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Germany 1953 - "We are workers not slaves"

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Richard Brenner describes the events of June 1953 when the workers of East Germany launched a mass struggle that ended in a general strike and an uprising against the Stalinist bureaucracy

On June 1953 East Germany was hit by a revolutionary crisis with strikes, demonstrations, the creation of factory strike committees and a general strike. The workers’ struggle emerged suddenly from mounting discontent, sparked by the imposition of a general speed-up at work. The leadership of the ruling SED (the Stalinist Socialist Unity Party of Germany) had imposed a “voluntary” increase in work norms of 10%. So voluntary was the increase that workers failing to meet the new norms faced a pay cut of up to a third!

Opposition grew. Discontent gripped factories across Berlin, from machine plants in Lichtenberg through to the electronics and textile industries. At the Progress textile plant the workers passed a proclamation that they were not “voluntarily” agreeing to the new norms but rather they were being imposed on them.

Steelworkers in Fuerstenwalde and the Zwickau miners mounted serious opposition. The new norms also aroused fury from one of the most politically conscious sections of the German working class—workers on the major building sites of Berlin.

Builders on the Friedrichshain and Stalinallee projects included a high proportion of former members of the German Communist Party (KPD), many of whom were now rank and file members of the ruling SED. Unlike their party leaders, these were not corrupt Stalinist bureaucrats or functionaries, but militant workers who had been attracted to the banner of Communism and the October revolution in the 1920s and 1930s.

Far from being unthinking followers of the party line they had been pursuing a long, but so far unsuccessful, campaign against waste, bureaucratic work methods and political oppression. The new work norms came as a severe provocation.

On 8 June 1953 the workers on Block 40 of the Stalinallee sent a resolution to “their” government and “their” party calling for the withdrawal of the increase. They received no reply from their leaders Pieck and Grotewohl.

On 15 June a group of about 60 workers on the Friedrichshain hospital site stopped work and sent a resolution to Grotewohl demanding the scrapping of the norm increases. They also lambasted the government’s recent economic U-turn, which they insisted was treating private capitalists more favourably than the workers!

The next day, despite mounting pressure to scrap the norms, the official trade union newspaper Tribune ran an article vigorously defending them. On the same day two of the organisers of the partial strike at Friedrichshain were arrested by the “People’s Police”. The Friedrichshain workers immediately sent a delegation to the Stalinallee site. They agreed that unity was their best weapon against victimisation and repression and decided to march together on the government offices in protest.

The workers of the Stalinallee Block 40 and Friedrichshain projects toured other building sites where workers immediately downed tools and joined the march. Between 6,000 and 10,000 workers marched—past the locked offices of the trade union in Wallstrasse, and on to the seat of government.

Their ranks were swelled by other workers, housewives and youth from across Berlin. One observer was Robert Havemann. He later described in his book, The Alienated Man, how he was first alerted to the events by a strange noise coming from the direction of the Stalinallee:

“. . . this was not the noise of cranes or the screeching of building lifts, no sort of technical noise. It was human voices. I went to the window and saw how a small procession of building workers had formed behind a crudely painted banner on the square and had just begun to move. I read ‘Down with the 10 per cent rise in the norms!’ It was a moving sight, for the small procession grew in a moment into a huge demonstration.

They came running from all sides in their working clothes attracted like iron filings to a magnet . . . many young people who were not wearing working clothes were to be seen in it. They had enthusiastically joined the protest march. They shouted in chorus: ‘We are workers and not slaves! Put an end to the extortionist norms. We want free elections!’”

A vast crowd finally gathered in front of the House of Ministries, to be addressed by a succession of party representatives, but never by Pieck and Grotewohl themselves despite the clamour of the crowd. The only ministers to appear were Rau and Selbmann, the latter a former worker who retained a great deal of popular respect. They were dragged to one side by a worker who pressed the following demands on them:
• immediate reduction of the norms by 10%
• immediate price cut of 40% for essential goods
• sacking of functionaries who have made grave mistakes
• democratisation of the party and the unions from below
• the initiative for German reunification should not be left to the Bonn government, the GDR government should tear down existing barriers
• unite the country through free elections by secret ballot and fight to win a victory for the workers in the election.

The Secretary of the Berlin SED climbed onto the impromptu platform and announced the cancellation of the 10% rise in the norms. But it was too little, too late. Already the mass movement of workers had gone beyond economic demands to embrace calls for political change: free elections and national unity.

As the ministers attempted to disperse them workers chanted back at Rau and Selbmann, “we are the real communists, not you!” Finally one worker stood up and announced a general strike for the following day.

The SED leadership sent out agitators in loudspeaker vans to explain that the hated norms had been cancelled, and to convince the masses that there was no further cause for discontent. The vans were seized by angry workers and used to spread the strike call.

