Berlin, 1953

Image: Bence Szemerey


A strike started by construction workers in East Berlin led to a riot that spread across the former German Democratic Republic.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its second year. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz argued, the study of history is indispensable to understanding the politics that led to this conflict.

This is a war of conquest for a people historically oppressed by the second largest military power in the world. Russian troops leave a trail of death, destruction and atrocities against civilians in their path. The Ukrainian people put up a firm, almost desperate, resistance. The Ukrainian cause is just and, as such, deserves the tireless support not only of socialists, but of all human rights defenders and democrats.

Russian expansionist nationalism has historical roots. The tsarist empire was a “prison of the peoples”. In its early years, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 broke with this oppressive policy and guaranteed the right of self-determination for all nations, that is, the right to secede if the oppressed nation so determined. Thus, the USSR was formed in 1922 on the basis of a voluntary union of peoples. However, the Stalinist counterrevolution broke with this policy and resumed, with new brutality, Russian oppression of oppressed nationalities and control of states that Moscow considered part of its sphere of influence.

When Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, justified his offensive by denying Ukraine its right to national existence, as that country would be nothing more than a Russian “creation”, he only reaffirmed the old position of Russian chauvinism.

The Stalinist regime – from which Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and the handful of oligarchs who enriched themselves with the capitalist restoration and now control the Russian state with an iron fist came from – has a long history of military aggression against the peoples of the so-called “Soviet bloc”. ”, who, in the XNUMXth century, dared to question the authority of Moscow.

The Kremlin drowned in blood all attempts at political revolutions, that is, social processes that opposed the dictatorial power of the Soviet bureaucracy, but without questioning the non-capitalist economic and social foundations of the former USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries. Russian Stalinists invaded nations and massacred civilians with the same viciousness we are now witnessing in Ukraine.

Our intention is to deal, in part, with the processes of anti-bureaucratic struggle that took place in the former East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in the former Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in the impressive labor movement that, despite strong repression, changed the course of Poland between 1980 and 1989.

Rescuing the memory of these rebellions will help to understand two burning issues of our time: the essence of Russian expansionism and the resistance of the peoples of Eastern Europe to national oppression.

Let's start by contextualizing the first major confrontation against Soviet Thermidor: the East Berlin workers' revolt in 1953.

"People's Democracies"

The end of World War II, as is well known, imposed a reordering of the international system of States, sealed by the agreements established at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945, between Roosevelt-Truman (USA), Churchill (Great Britain) and Stalin (USSR).

The Soviet bureaucracy, following the logic of peaceful coexistence, agreed with imperialism on a new division of the world. The imperialist powers, on the one hand, recognized the right of the USSR to establish a bloc of allied nations in Central and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Stalin was committed to preventing revolution in the world, especially in those countries where resistance to Nazism was led by communist parties. This compromise prevented the rise of workers to power in countries such as France, Italy and Greece. The Kremlin's interest was to consolidate an area of ​​influence that, according to its theory, would peacefully coexist with the capitalist world. Thus, the official division between “two camps”, “two systems” was born: the “imperialist states” and the “peace-loving states”.

During the Soviet military advance towards Berlin, the Red Army liberated from the Nazi yoke a strip of countries in which, after the end of World War II, it maintained a military occupation. This was the starting point for the formation of the so-called Eastern Bloc, or Soviet glaciers, a chain of controlled States, militarily, by the Stalinist bureaucracy: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia (until 1948) and Albania (until 1960).

Between 1945 and 1948, Stalin promoted the so-called “new democracies”, that is, unity governments with bourgeois factions (popular fronts), preserving the forms of a multiparty regime and the ritual of parliamentary elections, but under the tutelage of the Soviet army. Private ownership of the means of production remained largely intact.

However, this policy changed in 1948, mainly due to imperialist pressure through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Moscow encouraged local communist parties to seize all power and pushed for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. This gave rise to one-party regimes, on the Russian Stalinist model.[I]. That is, in the context of exceptional objective conditions and contrary to its original intentions, the Kremlin expanded the social structure and the totalitarian regime in force in the former USSR; however, this change was not the product of a workers' revolution (like that of October 1917 in Russia), but, essentially, of the military occupation of the Red Army in those countries of Central and Eastern Europe.[ii]

Thus, new workers' States emerged, but bureaucratized since their genesis.[iii] While the capitalists were expropriated and these economies were planned, political power remained in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy, the bitter enemy of a regime based on workers' democracy.

