The weather broke bright and clear in Berlin on June 17, 1953. Nevertheless, many Berliners stepped into the sunshine with trepidation, not sure what the morning would bring. The previous day, East Berlin had witnessed its first major mass strikes since the war. Emboldened by the announcement of the New Course, cheered on by Stalin’s death, frustrated by the fact that the new policies didn’t seem to include lower work quotas, Berlin’s workers had taken to the streets to protest. Lutz Rackow, an East German journalist, had walked down Stalinallee on June 16 alongside several thousand construction workers. They carried banners—“Berliners, join us! We don’t want to be slaves to our work!” Few had dared. But as soon as he got to Stalinallee on June 17, Rackow immediately saw that things were going to be different: “This time people were joining. Not only that, workers were coming into the city from as far as Henningsdorf to join, even though public transportation had been halted and the walk took three hours.”
Erich Loest, the novelist who had tried to teach workers to write theater reviews, was on his way into the city that morning from Leipzig and he saw strikers too. But he also saw Soviet tanks and trucks moving north from bases near Schonefeld and Ahlsdorf. They were heading for the center of Berlin at about the same speed as his train. On another train from Leipzig—or perhaps even the same one—the writer Elfriede Brüning saw the same tanks. She was sitting with a colleague, who read aloud a newspaper headline: “Tumult in Bonn,” it declared. Her friend laughed, and made a daring joke: “How is it that the government has heard only about the tumult in Bonn and not the uprising in Berlin!”
On the Western side of the city, Egon Bahr, then the chief political editor in West Berlin for RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), was anxiously waiting to hear what was happening. A couple of days earlier, a delegation from East Berlin had come to his office to ask him to publicize their planned strike. He had agreed to broadcast the strikers’ demands—they wanted lower work quotas, lower food prices, and free elections, among other things—and he had continued to do so until the radio’s American controller, Gordon Ewing, burst into his office and told him to stop: “Do you want to start World War Three?” Ewing told Bahr that American responsibility and American security guarantees ended at the border, and he’d better be clear about that in his broadcasts. As Bahr remembers, “This was the only order I ever got from the U.S. government at RIAS.”
On the Eastern side of the city, most of the Politburo had left their homes early and made their way to Karlshorst, where they could hide from the expected crowds. In fact, they wound up spending the entire day there, standing around the office of the Soviet ambassador, Vladimir Semyonov. This was not a voluntary activity. At one point, Ulbricht asked to return home, and Semyonov snarled at him: “And if anything happens to you back in your apartment? It’s all very well for you, but think what my superiors will do to me.” It was perfectly clear who was in charge: at lunchtime, the Politburo learned that the Russian authorities had unilaterally imposed martial law on East Germany. The Soviet “state of emergency” would last until the end of the month.
The Politburo were not the only ones who didn’t know what to do with themselves on June 17. After watching the march on Stalinallee, Rackow went to his office. But hardly any work was done that day. Journalists wandered about aimlessly, and the chief editor was locked in an office with the party cell leader, unsure what to do or what their line should be. Meanwhile, both Brüning and Loest made their separate ways to a long-planned meeting of the Writers’ Association, where no one could talk about anything except the strike. The general secretary of the association put a call in to the Central Committee. Then he made an announcement: the writers should go out and discuss the situation with the workers. “And don’t let yourselves be provoked!”
Loest went out, along with a colleague. As a precaution, they put their party badges in their pocket. Brüning waded into the crowd as well. So did the journalist Klaus Polkehn, who had taken the U-Bahn into the center of town and wanted to find out what was going on. By then, tens of thousands of people were walking down Unter den Linden and toward the House of Ministries, the headquarters of the East German government, the outside of which was adorned with Aufbau der Republik, Max Lingner’s mural.
Walking beside them, Loest saw right away that things were getting out of hand. Dozens of young men, “the fighting type,” dominated the scene. “I was standing on the side,” he remembered thinking with surprise. “They were on strike, the workers were on strike against the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, against myself.” A newspaper kiosk was in flames. No Volkspolizei—German policemen—were to be seen. This was deliberate: Ulbricht didn’t trust them, and they only arrived later on. But there were plenty of Russian soldiers. They had “immobile faces,” Loest remembered, “their caps fastened to their chins, their guns between their legs. Officers were standing beside them, not moving.”
These soldiers were merely the advance guard. The real demonstration of Soviet force came later in the morning. Loest was standing at the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße when he saw the tanks roll in. A few hundred yards away, Karl-Heinz Arnold, also a journalist, watched the same tanks through the window of a building on the corner of Leipziger Straße and Wilhelmstraße. From above, he could see the crowd gathering outside the House of Ministries: “The people there were definitely ‘eight penny’ boys from West Berlin. You give them eight pennies and tell them to go and pick up trouble. They were completely different from the demonstrators on Stalinallee, those were our construction workers.”
Hans-Walter Bendzko, a border control officer, was watching the same crowd but from the other side of a barricade. That morning, he had been told to report for special duty and had been sent to the House of Ministries as a security guard. He didn’t know who was in the crowd, East German construction workers or West Berlin provocateurs. He only knew that it was not a “normal” demonstration, with banners and slogans, but rather “a dark mass that moved back and forth.” “I thought they wanted to storm the ministry, I was afraid that there would be a fight, but I did not know what was going on.” When Bendzko heard the tanks, he panicked, thinking, “This is the moment when the Americans will interfere.” But as they approached, he saw—with enormous relief—that they were Soviet T-34 tanks, with red stars. Arnold, looking down from his window above, was also relieved: “It was a kind of liberation. It stopped the pressure.” Two of the tanks slowly drove into the crowd around the building. People moved aside to let them through. One of them halted in front of the House of Ministries, and, as Bendzko looked on, the commander of Soviet troops in Berlin emerged.
