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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Communism and the German Democratic Republic

The situation in East Germany deteriorated even further in mid-May 1953 when the SED Politbüro, headed by Ulbricht, suddenly announced a 10-percent increase in the stringency of work quotas, effective on 1 June. Some industrial ministry officials and plant managers in the GDR used the SED’s announcement as an excuse to raise their own norms by as much as 60 percent. By mid-June1953, when the new quotas were implemented, another 65,000 people had left East Germany for the West, an average of more than 10,000 a week.

The group of leaders in Moscow who had come to power after Stalin’s death had quickly adopted major political and economic reforms in the USSR that did away with some of the worst features of Stalinist tyranny. They watched the situation in the GDR with growing alarm. By late May 1953 they were so worried that they ordered Ulbricht and a few other East German leaders to come to Moscow for secret talks. At those negotiations, held on 2-4 June, the Soviet authorities condemned the SED’s “false course” and warned that “a catastrophe will soon occur [in the GDR] if corrective measures are not implemented” as quickly as possible. They gave the East Germans a document outlining a reformist New Course for the GDR, and they ordered Ulbricht and the others to carry it out after they returned to East Berlin.

Faced with this ultimatum, the East German leaders had little choice but to reverse their earlier policies and to introduce sweeping reforms, if only grudgingly. On 11 June the main SED daily, Neues Deutschland, published a communiqué at the top of its front page pledging that the party would rectify the “grave mistakes” of recent years by adopting a liberal New Course that would abolish forced collectivization, shift emphasis from heavy industry to consumer production, safeguard private enterprise, encourage free political debate and participation, restore “bourgeois” instructors and students to the schools from which they had been expelled, guarantee freedom of religion, rehabilitate the victims of the Stalinist political trials, and reaffirm the “great goal of German unity.” This sudden announcement, after a year of unrelenting austerity and oppression in the GDR, came as a thunderbolt to the East German population.

The East German Rebellion, June 1953

Unrest in East Germany continued to mount in mid-June 1953 despite the SED’s proclamation of a New Course. Indeed, the announcement on 11 June, far from helping the situation, seemed only to make things worse. A secret report prepared by the SED Central Committee apparatus in July 1953 conceded that “when the communiqué was published, a large proportion of workers regarded it as a sign of weakness and even impotence on the part of the SED and the government.” Any benefits the East German authorities had hoped to gain from the announcement were nullified by their decision to retain the increased work norms.

Strikes and protests erupted in East Berlin on 15-16 June. Many of the demonstrators openly voiced political grievances and held banners aloft that denounced the government and the SED, called for free elections and the elimination of censorship, opposed the creation of an East German army, supported the formation of non-Communist parties, urged the adoption of a “genuinely democratic constitution,” and demanded that the East German population be treated as “free people, not slaves.”

When Ulbricht and his colleagues received news of the unrest, they initially were extremely reluctant to give in to the strikers’ demands. But under mounting pressure the SED Politbüro finally voted on the evening of 16 June to do away with the increased work quotas. Nonetheless, this gesture came much too late to have a positive effect. When the workers realized that they had won a major concession, it merely reinforced their sense of the regime’s growing vulnerability. The demands of the protesters escalated and became more overtly political. Many of the demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at the giant monument to Stalin in central Berlin and called for the East German government to resign.

Although most of the demonstrators eventually returned home on the evening of 16 June, they were determined to resume and expand their activities the following day. For the first time since 1945, East Germans were eager to vent long-standing grievances in public, blaming the SED for “turning us into slaves” and “keeping Germany divided” under Soviet domination. The sense of fear that had long deterred protests in the GDR was suddenly gone. Popular defiance rapidly increased, culminating in a full-scale rebellion on the 17th that spread to more than 450 cities and towns around the country. At least 600,000 people — roughly 10 percent of the adult population in East Germany — took a direct part in the uprising.

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[East] Germany
Location:  Central Europe
Capital:  [East] Berlin
Communist Rule:  1949-1990
Status:  03.10.90 - German reunification
Victims of Communism:
70 000