... by Ernie Trory

Chapter Twelve - A Counter-revolutionary plot

Counter-revolution in 1953

IN ORDER FULLY TO UNDERSTAND the events of the 16th and 17th June 1953, it is necessary to go back to the 14th May. On that day, with the object of increasing production, the Central Committee of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) recommended to the government of the GDR that it should review the level of work quotas and raise "those of crucial importance to production by an average of at least ten per cent by the 1st June 1953." This line is said to have been taken in the face of advice from Moscow where, in the aftermath of the death of Stalin (5th March 1953), the new Soviet leaders had recommended some alleviation in the severe conditions that had been imposed on the people in an effort to build up heavy industry.

In spite of this, the Council of Ministers of the GDR, meeting on the 28th May, accepted the recommendation of the Central Committee of the SED and ordered a general minimum increase in work quotas of 10 per cent. On the same day, the Soviet government, in pursuance of its new policy, dissolved the Soviet Control Commission in Berlin and appointed Vladimir Semyonov (formerly political adviser to the Commissioner) to the post of High Commissar. Semyonov, who had been recalled to Moscow for consultations on the 21st April, returned to East Berlin on the 5th June.

On the 9th June, the Political Bureau of the SED, which had been in permanent session ever since the return of Semyonov, recommended that the government of the GDR should implement a series of measures designed to improve the standard of living of all sections of the population and to strengthen the legal rights of individual citizens, including independent farmers, small private businessmen, craftsmen and intellectuals. It recommended that all those who had left the country and now wished to return should be encouraged to do so. It also recommended that increases in certain food prices introduced in the previous April should be withdrawn, and that there should be a 50 per cent reduction in workmen's fares. On the 11th June, the Council of Ministers of the GDR approved these measures.

There was some doubt as to whether or not the new work quotas were to be withdrawn, and on the 14th June, the methods used for establishing them were severely criticised in an article in Neues Deutschland. When, from an article in Die Tribune, published on the 16th June, it appeared that the higher quotas called for by the SED were to be retained, there were demonstrations by construction workers in East Berlin. On the same day, the Political Bureau of the SED issued the following statement:
"If we are to build a new life and improve the living conditions, not only of the workers, but of the whole population, we can only do so on the basis of higher productivity and increased production. The revival and speedy development of the economy of the German Democratic Republic after the war was made possible only by the realisation of our old slogan: 'Produce more - Live better.' This was and is the only proper course. For this reason the Politburo regards the initiative shown by the more progressive workers, who have voluntarily gone over to higher quotas, as an important step towards the building of a new life and one which demonstrates to the whole population the way out of our present difficulties. In this connection, the Politburo considers that one of the most important tasks facing works managements and the party and trade union organisations is to take any measures needed to improve work organisation and increase production, thus ensuring that the wages of those workers who have raised their quotas can be increased in the near future.

"The Politburo nonetheless considers it quite wrong to effect a ten per cent increase in work quotas in the public sector by administrative order. The raising of work quotas cannot and must not be implemented by administrative methods but only on the basis of conviction and voluntary co-operation. It is recommended that the mandatory increase in work quotas ordered by individual ministries should be withdrawn. The government resolution of the 28th May 1953 ahould be examined in conjunction with the trade unions.

"The Politburo calls on the workers to gather around the party and the government and to unmask the hostile agents provocateurs who are trying to sow discord and confusion in the ranks of the working class."

In order to relay news of the withdrawal of the mandatory quotas to the people, the government sent out loudspeaker vans. In the Stalin-Allee they met demonstrations of construction workers carrying banners demanding the withdrawal of the new quotas. In the confusion, one of the vans was seized by provocateurs, who had mingled with the demonstrators, and used to proclaim a general strike.

That evening, the Minister for All-German Affairs in the Federal Republic, Jakob Kaiser, broadcast an appeal to the demonstrators in East Berlin "not to allow themselves to be rushed, either by their own distress or by acts of provocation, into rash actions."

Nevertheless, he was at pains to point out that "everybody in the Federal Republic and in the whole of the free world feels a sense of solidarity with you." Backing up this broadcast, Ernst Scharnowski, President of the West Berlin branch of the Federation of German Trade Unions, also came to the microphone to declare:
"For months now, the Federation of German Trade Unions has been anxiously watching the retrograde social development taking place in your zone. The democratic actions that you have taken in your own defence, which are the birthright of every oppressed person and which were inspired by spontaneous and completely genuine feelings on your part, have led to events, whose scope and force have amazed us in West Berlin ...Your demand for a reduction of the work quotas to a tolerable level must be accepted by your so-called government."

The irony of the situation was that the mandatory increases in work quotas had already been withdrawn. Whether Scharnowski knew about this or not, he was certainly determined to extract the utmost from the confusion. "Join the movement of the East Berlin construction workers, transport workers and railwaymen and assemble on your own Strausberger Platz," he urged. "The greater the number taking part, the more powerful, disciplined and successful the demonstrations will be."