This is the beginning of the so-called “people's democracies”, a bloc of countries economically exploited and oppressed by Russian chauvinism. They were states dominated by a permanent foreign military occupation. Moscow's oppression, as we shall see, will again and again affirm the burning national problem. The Soviet bureaucracy had taken to extracting the social surplus from other nations. In exchange for the extension of his area of ​​influence, Stalin renounced revolution in the core capitalist countries. This is the essence of the pacts that marked the post-Second World War. In occupied countries, the Kremlin imposed completely submissive rulers after successive local purges.

This brief summary of the post-war scenario in Eastern Europe will help us to understand the processes that emerged from the world crisis of the Stalinist apparatus.[iv]. The first milestone of this crisis was undoubtedly the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953. After three decades of personality cult, the disappearance of the infallible “genius guide of the peoples” could not fail to shake the bureaucratic power. It was not by chance that, a few months later, the first process of political revolution began.

The Workers' Revolt in East Berlin

Between 16 and 17 June 1953, a strike started by construction workers in East Berlin led to a rebellion that spread across the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Around half a million workers folded their arms and around a million East Germans took to the streets in 700 cities and towns.

The last straw was the decision to increase the pace of production without a salary increase. At the end of May, the GDR government decided on a 10% increase in the production quota. If workers in a given industrial branch did not meet the targets set by the bureaucracy, their wages would be reduced.

It is not difficult to imagine how odious the increase in productivity was to the working class of a country in ruins, where there was no effective democratic freedom. Among the population, moreover, there was a widespread awareness that the aims of accelerating the development of heavy industry in the GDR were part of an economic plan designed to meet the requirements of the Soviet economy rather than the basic needs of German workers.

Given the totalitarian nature of the regime, neither production quotas nor any economic measures were decided by workers, but by bureaucrats, primarily those in Moscow. Electricity, coal, heat – everything was rationed. The new production target represented an attack on the already punished living conditions. In the construction industry, it meant a 10-15% wage cut for unskilled workers and half or more for skilled workers.

The bureaucracy’s offensive against the workers was part of the “new direction” policy, made official on June 9, 1953 by the Central Committee of the SED,[v] the ruling Stalinist party. Justified by poor economic indicators, the new policy entailed a series of concessions to the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie and the churches, to the detriment of the living conditions of the working class.

The policy of disproportionate growth of heavy industry, to the detriment of the production of basic consumer goods, resulted in shortages and shortages for East Germans.

On June 16, the masons of all works on Stalin Street (Stalinallee) democratically decided to go on strike and march to the House of Ministries to demand that the government abolish the new production quota.

At first, the strikers had no other intention than to hand their demands in writing to the authorities. They marched under a red banner that read: "We demand a quota reduction." As the masons advanced, thousands of other workers joined the column chanting other demands: “Workers, unite!”, “Unity is strength!”, “We want free elections!”, “We want to be free, not slaves!”.

When the march reached its destination, it was not greeted by “comrade” Walter Ulbricht, general secretary of the SED, but by secondary officials. This fact infuriated those present. In front of a crowd of around 10.000 people, a speaker presented a list of demands: cancellation of increased production quotas; 40% reduction in prices at state stores; general increase in workers' standard of living; abandonment of the attempt to raise an army; free elections in Germany; democratization of the party and unions.

“We're not here just for quotas,” said one worker. “We don't want punishment for the strikers and we want the release of political prisoners. We want elections and the reunification of Germany.”[vi]

Given the indifference of the bureaucracy, the workers decided to call a general strike for the following day. A chronicle of the time mentions how the enraged workers confronted their Stalinist interlocutor, shouting: “We are the real communists, not you”.[vii] During the night, assemblies were held in several places and factory committees were formed. Discussions addressed issues such as the requirement that strike days be paid and that there be no reprisals against committee members; reduction of police salaries; freedom for political prisoners; government resignation; establishment of secret, general and free elections, which would guarantee the victory of the workers in a reunified Germany. The dynamics of the conflict transformed the protest from purely economic demands into a political movement in a few hours.

