The Fiftieth Anniversary of the East German Uprisings

By Carrier, Peter | Contemporary Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the East German Uprisings


Carrier, Peter, Contemporary Review


IT is commonly believed that the economic miracle and Western integration of the Federal Republic of Germany in the post-war period served to divert attention from war crimes and from a deep sense of social disorientation. As Germany today battles with the most challenging economic and social upheaval in its short history, are there grounds for arguing that the absence of economic stability should ensure a sobering awareness of the facts and social consequences of its recent history? Since the end of the second (communist) dictatorship in East Germany, where the quest to establish a consensual image of national history is far from complete, this question is a core concern for the Republic.

During the summer months of 2003, political, academic and media institutions in Germany have been indulging in elaborate historical commemorations on a scale that rivals Britain's energetic heritage industry. Three documentary dramas have been broadcast by the main television channels, monuments were erected in Jena and Berlin, streets renamed, local associations organised public discussion groups, history departments, think tanks and academic foundations have hosted a series of conferences and exhibitions, and five books on the subject have been published by the Gauck Authority alone (a government-financed body appointed to administrate the information dossiers compiled by the East German secret police). The object of the German heritage industry is a revolt that took place on 17 June 1953 in East Germany. Even in Germany, few people under the age of thirty-five understand the significance of this date. Yet this year's commemorations will secure for 17 June 1953 a prominent place in the Cold War commemorative calendar alongside 'the Prague Spring' of 1968 and the uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956, as historic landmarks in the struggle for civil liberty.

Fifth years ago, during celebrations of the Karl Marx Year in East Germany and three months after Stalin's death, 300,000 construction workers from the monumental Stalinallee building site in East Berlin--the Politburo's architectural showcase of post-war socialist reconstruction--laid down their tools and marched in protest to the House of Ministries in the Leipziger Strasse, the seat of the communist government at that time. Their appeal to reverse the government's demand for a 10 per cent increase in production in the construction and industrial sectors without a corresponding wage increase soon evolved into calls to replace the party secretary Walter Ulbricht, introduce free elections, and bring down the government of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Protest demonstrations were registered in 560 towns throughout the German Democratic Republic. Soviet troops put down the uprising, leaving (according to official figures) 150 dead, and some 1400 protesters behind bars. The SED subsequently never regained the support of more than 40 per cent of the population, and dissenters continued to flee to the West.

Reactions in West Germany were at first hesitant, but then unambiguous. Within three days, the central Charlottenburger Chaussee in Berlin had been renamed '17 June Street' (Strasse des 17, Juni) as a memorial to the event. Two weeks later, parliament passed a law declaring 17 June as a national holiday, the 'Day of German Unity', which remained West Germany's lack-lustre version of France's Bastille celebrations until 1990. Each year on this day, British troops stationed at Smuts barracks in Spandau would polish their boots and join the Allied military parade on the 17 June Street. The entire military paraphernalia of the British, French and American troops, armoured vehicles, guns and black limousines filed solemnly down the avenue, the show culminating in ceremonial cannon fire within a hundred yards of the Wall. Memorial plaques were erected throughout the Federal Republic, streets and bridges were renamed. Clubs and associations observed a minute's silence, organised torch races, bus trips to historical sites, and distributed badges and commemorative coins. …

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