To get a proper handle on last June’s events one needs to know what day to day life is like in the Russian-occupied zone. The cost of living is forever climbing. Whereas people in West Berlin can get by without rationing and their shops are overflowing with goods, in East Berlin there are still rationing arrangements for children, non-workers, those engaged in light work, those involved in heavy work, level 1 intellectuals, level 2 intellectuals, etc. even though that sector lies adjacent to the most agricultural part of Germany. There are special arrangements for Party members and cadres, for the ordinary person allowances are low: not only that but they are hard to come by, because there is nothing in the shops. So where does the food go? A considerable amount winds up in Russia: another fraction is set aside for the regime’s privileged. Furthermore, alongside the (privately owned or cooperative) outlets selling at prices fixed by law, the government has set up special outlets which engage in black-marketeering, making great profits. […] Given the geographical lay-out of the city of Berlin and the transport system by which it is served, it is vital that the population can travel through the Russian sector as well as through the French-, British- and US-occupied sectors. But whereas there are no differences between the western sectors, on entry to the Russian sector one is faced by stark and widespread poverty, food shortages, and shortages of clothing and other essential goods. The only things that seem to be plentiful are propaganda and discipline. Above all, out on the streets, there are gigantic portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Pieck (the German communist leader) and their consorts and, especially in the workplaces, Draconian regulations and high work quotas, low pay and spies. In short, this was how things stood in mid-June 1953 when the deputy prime minister, Herr Rau, announced further cuts in wages and a raising of production targets. Meaning that the workers would have to cut back on food, dress more shabbily and tire themselves out more in order to “build socialism”.
Minister Rau’s announcement was the topic of heated argument outside the building sites in the Frankfurterallee (renamed the Stalinallee under the occupation); the foremen and site managers tried in vain to herd the workers back to work; instead they carried on with their heated arguments, throwing their arms about, cursing and shouting in the middle of the street. On one site the decision was taken to send a two-man delegation to the Ministry, but since that pair might be in danger of being arrested on the spot, the idea was mooted that they should have an escort of determined men, between sixty and eighty of them in all. This news spread to other sites and in no time at all the building workers decided to go along as a body to put their demands to the Ministry. So, leaderless and without any military discipline, carrying no portraits nor placards, about a thousand men started out on the march. Initially, stunned by this new style of demonstration, passersby stood to gape. But when the demonstrators began to chant their complaints against the raising of production targets, their curiosity turned to enthusiasm: this procession flowed into another; the procession reached the Alexanderplatz (the working class district in the city centre where the police headquarters are located) and the thing snowballed and then the first incident occurred: two workers off the sites were arrested by the Vopos (People’s Police) and dragged away to the “People’s Police Headquarters”. But the crowd, massing under the windows of the building, threatened to storm it: stones began to fly, smashing windows and things became so heated that the Vopos thought it wiser to set the prisoners free again. At which point a cry rang out: “On to government buildings!” And the column of demonstrators moved off again. It reached the famous Berlin avenue Unter den Linden around noon. Along the way its ranks swelled and it now numbered tens of thousands of people; and the more it grew the more its demands grew. No longer were the protests targeting only excessive productivity quotas; they were also objecting to the barriers separating the different sectors of the city and to the government and the regime itself. Students from the Humboldt University joined the crowd which now numbered a hundred thousand people and controlled the streets. Outside the Russian embassy it chanted: Go home, Ivan, We refuse to be slaves and We want free elections. A few daring youngsters scaled the Brandenburg Gate, tearing down the soviet flag hanging from it and then burning it. The giant portraits of the leadership and their massive slogans provoked the wrath of the people who tore them to pieces. Finally, they reached the Leipzigerstrasse, opposite the seat of government (Goering’s old Aviation Ministry). It was now 2.30 pm, and so far we had encountered no resistance. Although the government was there, none of our great leaders seemed disposed to regale us with a speech: hesitancy and fear prompted the party leadership to keep to their burrows: we waited in vain for one of them to make a speech to us. A new cry was heard: “Resign! Down with the government!” Then, in a reference to Ulbricht and Pieck: “Beardie and Four-Eyes, we don’t want you!” In the end deputy premier Rau appeared. He climbed on to a table in the open to address the crowd. But there were shouts for him to get down and he lost his balance as the makeshift rostrum on top of which he was making his speech was overturned. He was followed on the table by minister Seibmann, but he had no better luck. A bricklayer leapt on to the table and pushed him to the ground just as he was promising to ease up on the work quotas. And the crowd’s enthusiasm was unbounded when the bricklayer replied by shouting at him: “We want to be free: we are not just against work quotas here. And we come, not just from the Stalinallee, but from all of Berlin!”
As the afternoon wore on, the demonstration was swollen further as people left work: two loud-speaker vans under police escort were desperately announcing: “The unfairly raised targets are to be cut back to previous levels.” The police car was wrecked, one of the vans was overturned and the other commandeered by the demonstrators. SEP (the Unified Socialist Party led by the communists) leaders sent out to preach calm were frisked and manhandled and the cry went up: “General Strike!” Come evening, there was no way of restoring calm: an attempted counter-demonstration by the Young Communists in the Friedrichstrasse was routed: the city revelled in its own power.
As yet the police had not gone on to the counter-offensive.