Participation in the June 17 general strike was a resounding success. More than 150.000 workers, mainly metallurgists, bricklayers and transport workers, occupied the streets of the Soviet sector of Berlin. Workers' delegations from West Germany joined the struggle. In all the industrial centers of the GDR, assemblies, solidarity motions, protests of all kinds took place. Factory committees and even embryonic soviets (workers' councils) were created. The strike became a true revolutionary uprising for the political revolution and the reunification of Germany, shaking the Stalinist bureaucracy.

However, the strike as such did not spread to the western sector. The workers' bureaucracy in the West managed to prevent the unification of the struggle.

Walter Ulbricht had lost control of the situation. Panicked, SED leaders appealed to Moscow for help. Over 20.000 Russian troops, supported by Red Army tanks stationed in East Germany, along with over 8.000 local police (volkspolizei), stormed the streets to crush the revolt. Tanks pushed through the crowd, who threw rocks or anything else they could find. The Russians did not hesitate to open fire to disperse the demonstration. The official report admits that more than 50 people were killed. Other estimates put the death toll from the crackdown in the hundreds. The workers' rebellion was crushed by a foreign force.

Mass arrests under martial law took place. Both those who participated in the revolt and those who expressed support for the workers' cause were accused of being counterrevolutionaries or agents of the West. In the days following the massacre, the former GDR's judicial system and Soviet military courts tried hundreds of people. There were summary executions and torture in prisons by the feared political police, the Stasi. Nearly 15.000 people were arrested, and by the end of January 1954 over 1.500 had been convicted. For the first time, the bureaucracy closed off the eastern sector, isolating it from the rest of the city. This was the prelude to the future Berlin Wall.

Even so, there were strikes and protests in many localities after the 17th of June. However, the defeat was sealed in Berlin. Russian military intervention imposed a pattern that would be repeated in Hungary three years later and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989 would follow the same logic.

The general strike in the former GDR took place amid the dispute between Khrushchev, Malenkov, and the head of the Soviet repressive apparatus, Lavrenti Beria, for Stalin's succession. The execution of the latter, in December 1953, was partially justified by the crisis in Germany.

The Stalinist government of Grotewohl-Ulbricht was saved by the intervention of Russian tanks. But the rebellion marked the demonstrators. In the following years, worker and peasant activists would speak of the need for a “new 17th of June”. The first act of political revolution, however brief, would serve as an example to people in other eastern European countries by showing that the Soviet bureaucracy was not omnipotent.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Originally published on newspaper ABC.


[I] By 1949, 80 to 95% of industrial production in these countries had been nationalized.

[ii] In this context, in 1955 the Warsaw Pact was signed, a military alliance of the “Soviet bloc” to fight NATO, the military coalition created in 1949 by the Western imperialist powers. Later reality demonstrated that the Warsaw Pact was structured to maintain the discipline of the member countries, and not for a confrontation with imperialism.

[iii] There were other bureaucratized workers' states with different origins, that is, arising from revolutions: China, Yugoslavia, Albania, North Vietnam and North Korea, but also led by totalitarian bureaucracies.

[iv] The crisis and split of the Stalinist apparatus was expressed, among other facts, by the Stalin-Tito split in 1948 and the Sino-Soviet crisis in the late 1950s. glacis, were due to clashes between national interests, as each national bureaucracy sought to maximize its privileges, resulting from the control of “their” bureaucratized workers states.

[v] Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED, acronym in German). It emerged on April 22, 1946, as a result of the merger, promoted by Stalin and Walter Ulbricht, of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) with the eastern sector of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany). It was the ruling party in the GDR until 1989.

[vi] Talpe, Jan. The working states of the glacis. Discussion about the European East. São Paulo: Editora Lorca, 2019, p. 65.

[vii] Mandel, Ernest. The worker survey in East Germany, June 1953. Available in:

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