"I am quite certain that future historians, in their
analysis of the causes which will have brought about the
disintegration of the Communist Empire, will single out
those brave East Germans who dared to rise against the
cannons of tyranny with nothing but their bare hands
and their stout hearts, as a root cause."
Dwight D. Eisenhower to Konrad Adenauer
20 July 1953
For President Eisenhower, as for many of his contemporaries in East and West, the widespread rebellion against the oppressive Communist government in East Germany in the summer of 1953, suppressed only by a Soviet military crackdown, was a pivotal moment in the Cold War. Did it mark the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire? Was it the dawn of the post-Cold War world? The spontaneous revolt of workers, farmers, and youth against a tyrannical regime was the first major uprising within the Soviet empire since the Kronstadt unrest in 1921. It demonstrated to the world that the "captive peoples" of the Soviet bloc could and would oppose Stalinist rule when the opportunity arose—and that the Moscow-backed regimes could be upheld only by military force. The "proletariat" had risen against the "dictatorship of the proletariat;" workers and peasants were throwing stones at the organs of a state that had been proclaimed in their name. Politically, ideologically and diplomatically, East Germans had dealt their Communist rulers—and their Soviet masters—a heavy, almost mortal blow.
Before long, the events of 1953 would become part of the propaganda, legends, and identity of both sides of the Cold War in Germany In the GDR, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) quickly charged that the uprising had been a "fascist provocation" hatched by American and West German "imperialist agents." Historical research into the deeper causes of the crisis remained a taboo in East Germany where history was used in the service of legitimizing the regime. While in the years after SED leader Walter Ulbricht's death in 1973, and increasingly in the 1980s, some East German historians tried to give a more differentiated, less grossly distorted picture of what had happened, the idea that "Day X" had been a U.S.-instigated plot remained predominant. Some Soviet and SED officials stubbornly adhere
Draft letter from the President to Chancellor Adenauer, 20 July 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (Abilene,
Kans.), CD. Jackson Records, Box 3; New York Times, 26 July 1953.
See Use Spittmann, "Der 17. Juni im Wandel der Legenden," in 17. Juni—Arbeiteraufstand in der DDR, ed.
Ilse Spittmann and Karl-Wilhelm Frickc (Köln: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1988), pp. 121–132; Dietmar
Schiller, "Politische Gedenktage in Deutschland: Zum Verhältniss von öffentlicher Erinnerung und politischer
Kultur," Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B25/93 (June 1993), pp. 32–39.
llko-Sascha Kowalczuk, "Die Historiker der DDR und der 17. Juni 1953," Geschichte in Wissenschaft und
Unterricht 44 (1993), pp. 704–724; llko-Sascha Kowalczuk, Legitimation eines neuen Staates. Parteiarbeiter an
der historischen Front: Geschichtswissenschaft in der SBZ/DDR 1945 bis 1961 (Berlin: Links, 1997).