up by the state continually aimed at the most efficient and rationalised exploitation of the working class possible. The class was separated from the control of their affairs and their life was regimented by the policies of the ruling state party. As early as April 1918, confronted by the problems then facing the Russian Revolution, the Left Communist Ossinski, writing in the second issue of the oppositional journal Kommunist, forcefully warned about this tendency towards state capitalism:

If the proletariat itself does not know how to create the necessary conditions for a socialist organisation of work, then no-one can do it in its place_ […] _Socialism and socialist organisation will be created by the proletariat or not at all, but, in its place, state capitalism.

State capitalism, moreover, put the existing techniques of “Western” capitalism to its own use, techniques which, like all bourgeois science and technology, are the material embodiment of global capitalist society. The Stalinist party took up the whole capitalist “rationality” and thus remained trapped in the world which they pretended to fight in their sermons. The Dutch Marxist Anton Pannekoek once correctly called the leaders of the Stalinist parties and societies “a class which tries to make the servitude of the workers eternal”. In these societies, as in every class society, the class struggle is characteristic.


To split the working class and to bind the more obedient part to itself, with whose help the rest could be kept under surveillance — this was the role of the activist (Henneke) movement. This was strongly supported by propaganda in the early years. Nevertheless, it should not be thought that in the beginning only “class collaborators” participated in the activist movement, as there were also many young workers acting out of pure enthusiasm, convinced they were building “socialism”. Thus, the works councils also merged with it. Most importantly, the organizational forms created by the unions had the purpose of giving the workers the appearance of self-determination through organised discussions. In 1951, the company collective contracts (Betriebskollektivverträge, BKV) were introduced, some of which met with open resistance, as they brought a considerable worsening of social conditions. 1952 was a year of heightened tension. The signing of the EEC treaty by the Bundesrepublik (BRD, West Germany) meant the rearmament of West Germany. This meant that the last hopes of the Kremlin bureaucracy for a neutralisation of Germany were dashed. The fact that the fulfillment of norms was below the plan worked out in 1951, while the total wages were above it, was an especially great concern for the regime. The market situation was to be improved by administrative measures aimed at the richer peasants and the urban middle class. The first wave of increased productivity norms, which had begun with the 1949 plan nevertheless spared one sector: the construction workers. Their resistance and readiness to struggle was especially high. In the following year, however, the risky strategy of increasing norms in the construction industry was taken too. An increase of 10% in the building sector meant wage cuts of 30% for bricklayers and up to 42% for carpenters, as, in general, exceeding norms was rewarded by bonuses. Early in 1952 intensive construction on the Stalinallée began, and it became a massive building site. In May 1953 there were strikes against the new norms in Magdeburg and Chemnitz. On 9 June, just three months after Stalin’s death, the CPSU announced the so-called “new course”. Peasants and small capitalists who had fled [to West Germany] were to be brought back through tax cuts and credit facilities. In 1951, 80% of those who had gone to the West were in the middle class. Thus, as the DDR’s “business friendliness” was strengthened, the discontent of the workers over the increases in norms grew.

The Uprising

On 15 June 1953 the workers on the Friedrichshain hospital site stopped work and agreed a resolution to send to Prime Minister Grotewohl, calling for an immediate withdrawal of the increased norms. In the resolution it stated that the “new course” had only benefited the capitalists and not the workers. On the same day, a party functionary held a meeting with the workers of block 40 on the Stalinallée and put a resolution to them expressing thanks for the “new course”. The workers demanded that the withdrawal of the higher norms be adopted as a point of the resolution. They finished by selecting two of their number as delegates, who would deliver the resolution to the regime. But they waited for the rest of the day so they could “discuss” the increased norms with a union representative. However, when on the next day the union paper “die Tribüne” vigorously defended the norms, the workers of Block 40 decided to send their delegates off. The workers went with them to protect them from any reprisals. This developed into a demonstration, which quickly attracted 2000 workers from the surrounding building sites. The demonstration went to the union headquarters, which was closed and locked, and then finally to the Ministries. There were already several thousand demonstrators waiting for them. They demanded that Ulbricht and Grotewohl appear, but they didn’t dare show their faces. Finally, the Industry Minister Selbmann appeared and tried to proclaim the withdrawal of the increased norms, but he didn’t get that far, as the workers didn’t trust him or anyone else from the government. They wanted to take their fate into their own hands. Many workers followed one another as speakers. In the end, one worker began to speak: “Comrades, it is no longer a question of norms and prices!” And, turning to Selbmann: “What you are seeing here is an uprising. The government must face the consequences of its mistakes.” The masses’ spontaneity seemed to have reached its high point. After so many years of repression, the particular circumstances of the workers meant they were in a position to develop an enormous consciousness.

