Review: The East German Rising – 17th June 1953, by Stefan Brant (K. Harpprecht)

Barely eight years after the end of the Second World War, and with much of Berlin in ruins, workers in the Soviet Zone launched an extraordinary uprising. The trigger was an increase in the demands for productivity — what might today be called “speed-up” — by the ruling Communist Party. What had initially begun as an industrial action, which was itself unusual in a totalitarian state, quickly evolved into a revolution with demands that the government resign, the freeing of political prisoners, free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. What started as a walk-out by construction workers in East Berlin quickly spread across all of East Germany.

Though initially quite successful — panicked Communist officials fled their offices, which were ransacked by angry protestors, and jails were successfully opened to release prisoners — the uprising lasted for barely a day. What the local Communists could not do on their own they were able to do with Soviet help. Soviet troops and tanks which had so recently liberated Germany from the nightmare of Nazi rule were used to impose a new totalitarian regime which remained in place for another 36 years.

A foreword to the book by John Hynd, a British Labour M.P., referred to the revolt as a “quite unprecedented rising of the working people and peasants of a totalitarian country against their oppressors”. He neglected to mention the August 1924 uprising in Georgia, led by the Social Democratic Party, which lasted longer than the East German revolt and had many more victims.

The common thread uniting the two revolts was the character of Lavrentiy Beria. In 1953, Beria became one of the Soviet Union’s top leaders following the death of Stalin. He pursued a reformist policy in East Germany, which helped prepare the ground for the uprising. Three decades earlier, as a young and ambitious Chekist in Georgia, he spearheaded the bloody suppression of the revolt.