Earlier this year, as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Yuval Noah Harari wrote a punchy editorial in the Guardian. One line stood out: “In the long run, stories count for more than tanks,” and reminded me of this photo.
Unrest had been brewing in East Germany for a while. Uncle Joe had died a few months earlier, in March 1953, but his paranoid policies to tighten Communist rule over the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany were leading to unrest, disquiet, and economic turmoil. In his last year, Stalin had been rebuffed in his attempt to create a neutral, reunified Germany, and reacted to it by collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of private enterprises, and attacks on the middle class and the Evangelical Church. Half a million Germans fled to the West in 1952 alone.
On June 16, 1953, construction workers marched down Stalinallee to the seat of the Communist power to demand that it rescind a diktat increasing work hours. The workers also called for a general strike for the very next day: a call that was picked up by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) and broadcast throughout East Germany.
On June 17, more than one million people across 700 cities, towns and villages answered the call. The revolt — the first such uprising against the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe — presaged the more famous revolts: in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Poland in 1980. Vladimir Semyonov, the Soviet military administrator of East Germany, practically wrote the playbook for the future Soviet responses to such unrests, when he declared a state of emergency and sent tanks into the streets.
Estimates of people killed varied: official East German accounts at twenty, Western accounts at 500, and Semyonov himself put it at around 200 in his memoirs. More than 1,000 were convicted of having taking part in an “attempted fascist coup”. The photo above, of two young men throwing cobblestones at Soviet tanks in a David versus Goliath encounter on Leipziger Straße was reprinted in the LIFE magazine and later featured on a stamp after the German Reunification.
The West German government declared June 17 to be a public holiday (Day of German Unity, Tag der deutschen Einheit) – a commemoration they celebrated in the West until 1990 when after the Reunification, it was capitalized to be Tag der Deutschen Einheit and moved to October 3rd.
Little remembered today, the uprising was seminal moment, which made two things clear. Firstly, it revealed the Western powers’s reluctance to get involved in a land war in Eastern Europe, no matter how poignant and heartrending images were (Life ran a four page spread), after a costly and bitter ‘police action’ in Korea. More importantly, as the Soviets turned their weapons against the very workers in whose name they were justifying their tyranny, the Communism’s allure looked that much dimmer – especially in France and Italy where communist sympathies ran high in those post-War years.
Tony Judt writes about Prague Spring: “the illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism; that illusion was crushed under the tanks … and it never recovered … Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died years before.” Even before Prague, that lesson was clear on the streets of East Germany in 1953.
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