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June 17th, 1953: East German Uprising Commemorated

The participants and victims of the uprising of June 17th, 1953, in the GDR were commemorated today. Berlin’s Governing Mayor Müller said freedom and democracy always needed to be defended and protected.

Sixty-seven years ago today, on June 17th, 1953, 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. Dozens of protesters and uninvolved spectators died. So did five security officers.

Against the ‘Sovietization’

The participants 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 turn over their property to the state.

The police 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.

Street Battles

Due to the shortage of fruit, meat and other kinds of food, GDR citizens 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 started a strike. 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. Street battles between protesters and police took place in East Berlin.

Martial Law

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 infamous State Security started arresting people they called provocateurs.

Memorial Day

In commemoration of the victims on the day of the uprising, the Federal Republic of Germany observed an official annual 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, politicians in Berlin commented on the uprising of June 17th, 1953. “Just a few years after the GDR’s foundation, one million people stood up to the government”, Berlin’s Governing Mayor Michael Müller stated. “More than 15,000 were arrested after the suppression and 2,500 of them sentenced. Twenty protesters got the death penalty.”

Memorial Sites

“Thirty-six years later, the dictatorship was finally overcome”, Müller said. “Today, we are commemorating the women and men who fell victim to the brutal state authority. We remember their tremendous courage, their resolve and their quest for freedom.” Müller said freedom and democracy did not just develop themselves. At times, they required sacrifice. These values needed to be defended and protected mutually.

Kai Wegner, the chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party CDU in the city state of Berlin, said the courageous women and men of June 17th should never be forgotten. More memorial sites were needed, more room for the subject at schools and a monument for the victims of communism.

Main photo at top of page by Federal Archive (see license)

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