From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.2, March-April 1953, pp.61-64.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
We wish here to set forth, without attempting any elaborate descriptions, some of the principal features of the momentous East German events of June 16-17. It is from these characteristics, we believe, that can be discerned some of the reasons for the deep and continuing effects of these events on the USSR and all of Eastern Europe; and some vision can be gained of what is ahead in the coining struggle against Stalinist rule throughout the Soviet bloc.
There had been considerable haziness, and not a few illusions among the imperialists, as to the form and aims a movement of opposition to the Stalinist clique would take. The general hostility among the East German masses was well-known. It had been kindled by a ruthless regime employing the most brutal methods. There was hatred for the Soviet occupation, for heavy reparations and the dismantling of factories whose equipment was shipped to the USSR, for the amputation of national territory at the Oder-Neisse line in the interests of Poland, for the forcible eviction of millions of peoples from their homes to make way for Polish resettlement.
On the other hand, it was clear that the regime was exhausting its credit among those sections of the population which had profited from the social transformations carried through in Eastern Germany.
The hated Junker had been driven from his estates, and the land was divided among the peasantry. But the popularity thus gained was being undone by a program of forced collectivization, by exorbitant demands for crop deliveries to the state, by the shortage of consumer goods created by the diversion of industry to heavy goods and war production.
The youth had benefitted most from the elimination of the caste of Prussian officials, creating innumerable openings for them in the government, judiciary, etc., and by the creation of unprecedented opportunities in technical training and higher education. This capital was being exhausted by the arbitrary methods of the police regime and the low standard of living.
The factories had been nationalized, and in the changeover from private ownership a considerable number of workers had been drawn from the ranks into the echelons of plant managements, technicians, foremen, etc. But this was more than counteracted by the harsh, bureaucratic regime in the factories, by the constant war against any independence for the unions, by the speedup and the shortage of foodstuffs and consumer goods which had become aggravated in the last few months as a result of the acceleration of the heavy industry program.
Regardless of the accuracy of their political reasoning, it is therefore entirely understandable why there should have been so much speculation – and hope – in imperialist circles that the movement in Eastern Germany, when it arose, would be predominantly nationalist, pro-capitalist, anti-Soviet and probably guided by middle class elements.
But their illusions were to be completed shattered. The movement of June 16-17 was overwhelmingly working class in nature and took the classic forms of strike actions and demonstrations. Capitalist correspondents have admitted there was no sign of pro-Bonn pro-Western sympathy. Even the slogan for German unification and free elections was not accompanied by the demand for a return of eastern territories which, however justified, might have indicated a pro-Western nationalist trend. In some cases, Walter Sullivan, N.Y. Times correspondent writes, workers making the demand for “free elections,” have “only the reconstitution of the East German government in mind.” There was no demand for any change in the forms of property ownership, or anything which could have been construed as a desire for a return to capitalism.
The first reactions of the Stalinists on the one side and the imperialists on the other constitutes a revealing admission as to their real conception of the character of the movement.
On the heels of the demonstrations and strikes, when the regime attempted to assuage the movement by substantial concessions, Grotewohl, Ebert, Mayor of East Berlin, and others freely admitted that whole provocateurs might have been involved, the action was caused by justified grievances. A good part of their “self-criticism” and admission of “errors” was that they had been blind to this dissatisfaction.
“We too are responsible for the situation in East Germany – not only Western provocateurs,” Premier Grotewohl told the workers at the Karl Liebknecht plant on June 23. “The arsonists could not have had such success had there not been seeds of discontent among the people.”
Ditto Friedrich Ebert speaking to 800 miners at Gera: “One cannot only speak of agents and provocateurs; one must not forget that our people had good ground for dissatisfaction and distrust.”
The best picture of the character and demands of the movement is given by Pierre Gousset writing from Berlin to the Paris neutralist weekly, Observateur. On the morning of June 16, 6,000 workers downed tools on the Stalinallee construction project in a spontaneous demonstration to demand the revocation of the 10% increase in production norms and marched to the seat of the government demanding an audience with Grotewohl and Ulbricht. Minister of Mines Selbmann came out in their place. Selbmann, who is described as having the appearance and mannerisms of a worker got up on a table to harangue the crowd:
“I voted against the increase of (production) norms at the May 28th session of the Council of Ministers. The increase has not been introduced in my department. I will insist that the government revoke the measures which were incorrectly adopted at that session. Go back to work calmly and put your trust in me.”
But the workers interrupted him:
“We no longer have confidence in you. We want guarantees.”
The dialogue continued as follows:
– But I. I have myself been a worker for a long time.
– You have forgotten that. You are no longer our comrade.