On the morning of 17 June the atmosphere was tense. Despite the relentless downpour, crowds of demonstrations were forming in a variety of districts. The police seemed to have been reinforced: the guard outside government buildings along the Leipzigerstrasse had been strengthened. Truckloads of Russians were cruising around. Vopos in Russian uniforms were patrolling in strength. On the Leipzigerstrasse the Russian tanks shuttled back and forth. The rain was torrential. Tens of thousands of people swamped the pavements. The issue now was Slavery or Liberty. Signs marking the boundaries of the Russian sector were torn down: the people were determined to eradicate all the barriers dividing East and West Berlin. A tide of humanity teemed around the headquarters of the People’s Police, the symbols of the dictatorship and was driven back by liberal use of baton charges. In the Potsdammerplatz boundary posts and propaganda materials fed a huge bonfire: the fire then spread to the premises of a newspaper and to one of the outlets of the Handel-Organisationen (Retail Organisations). And a police barracks went up in flames: the police had pulled out of the Kolumbus-Haus and a white flag flew from a first floor window. One bunch of Vopos fled into West Berlin! Meanwhile, little by little, Russian tanks and armour were showing up as the government forces dug in. In several areas, the angry populace made to attack SEP branch premises: any documents they came across were tossed on to the flames and officials were roughed up. The Kolumbus-Haus and the Vaterland cafe were in flames. The transport services ground to a complete standstill, as did every other business in the Russian sector. From the suburbs of Oberschöneweide, Trepow, Weisensee and elsewhere, tens of thousands of citizen reinforcements were marching towards the city.
From that morning onwards, somewhere between eight and ten thousand people, men and women, had set off from Heringsdorf. Neither the closed factory gates nor the sector borders were able to stop them from kicking over the traces and marching on the city. They crossed West Berlin to cheers from all the good folk who had covered upwards of twenty five kilometers on foot. The Walter Ulbricht Stadium was overrun by this column which then proceeded on its way, joining up with other demonstrators. The police and their batons were unable to stand up to the tide. For fear of being overwhelmed they repeatedly fired on the crowds whilst Russian tanks charged the crowd, forcing it to beat a hasty retreat.
With stones, scrap iron and wooden poles, they managed to do some damage to the tanks. But then, protected by other armoured vehicles, the People’s Police advanced, sure that these steel giants could protect them against the empty-handed demonstrators. Gunfire erupted in the Potsdammerplatz, followed by machine-gun fire. In next to no time, the square was emptied. In the early afternoon several wounded were taken by their comrades to West Berlin where they felt safer in the hospitals. The first reports of fatalities were coming in; the dead were carried away. Now the police were no longer hesitating: as if possessed by blind excitement they made micemeat of the demonstrators, using their guns, charging the crowds and all under the protection of the Russian armour. It is a miracle that not more lives were lost.
At 1.00 pm., the Russian military command imposed a state of siege. Gatherings of more than three people were banned. But groups of thousands were still hanging around in the streets. From their vehicles, SEP cadres used their revolvers on the populace. Throughout the city, the initiative lay now with the government forces who attacked and blocked the demonstrators. High-speed tanks and an entire Russian infantry division were now deployed. And above all, the numbers of wounded and dead were growing. Seventy of the most seriously injured were taken to West Berlin, six of them dying shortly after. Other injured and dead stayed there in East Berlin where no one was able to pick them up or count them. The Russians set up courts martial that handed down instant savage sentences on rioters and any who made common cause with them. By nightfall the uprising had been crushed by the armour and snuffed out in blood. Russian infantry camped out on the streets. That evening, the streets were deserted although sporadic shots and bursts of gunfire could be heard. The revolt of the exploited had been broken yet again.
At daybreak on 18 June, the checkpoints with West Berlin had been re-erected and were guarded by Russian tanks, infantry and Vopos. But there was no return to work. Every business remained closed. The urban railroad shut down, with no movement. In spite of martial law, the townsfolk were wandering around the streets and the roads were crowded again. They refused to believe that they had been beaten.
Meanwhile, the police were looking for the “ring-leaders of the revolt”. The SEP bigwigs, emerging from their burrows at last, set to work as informers and spies. The occasional gunshot could still be heard. It was announced that a West Berliner, workman Willi Goettling had been convicted by a cout martial as one of the ring-leaders and had been executed. But the “instigators” had not been on the rebels’ side.
This had been a spontaneous uprising by the workers and citizenry. Not an uprising planned or ordered by anybody. It is nonsense to try to ‘sell’ it as the handiwork of western agents. It was merely a backlash against provocation from the Ulbricht-Grotewohl government, agents dancing to Moscow’s tune. If ever one had to look for the agents provocateurs, one’s sights should be directed eastwards.
This document was drawn up by comrades living in the Russian sector in Berlin, eye-witnesses to and participants in the events in the Prussian capital on 16 and 17 June 1953.
Passed on to André Prunier [aka André Prudhommeaux] through comrade W. Fritzenkoetter … this version of the events highlights the spontaneous character of the revolt and at the same times does justice to the posturing of US politicians who purport to have inspired, if not quite organised it, and to the fear struck into the Bolshevik and Bolshevised rulers who detected the long arm of western provocateurs in the revolt.
From: From L'Adunata dei Refrattari [New York] 1 August 1953. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.