He got out and walked through our cordon to the House of Ministries. And then he came back, got up on the tank, said something which, of course, nobody understood. Maybe he was announcing martial law. Then the tanks turned away again and moved toward Potsdamer Platz. And everybody ran away. Some were caught and arrested … The troublemakers started to attack the tanks. One of them got a large beam from among the rubble and put it under the wheel of the tank so the chains wouldn’t move.
Some of the tanks began firing when they reached Potsdamer Platz; others had already started shooting on Unter den Linden. Some of the Volkspolizei belatedly began using their pistols. Most people ran away, and hardly any fought back. What was there to fight back with? A few people threw stones, but there wasn’t anything else. Some fifty people are thought to have died that day, though the numbers have never been confirmed. Hundreds were arrested, of whom thirteen were eventually sentenced and executed as traitors. Not all of the victims were demonstrators: in Rathenow, a Stasi functionary died after an angry mob dragged him into the canal and prevented him from getting out again.
In the melee, Polkehn was arrested. He was dragged into a truck, waving his press card to no avail, and taken to Soviet headquarters at Karlshorst. He spent two days there, emerging filthy and hungry but relieved. Most of his fellow prisoners seemed to be there by accident: they had joined the demonstrations out of curiosity, or perhaps naïve conviction. Not all of them were from Berlin. Indeed, demonstrations took place in all of the major cities and industrial centers that day, especially those with a strong communist or social democratic tradition: Rostock, Cottbus, Magdeburg, Dresden, Leipzig, Erfurt, and Halle. In total, about 500,000 people in 373 towns and cities went on strike in about 600 enterprises. Between a million and 1.5 million people took part in demonstrations of some kind.
Nobody was more surprised by the geographic spread of the strikers than Bahr, who had assumed the protests would be confined to Berlin. But he felt a peculiar thrill of responsibility when he heard that some of the demonstrators outside the capital had voiced demands that were the same, word for word, as those he had played on the radio the day before. As it turned out, the Russians had been right in 1945: radio really was the most important mass medium of its time, and the only one that could reach a broad audience. But RIAS’s audience turned out to be much broader than the audience of state radio. “June the seventeenth proves how many people listen to RIAS,” an angry East German communist argued at a meeting a few weeks later. “We’ve done so much education and training, but none of it was absorbed.”
In Berlin, the appearance of Soviet tanks had ended the demonstrations. But by the time Semyonov sent his first cable to Moscow at 2 p.m., a good deal of damage had been done in the city and across the country. The windows of government offices had been smashed and a bookstore selling Russian books in central Berlin had been ransacked. In the town of Görlitz on the Polish border, a mob of 30,000 had destroyed the headquarters of the communist party, the offices of the secret police, and the prison. In Magdeburg, the party headquarters and the prison had actually been set on fire, and in factories near Halle workers had overwhelmed the police. There were some more subtle rebellions as well. In one factory, workers struck up a “whistling concert” in order to drown out the propaganda coming out of the sound system.
East Germans reacted to these events in many different ways. Communist sympathizers, as Loest was at the time, were shocked by the idea that the workers could be protesting against the Workers’ Party. Günter Schabowski—whose out-of-context comments at a press conference led to the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989—recalls that June 17 “showed us how endangered was the communists” seemingly “immovable and firm creation.” Functionaries like Arnold, seeking to explain the situation, sought to blame the violence on troublemakers from West Berlin. Those inclined to make excuses for the regime agreed with them. Though he later became more ambivalent, Bertolt Brecht’s first reaction was to blame “organized fascist elements” from the West. In a Neues Deutschland article published a few days after the riots, Brecht, who was living at the time in Berlin, praised the Soviet intervention: “It is only thanks to the swift and accurate intervention of Soviet troops that these attempts were frustrated.”
More careful observers, Polkehn included, knew that many of the people involved in the strikes were dissatisfied workers and innocent bystanders—though even Polkehn, decades later, also thought that Western provocateurs must have been involved, somehow. It was too difficult and demoralizing to believe otherwise. Rackow insisted differently: “It’s nonsense that it was a Western plot, nobody believed that. Even those saying it didn’t believe it.”
The Soviet authorities, with their excellent informer networks and multiple spies, were less surprised by the strikes than some of their East German comrades. They had expected demonstrations on June 17 and had known in advance that they would have to support the East German police. They were not shy about bringing their tanks onto the streets. But they had not expected demonstrations on such a large scale, with such evidently broad support and with such clearly anti-Soviet intentions. One memorandum sent to Nikita Khrushchev mentioned the “abuse,” “vulgar insults,” and “violent threats” directed at Soviet soldiers and officials, not to mention the stones thrown at them. “The mass of the population have retained a hatred toward Soviet officials, which has now been inflamed again.” The memo concluded: “This hatred was openly on display during the demonstrations.”
Initially, the Soviet authorities did not blame the West at all. In his first reports, Ambassador Semyonov spoke about strikers, workers, and demonstrators. Later his language changed, and he began speaking of provocateurs, ringleaders, and rowdies. Eventually, Soviet reports spoke of a “great international provocation, prepared earlier by the three Western powers and their accomplices from the circles of West German monopolistic capital”—though even then they conceded that there was still a “lack of factual material” to justify this thesis.
For the Soviet diplomats and officers in Germany, the “provocation” explanation may have been a face-saving measure, a way to conceal their own failure to predict or prevent the riots. But it also might have been the only explanation that made sense to them. According to their ideology, their education, and their prejudices, this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Not only was it impossible for workers to rise up against the workers’ state but Germans were not supposed to oppose any authority at all. Stalin himself had once laughed at the thought of political protests in East Germany: “Revolt? Why they won’t even cross the street unless the light is green.” But Stalin was dead.