– How could I forget it, I a communist worker, and for so long a time?
– We are the real communists, not you.
Selbman was left speechless. An unknown construction worker forced him off the table and got up in his place and delivered a calm and dignified speech in the opinion of witnesses I questioned, and formulated the demands of the workers in four points:
- Immediate revocation of the 10% increase in working norms.
- Immediate reduction by 40% of food-stuffs and of primary consumer goods in state stores.
- Leaders who committed serious errors should be dismissed; the party and the unions must be democratized.
- We must not wait for the Bonn government to take the initiative for the real reunification of Germany. The East German government should start immediately by eliminating all barriers separating the two Germanies. The country must be unified by secret, general and free elections and a workers’ victory must be won in these elections.
The worker ended his speech by stating that Selbmann’s attitude proved that he is incapable of granting the workers’ demands and that if Grotewohl and Ulbricht refuse to face the workers, a general strike should be called in all Berlin to support these demands. With that, the demonstration ended.
Gousset also reports that on the following day at a monster mass meeting held at the Walter Ulbricht stadium and attended by thousands of metal workers from the Hennigsdorf steel mills, speakers demanded the resignation of the government, some of them calling for its replacement by a “metal workers’ government.” According to Gousset’s report again, there was not a single word sajd at the meeting favorable to the Bonn regime.
Subsequently, and in accordance with the Moscow line, the German Stalinist regime has been denouncing the June events as the work of “fascist provocateurs in the pay of western imperialism.” The charge would not be worth discussing were it not that it contained a grain of truth – but no more than a grain. It is true that on the second day of the action, a considerable mass of people poured over from western Berlin to join the demonstration. Among them were unemployed and lumpenproletarian elements and fascist types belonging to a fascist youth organization. Responsible observers agree that the burning of buildings and red flags, the breaking of store windows and looting, and other violent and provocative acts was primarily their doing.
But these were merely incidents, discordant notes out of keeping with the main tenor of the action which from beginning to end was an attempt by the workers to gain satisfaction for their grievances and secure greater democratic rights. This is indicated by the extension of the strike movement, in no less vigorous character, to other East German cities where “imperialist provocateurs” would hardly have had the time to penetrate. It is further indicated by the continuing nature of the action: first in the slowdowns or threatened slowdowns to force the release of arrested leaders; and second, in the demand for free elections to a new convention of East German unions.
The reaction in imperialist circles is equally significant. Instead of springing to action, the Adenauer government was paralyzed by the events. It become more hostile than ever to any real effort for German reunification. The State Department far from launching a military or diplomatic offensive, has confined itself to a few declarations of sympathy, charity, and support – for the Bonn Government. At best it saw in the events the possibilities of slowing down the Soviet “peace” drive, of putting a little new cement into the rickety structure of its western alliance, and of giving the coup de grace to Churchill’s project for a top level parley with Moscow. Essentially it viewed the East German developments, while trying to draw the maximum advantage from them, with distrust and suspicion. The New York Times summed it up best in its editorial statement that “Such regimes can only be destroyed by conquest from the outside, as the German, Italian and Japanese governments were in the Second World War, or by ‘palace revolutions’ which may or may not pave the way for democracy.” Imperialism needs Sygman Rhees and Chiang-Kai-sheks for its wars against workers’ states, and despite the occasional provocateur there was not a glimmer of their existence in Eastern Germany. It cannot find any real contact with an anti-capitalist workers’ movement in opposition to Stalinist rule which by its very nature is irreconcilable with imperialism. (It is not surprising that the American radio RIAS, in West Berlin did not broadcast the general strike call during the evening of June 16.)
One final word on the character of the June events. There is absolutely no evidence to indicate any prior planning or political organization, except of an elementary type. Many observers, seizing on this or that incident, have been led astray on this point by their failure to understand the highly developed sense of organization and discipline traditional among German workers. It was this that manifested itself in the June days and afterwards and not allegiance or adherence to any old or new political party.
Walter Lippman, unable to find any western sentiment in the movement, stated that most of the workers were Social Democratic trade unionists. Undoubtly if there is some truth in this estimate it consists in this: that as of today the East German workers would probably vote overwhelmingly social democratic in the (improbable) event of all-German elections. It would be their way of expressing their desire for a unification of the German labor movement and for the unification of Germany on a working class basis. It is not unlikely also that the most radical wing of the united socialist movement would also come from among the East German workers because of their experiences with socialist property forms and organization on the one hand and with fighting bureaucratism on the other.
