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June 17th, 1953: The East German Uprising and its Suppression

Sixty-six years ago today, on June 17th, 1953, many citizens of the communist ‘German Democratic Republic’ (GDR) staged walkouts and protests against the state’s leadership. The uprising was crushed by the Soviet Army. Thirty-four protesters and non-involved spectators died. So did five security officers.

The protesters rejected the kind of socialist system the GDR’s leadership was setting up after being ordered to do so by Moscow. It was the so-called ‘Sovietization’ of their state. Before the protests, farmers and business owners had been pressured to give up their status and to turn over their property to the state.

The ‘Police of the People’ got more powers while military spending increased. Due to several mistakes the leadership of the ‘Socialist Unity Party of Germany’ (SED) made, the food supply for the GDR’s citizens was not secured.

Due to the shortage of fruit, meat and other kinds of food, they had to wait in long lines on a regular basis, in order to get the food they needed. At the same time, representatives of the churches were jailed. The ongoing dispossession wave did not make the citizens happy either. Neither did the fact that the economic problems in the communist state increased further.

In the morning of June 17th, 1953, workers at factories all over the GDR commenced a strike. Huge protests took place in the centers of the state’s larger cities, smaller ones in hundreds of towns and villages. Some city halls and police stations were occupied by protesters. In the town of Gera, even a jail controlled by the infamous State Security was invaded by demonstrators. In East Berlin, street battles between protesters and police took place.

Anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million GDR citizens participated in the protests. Historians have not been able to establish the exact number.

On this day in June, the GDR’s leadership was protected by the Soviets. The latter declared a state of martial law in the early afternoon. Sixteen Soviet Army divisions came in. When the tanks arrived, the protests ended in many areas. Both the Soviets and the State Security started arresting people they called provocateurs.

In commemoration of the victims on the day of the uprising, the Federal Republic of Germany observed an official holiday on June 17th, until the reunification of Germany took place in 1990. But the date is still a memorial day.

Today, 66 years later, German politicians commented on the uprising of June 17th, 1953. Berlin’s Commerce Senator Ramona Pop, a Green politician, said this day was about remembering “the courageous people who took a stand for a better life”. The uprising on June 17th stood for the will to have basic rights and democracy.

Kai Wegner, the chairman of the conservative CDU in Berlin, said the GDR had managed to crush the uprising with tanks, but not the people’s struggle for freedom. June 17th, this “important date in our history should never be forgotten”, Wegner stated.

The Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, said June 17th had “taught us that freedom needs to be hard-won.” Freedom was not available for free. This was a message which needed to be conveyed to the young generations.