On the following day (17th June), egged on by provocateurs and agents from the Federal Republic, construction workers in East Berlin began to gather on the Strausberger Platz. They were joined by thousands of West Berliners who were sent across the zonal frontiers to foment riots in an attempt to turn the stoppage of work into a large-scale anti-government demonstration. Taking advantage of the recent relaxation of travel restrictions between East and West Berlin, introduced by the government of the GDR, they poured into East Berlin, smashing windows, burning kiosks and shouting threats.

By mid-day, the situation had become so serious that the Soviet Command in East Berlin was forced to announce that it had declared martial law, and that it had imposed a curfew between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. All demonstrations and meetings were banned. By now, strike action had been taken in no fewer than 272 towns in the GDR, involving some 300,000 workers. During the afternoon, uncontrollable crowds of demonstrators, including thousands of agents and provocateurs from the West, found their way into prisons, releasing criminals who roamed the streets and looted the shops.

After the state of emergency had been declared, the Soviet troops acted with great restraint. Where Soviet tanks were used to break up demonstrations, they advanced very slowly, allowing the demonstrators plenty of time to get away. When they did open fire, they fired into the air. Twenty-one people were killed on the 17th June in all parts of the GDR, but this was a small number in view of the massive provocation organised by terrorists from the Western zones. Through-out the day, the West German News Agency did its best to create tension in Berlin by circulating stories of "thousands of workers marching on Berlin" and of German workers being killed by Soviet troops.

During the disturbances, the Premier of the GDR, Otto Grotewohl, declared that the provocative actions fomented by Adenauer's government were intended to make the re-unification of Germany more difficult. He pointed out that the reason for the East Berlin building workers' strike had been removed by the government undertaking to cancel the order that work quotas had to be increased by 10 per cent.

Of the 30,000 reported by Western news agencies to have been demonstrating in East Berlin, it was admitted that at least 15,000 had come from West Berlin.

The radio in East Berlin announced that the police had discovered among the rioters a number of members of the so-called "German Youth" (a West German pro-fascist organisation) who had planned to carry out attacks on vital supply centres in East Berlin. At the end of the day, Dr. Konrad Adenauer spoke to the German Federal Parliament, stating:
"The Federal government sympathises with the men and women in Berlin who are now demanding - freedom from oppression and hardship. We assure them of our heartfelt concern."

On the other hand, the leader of the German Communist Party, Max Reimann, at a press conference in Bonn, charged the West German Minister, Jakob Kaiser, with responsibility for the East Berlin disturbances.

On the following day (18th June), the Daily Worker summed up the situation in its editorial as follows:
"There are certain basic facts to be remembered in estimating the news from East Berlin today. The first is that the news as it comes to this country is strongly influenced by tainted West German sources, hostile to the German Democratic Republic and to the cause of German unity, for which it stands. Most of the stories which appear are based on hearsay. The correspondents connected with the Western press agencies do not claim to have seen many of the incidents they are describing. They are relying on hearsay reports. Secondly, it is in the interests of the West German capitalists, America's most reliable stooges, to create difficulties in the way of a Big Four meeting on the future of Germany. If they can provoke clashes even on the smallest scale with the Soviet troops, they believe that it will be possible to postpone the Four Power discussions for a period."

One of the most disgusting incidents of the day was the kidnapping of Otto Nuschke, 70-year-old Chairman of the Christian Democratic Union in the GDR and Deputy Premier. His car was seized by a crowd of excited West Berliners who dragged it into their own sector and beat him. When he asked the West Berlin police to help him return to East Berlin, they subjected him to interrogation and turned him over to the American authorities for further questioning. Protesting at his abduction, the Christian Democratic Union demanded his release and safe return but this was not done until the following day. On the 19th June, the Daily Worker carried the following report:

"A first list of those arrested in Berlin for attacks on police and people, arson and looting showed that most of them came from West Berlin. Reports from Berlin showed that West Berlin police had taken an active part in provoking the disorders, for out of the 16 people claimed by the West Berlin Red Cross to have been killed, five were said to have been West Berlin policemen. The Socialist Unity Party paper, Neues Deutschland, also disclosed that uniformed American officers encouraged the rioters, while US radio cars guided groups of rioters from West Berlin, and US air-craft dropped instruction leaflets ...

"The government declared that the riots were prepared on the basis of a plan drafted in West Berlin for this purpose. East Berlin s plants were at work normally yesterday, and at one factory, workers discovered and arrested ten people whom they had found on the premises and none of whom belonged to the factory staff."