But all this is still music of the future. Meanwhile it is clear that, imbued with renewed confidence from their massive June actions, the elementary movement is rising to a higher level. The isolated factory group is finding links with others in the same city and in other cities. This is apparent in the unification of demands after the demonstration, as for example the freeing of all arrested strike leaders and free union elections. Most important is the fact that the epoch of fear and passivity has come to an end. The workers have tested their own strength, they have seen the glaring weakness of the regime, the conviction is gaining ground that they can be master in the house. Thus is the next stage of the struggle being prepared.
* * *
It is deeply significant that the demand for the withdrawal of the Russian troops or the ending of the Russian occupation was absent from the June events. Except for unconfirmed reports in the sensational press here that someone shouted “Ivan Go Home!” there is no linking of any such demand being raised in any of the dispatches of more responsible journalists in the European and American press which I have carefully checked. This was not a sign that the East German population wanted a continuation of the occupation, or that there was any sympathy for the Kremlin overlords. No, is was rather a shrewdly calculated popular maneuver, instinctively arrived at, to exploit the seeming differences between the Kremlin and its German puppet: rulers, and not to fight on too many fronts at the same time. The period preceding the June events was filled with many changes and even more rumors. The civilian Semionov replaced General Chuikov as head of the occupation command, a change which appeared to parallel those occurring in Moscow since Stalin’s death. Then on June 9th came the proclamation of the “new course,” that is, of a softer and more liberal policy to the peasantry, the middle class and the church. The air was filled with “self-criticism” although only a few weeks before Ulbricht and his cohorts were barking out their commands that the building of socialism had “to be speeded up” regardless of sacrifices. Ulbricht, it was believed, was on the skids.
”The feeling,” says Pierre Gousset, “was getting around that the Soviet authorities were ‘scuttling’ the SED (the Stalinist Party – GC). This was the central theme of West Berlin propaganda in the newspapers and on the radio. The June 16th events strengthened this impression Thus the psychological conditions were created for the explosion on the 17th.”
So strong was this impression that Georges Blun, bitterly anti-communist Berlin correspondent of the Swiss Journal de Geneve opined that the June 16th building workers demonstration, which had occurred without the slightest interference from the police or Soviet troops, was “teleguided and desired” by the Russian command. His unsubstantiated conclusions notwithstanding, it was the fact of non-intervention that was carefully assimilated by the workers.
This was reinforced the following morning when the workers pouring out of the big locomotive workers and electrical equipment plants in the Hennigsdorf suburb started to march into central Berlin. To avoid walking an extra 15 kilometers they crossed directly through the French sector. Blun describes the scene when they came to the border line of the Soviet zone:
“Between Hennigsdorf and the French zone, 50 armed Russian soldiers tried to stop their advance but they had to yield and to lower their guns which had been raised to firing position. The women (demonstrators) cheered them, kissed them and showered them with flowers as though they were a victorious army returning from the wars.”
The same pattern was continued with some variations when the street battles began later in the afternoon. Pierre Gousset says that he heard “only praise for the exceptional discipline and restraint of the Soviet soldiers. Inflamed youth clambered onto the tanks and thrust sticks into the mouths of the guns. But not a shot was fired by the Soviet soldiers.”
This report is confirmed from a number of politically divergent sources.
Two young German workers, participants in the June events, openly pro-Western in their sympathies, who addressed the Congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions at Stockholm, and were interviewed by Newsweek (July 20, 1953):
“The language barrier,” they said, “made it almost impossible for us to communicate with the Russian soldiers. But we could see they were puzzled by the riots of workers against a ‘workers’ government.’ The Russian officers in the tanks waved at us cheerfully at first. (There is a photograph in Newsweek showing just such a scene – GC). But when the stones started to fly they ducked into their turrets and began breaking up the crowds.”
Finally, there is Cesar Santelli writing in the Paris daily, Le Monde:
”What has not been underlined in my opinion, according to evidence gathered from non-suspect Germans, is that the injured were much less the victims of Russians guns (most of which, I am assured were fired into the air) than of blackjacks, revolvers or machine guns wielded by fanatical young party functionaries or by certain elements of the Volkspolizei who were trying to save their own skins (many of them later ditched their uniforms and guns and went over to the other side of the barricades).”
What is remarkable about all these accounts is that they reveal that despite the pitched encounters which finally occurred with Soviet troops, despite the hostility thus aroused, the main aim of the demonstration remained unchanged. It was directed at the overthrow of the East German government, for democratic rights, and was not extended for the present to include direct opposition to the Russian occupation.
This will surely come at a later stage. But for the present, what was revealed was one of the stages of the political revolution when the workers ingeniously contrive to exploit the rifts among the various strata of the bureaucracy, and to limit their struggle and objectives to what is possible at the moment so as to raise their movement in a better position for the coming struggles.
Last updated on: 29 March 2009