The call was answered. On 17 June 300,000 workers struck from all over the GDR, including metalworkers from Henningsdorf, employees of the Reichsbahn-Bau-Union, and workers from across the industrial heart of mid-Germany. In Berlin alone around 150,000 struck on the Underground railway, the trams, the rail, the building sites. Workers at Osram, Plania-Siemens and AEG at Treptow joined the action.

At a mass meeting on the morning of the 17th the slogans of the Berlin workers were even more radical than before. Calls were made for the overthrow of the government, and the replacement of the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Government” of the SED bureaucrats with a government really under the control of the workers.

Across the GDR the revolt was spreading, with workers sacking party offices, burning files, freeing political prisoners, occupying town halls and administrative buildings and even storming into police stations. In Halle and Erfurt there were bloody street battles with the police. Strikes and demonstrations in each case emanated from former centres of proletarian militancy during the revolutionary years after the First World War: Bitterfeld, Halle, Leipzig, Merseburg and Magdeburg. Strikes gripped the Neptun-Werft in Rostock, the Zeiss factories in Jena, Lowa in Goerlitz, the locomotive factories of Babelsberg and steelworks in Fuerstenwalde and Brandenburg. At Halle railway station a huge banner was hung up, visible to passengers on trains to and from the West:

“Räumt Euren Mist in Bonn jetzt aus,
In Pankow säubern wir das Haus!”
(Clear out the crap in Bonn, we are spring cleaning in Pankow!).

West German travellers on the Autobahn between Helmstedt and Magdeburg erected a poster showing SED General Secretary Walter Ulbricht with West German leader Adenauer. They were at the gallows, above a slogan reading: Unity is strength!

Contrary to western propaganda during and after the rising, this was not simply an amorphous “people’s revolt”, it was thoroughly working class. The backbone of the uprising were workers in heavy industry and raw materials production.

The calling of mass workplace meetings were the first steps towards independent workers’ organisations. They were often called using the official trade union structures, but went on to elect independent strike committees. In many cases the SED’s own workplace cells were dissolved and supplanted by the new forms of organisation. The strike committees removed the factory directors, secured the factories against sabotage and organised emergency services where necessary.

In the “Walter Ulbricht” Leuna works 20,000 workers demanded an end to the norm increases, removal of the works’ management, disarming of the SED’s factory militia, resignation of the government, and last but not least a name change for the factory! The factory committee organised its own radio station and sent 1,500 delegates to Berlin to agitate for spreading the general strike.

In the industrial triangle of Halle, Bitterfeld and Merseburg—the so-called “red heart of Germany”-— the most distinctively revolutionary organisation of the workers emerged. In Halle, all of the plant level strike leaderships assembled in the city centre and elected a committee which represented not only all of the main large factories but also students, white collar staff and shopkeepers. In Bitterfeld the central strike committee embraced students’ and housewives’ representatives.

In Merseburg the Buna and Leuna workers gathered in a public square to elect an inter-factory committee. In each of these towns the management of gas, electricity, radio and printing, public and emergency services were organised by the democratically elected workers’ organisations. Their tasks also included organising teams to clean the official SED slogans from the walls! In Bitterfeld the strike committee organised its own fighting detachments which secured the town centre. Local police units were neutralised and political prisoners released.

But what was missing throughout was the establishment of a national leadership, across the GDR, that could unite the workers’ committees into an alternative centre of power to the SED regime. Such an alternative leadership would have had to move swiftly to the overthrow of the government, the dismantling of its repressive apparatus and the establishment of the democratic rule of the workers. This would have meant an armed insurrection across the GDR.

What was also missing was a political party with the clear established goal of the political revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist regime. A revolutionary party would have championed the democratic aspirations of the workers, directing them against the entire bureaucracy, promoting working class democratic forms of organisation and the overthrow of the regime at the hands of democratic workers’ councils.

It would have been able to advance by example the need for an elected national leadership for the rising, the formation of full-blown workers’ councils from the strike committees and for an armed insurrection. It could have directed the movement towards a political revolution—the overthrow of the bureaucracy, the seizure of the planning apparatus and placing it under the control of the workers. But circumstances did not allow time for the creation of such a party.

On the 17 June over 25,000 Soviet troops and hundreds of tanks moved into Berlin and martial law was declared. With makeshift weapons the workers resisted, but the odds were stacked against them. The core of the resistance was crushed by brute force: scores were shot on the streets, six strikers were executed, four imprisoned for life and tens of thousands arrested and tried.

Discontent continued for weeks, with the Leuna workers being addressed by Ulbricht on 24 June at a meeting at which only 1,300 were present out of a workforce of 28,000! Not even half of the SED members in the plant could bring themselves to attend the meeting. Half of the strikers were still out on the 18th, and in militant workplaces like the Kablewerke in Köpenick and Block 40 on the Stalinallee, the strike went on until the 21st.

But the rising itself had been crushed, and for the time being the SED’s dictatorship over the working class was secured. The battle was over: but the deep social contradictions that gave rise to it were not. They were to continue and deepen, finally leading to the destruction of Stalinism and the GDR itself in the events of 1989.