On the 20th June, the Daily Worker reported that President Eisenhower and Dr. Adenauer had joined hands to initiate two provocative moves in an attempt to start further disorders in Berlin. From Washington, Eisenhower had announced that the US government was granting another 50 million dollars to be earmarked for "aid to West Berlin," while in Bonn, Adenauer had rushed through a measure in the West German Parliament doubling the size of the West German armed "border police," many of whom had been prominent in fomenting the recent troubles in East Berlin.

At its session on the 21st June 1953, the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party took stock of the situation in the German Democratic Republic and issued a statement "On the Present Position of the Party and the Tasks Facing It in the Immediate Future." Dealing first with the international background to the events that had taken place in the GDR, the statement noted:

"In Korea an armistice is imminent. In Italy the people have won a great victory over the forces of reaction. In England and France the opposition to government support for America's war policies is growing. In West Germany the patriotic movement for the re-unification of Germany is also growing. Thanks to the initiative of the world peace camp a world-wide popular movement for the solution of all matters of dispute by peaceful negotiations has now been launched ...As a result the American and German warmongers find themselves in a difficult position. They now see their plans breaking down. The third world war, which they wanted to unleash as soon as possible,is receding into the distance."

The statement then goes on to pose the question: "Why did the warmongers choose this particular time to offer their fascist provocation to the German Democratic Republic?" Drawing attention to the new measures introduced on the 11th June, designed to bring about a marked improvement in the living conditions of the workers, the statement continued:

"The party and the government had started to correct the political line previously pursued by the German Democratic Republic because it had not led to a speedy improvement in the standard of living of the population ...and was not conducive to the all-German struggle for unity and peace. When the Politburo reviewed the general situation, the old line, which had been thought to be correct, appeared in a new light. In its capacity as the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist party, the Politburo made its findings known in an official announcement, drew attention to the errors committed in the course of the past year and recommended to the government a number of measures designed to correct those errors. It then began to work out an overall plan for improving the standard of living of the workers prior to submitting it to the Central Committee for its approval. And at that very moment, the Western agencies decided to mount their D-day in order to frustrate this initiative for improving living conditions in the German Democratic Republic."

On the subject of preparations for an uprising in the GDR, the statement went on to say:
"In West Germany there were, and still are, American agencies evolving contingency plans for war and civil war on orders from Washington. In West Germany and West Berlin, Adenauer, Ollenhauer, Kaiser and Reuter supervised the immediate preparations for D-day. Thus, in Jakob Kaiser's ministry a special section was set up to organise acts of sabotage and civil strife. This section, which was camouflaged as a 'research advisory body,' received millions of marks from the secret funds of German and foreign imperialists. In West Berlin, Kaiser and Reuter systematically recruited, trained and armed war criminals, militarists and criminal elements for service in terror organisations. Traditional fascist murder techniques were supplemented by American gangster methods."

The statement described in some detail how the campaign against the GDR was launched, but "thanks to the timely intervention of broad sections of the population,"the support of the People's Police, and "the intervention of the Soviet army of occupation, which
declared a state of emergency, "the attack" collapsed ignominiously within twenty-four hours."

On the aftermath of the attack, the statement con-tinued as follows:
"All is quiet in the republic. The country is working normally. A large number of agents provocateurs have been arrested. The rest have been forced to lie low. But there is no guarantee that these peaceful conditions will prevail. The enemy is still trying to stir up trouble. The sorties flown by foreign aircraft during the past few days over Thuringia, Sachsen-Anhapt and other districts are continuing and bandits armed with weapons and radio transmitters are still being parachuted into the republic. Lorries loaded with weapons for other groups, who have yet to be discovered, have been stopped on the Leipzig-Berlin autobahn. Our enemies have gone over to large-scale sabotage. With the active participation of Adenauer, Ollenhauer, Kaiser and Reuter, who have taken personal charge of these subversive groups, the RIAS radio station is working round the clock, transmitting inflammatory broadcasts in a desperate attempt to put new life into this bankrupt venture."

Dealing with the question of immediate tasks, the statement called upon all party members and functionaries to "distinguish most carefully between the honest workers ...who listened to the blandishments of the agents provocateurs, and the agents themselves." It also called upon "functionaries in all grades" to visit the factories and workshops and to convene meetings for the purpose of answering questions "put by the workers and employees openly and directly." It stated: "Our project will have succeeded if the workers resolve, from a sense of inner conviction, to support the new political line put forward by the party and the government and acknowledge the need actively to oppose all agents provocateurs, whether disguised or undisguised."

The steps taken by the Socialist Unity Party and by the government of the GDR to correct their mistakes and to discuss the situation frankly with the workers in the factories and workshops strengthened the resolve of the people to defeat the aggressive forces of German imperialism. The counter-revolutionary putsch launched from West Berlin collapsed and the GDR redoubled its efforts to achieve detente. Predictably, all its proposals for safeguarding European security were rejected by the Bonn government. These ranged from treaties on the renunciation of the use of force to a non-aggression pact between the two German states.

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