Nevertheless, this is also an example of the limits of spontaneity. For this declaration was followed once again by a time of hesitation and uncertainty. People were agreed on the aim, but they were not agreed on the path to follow. Now another worker spoke and called on the crowd to mobilise for a general strike in the workers districts of Berlin, if Ulbricht and Grotewohl didn’t appear in the next half hour. Loudspeaker vans belonging to the governing SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, Socialist Unity Party of Germany), which, at that point, had already been announcing the recent review of the increases in norms, were taken over by the homeward-bound demonstrators shortly afterwards, and used to summon all the workers of Berlin to Strausberger Platz on the morning of 17 June. In the meantime building workers’ delegations had already met at the transmitter of RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor, the radio station in the American sector), from whence they demanded to be able to speak to their comrades in East Berlin and the DDR. The call for a general strike was denied them in the negotiations with the Western station. But they were able to make their demands known on the radio, such as the payment of wages according to the old norms and the immediate reduction of living costs, free and secret elections and no punishment of strikers or for discussing strikes. These demands were taken up and supported by the strike movement. The next day, the entire state apparatus of the DDR was helpless in the face of events. The Berlin workers’ call for a general strike spread to all layers of the population throughout the whole DDR on 17 June. The strike movement nevertheless spread primarily from the largest concerns. The centres of the uprising were the industrial cities, which even in 1919-1923 were the citadels of the revolutionary working class, that is, alongside East Berlin, the central German industrial area with Bitterfeld, Halle, Leipzig, Merseburg and Magdeburg, but also Jena and Gera, Brandenburg and Görlitz. The well-organised and determinedly prepared workforces of large factories like, for example, Lena (28,000), Buna (18,000), the dye factory Welfen and Hennigsdorf (12,000 each), were a power against which the local party offices could do nothing. Of the DDR’s ten large iron and steel-producing companies, nine struck or revolted. The workers in basic and heavy industry had been hit particularly hard by the recent campaign for increases in norms. They now became the most confident part of the working class in the DDR, as, according to the official pronouncements, the pivot for the construction of “socialism” should be located in heavy industry and the government had conceded special privileges to these workers. The 17 June destroyed the illusion that there was no freedom for action outside the Stalinist Party and its institutions.

An example of the political direction which the committees took, is the “Walter Ulbricht” works. On 17 June at a meeting of about 20,000 of those working at the plant, the following demands were raised: an end to the changing of work norms; disarming the factory police, sacking of the union leadership in the plant, removal of “Walter Ulbricht” from the plant’s name and the resignation of the government. On the level of the firm, workers can take the initiative very quickly. But it is necessary to go beyond the firm. In the former “red heart of Germany”, in Halle, Bitterfeld, Merseberg, there emerged the most striking revolutionary organisations. In Halle, all the delegations met together in the centre of the city and elected a committee for initiatives, in which all the large firms, but also a businessman, an administrative employee and a student were represented. In Bitterfeld the central strike committee comprising of representatives of the large firms, was joined by a housewife and a student from the workers and peasants’ faculty. In Merseburg the workers of the gigantic chemical works, Leune and Buna, joined together and the crowd elected a 25-strong central committee by acclamation on the Uhlandplatz. The committees took over the administrative functions of the official authorities. Radio stations and printers were occupied in many places, and the provision of gas and electricity also fell into the hands of the workers. It is true that in many places there were nationalist demonstrations in the countryside, yet where there were links between the country and the city, the working class took the leadership. If the demands of the previous day, that is, the resignation of the government and the construction of a “workers’ government” were to be realised, the co-ordination of the movement in the individual cities had to be stepped up. The Halle and Bitterfeld committees linked up with each other. The workers of the steel and rolling mill works of Hennigsdorf started early and crossed the border between the zones and went through West Berlin, in order to reach East Berlin, where they demanded the creation of a government of metal workers.

Borders and Limits

The strike should also have been extended into West Germany. In hindsight it is hard to say what the consciousness of the West German workers was at that time, but at least on 20 July 20,000 shop workers demonstrated against the new Shop Closing Hours Act. In October, some participants in the IG-Metall conference argued that the only way for the West German workers to show their solidarity with their East German comrades would be a general strike against Adenauer and their own government. A statement which was taken up with frenzied applause. Despite this, the uprising of the East German workers remained isolated. The situation was becoming threatening for the SED leadership. Their argument that the movement was infiltrated by fascist provocateurs was in no way convincing. The nationalist campaigns at the border or in the countryside remained isolated from the mass of workers. Apart from problems with their propaganda, the SED faced the difficulty that the police, the “Volkspolizei”, often refused to move against demonstrators and strikers and, in many places, had even joined in with the demonstrations. The Soviet army had to withdraw to safeguard its own zone and its power-base. Neither the ruling class of the West nor of the East had any interest in allowing a proletarian revolution to succeed. An overspill of the revolutionary wave into the West would have shifted the balance of power in favour of the European proletariat to an unimaginable extent, and strongly questioned the post-war order created by Yalta and Potsdam. In general, many workers believed on 17 June that the Soviet occupation powers would have at least remained neutral if a general strike remained disciplined. To this end, a loudspeaker-van could be heard calling “Do nothing that the Soviet occupation power could see as a provocation.” But this was a vain hope. The repression was already on the starting blocks. Because of its isolation within the territory of the DDR, the movement could be defeated and buried under rubble and lies. However the uprising revealed the open hatred of the workers towards a puppet regime, that was propped up by Russian arms and, on top of that, had the nerve to call itself a workers and peasants’ government. The defeat of the workers’ uprising allowed the true face of class society to come to light as it sought to defend its authority. As the oppressed and exploited class workers must obtain a hearing for themselves. No-one can be their advocates. And that they did on 17 June 1953.

The SED regime stood accused. It was a regime which pretended to based on the working class but which, in reality, moved against it when the class itself raised complaints: a so-called “People’s” Police (Volkspolizei) which shot at workers; a propaganda machine which swung into action whenever enforced “volunteer production duties” were to be made known, but which distorted events in the factories and denounced workers as fascists, Western agents and provocateurs; which refused at all times to publicise the demands of workers or report them; a works management which behaved as if the workers were enemies; so-called workers’ organisations which were de facto henchmen of the Party; decisions which were taken at all levels without consideration of and against the workers. In the East as in the West, nationalist tendencies, which were in the minority, were made to appear typical and used to distract from the proletarian character of 17 June. The Holiday of “German Unity” glorified by the West is a mockery and a further blow against the concerns which carried thousands on to the streets on 17 June. The movement of 17 June 1953 was not only an uprising against the domination of an autocratic bureaucratic class and its politics, but also provided the proof of the ability of the working class for spontaneous action. The movement of 17 June was clear against whom it fought, but it lacked time, not least because of the absence of an established revolutionary organisation, to throw off its illusions, in relation to parliamentarism, for example, and to completely develop its own social and political structures. The budding first signs of self-organisation and councils were destroyed by the Russian occupation powers, the committees dissolved, the spokesmen and women were persecuted and arrested as “ringleaders” and the state’s control of exploitation was again set in motion in the firms.

13 June 2013
Friday, July 12, 2013

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.