III: June 1953

Stalin's death in March 1953 raised expectations everywhere that the new Soviet leadership would relax its grip on Eastern Europe. As the first actions of the new leadership proved these hopes to be false, popular revolts broke out in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. All were swiftly and brutally put down, either by the indigenous Communist regime or by Soviet bloc troops brought in for the purpose.

The Berlin uprising of 16-17 June 1953 was the first of these protests. It began with an orderly march in protest of newly increased work quotas involving an estimated 5,000 workers at noon on the sixteenth. This ended about three hours later, but protests resumed early the next day with some 17,000 people in the streets, a figure that may eventually have risen to anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 to several hundred thousand by noon. Traffic came to a halt and the demonstration turned violent; thousands of people swarmed through the Potsdammer Platz to the Lustgarten Platz, tearing down Communist flags and overturning kiosks. But East German and Soviet troops with tanks and armored cars had quietly moved into East Berlin the previous night. Early on the afternoon of the seventeenth they drove into the crowds, firing automatic weapons and small arms. At 2:20 PM the East German government declared a state of emergency; the revolt was quickly crushed. Like after-shocks following a major earthquake, strikes, demonstrations and isolated "incidents" continued to occur throughout the DDR over the next few weeks, but with the crackdown on the seventeenth the Communist regime demonstrated that, even if it had little popular support, it was nevertheless firmly in control.

The Berlin uprising was a spontaneous action that took American intelligence officers by surprise. Although the United States had waged an active propaganda campaign that encouraged dissatisfaction with the Communist regime, it had not worked directly to foster open rebellion and had no mechanism in place to exploit the situation when it arose. US authorities in Berlin thus had no alternative but to adopt an attitude of strict neutrality.1 Many East Germans nonetheless expected the United States to intervene. These expectations persisted, unintentionally fueled by a US-sponsored food-distribution program that began on 1 July and lasted until the East Berlin government put an end to it in August.2

The Berlin uprising effectively ended the limited political plurality hitherto tolerated by the East German regime. More than 6,000 people were arrested. A statewide purge eliminated dissidents both in the official party, the SED (Sozialistische Einheits Partei Deutschland), and in the state-tolerated "opposition" parties. Ironically, the principal effect of the uprising was to further consolidate the existing power structure in the DDR: East Germany's President Walter Ulbricht used the revolt as an excuse to eliminate rival factions within the SED, while measures were taken to ensure that the security apparatus would not be caught napping again.3

III-1: NIE 81: Probable Soviet Courses of Action with Respect to Germany Through Mid-1954, 22 May 1953. [PDF Only 837KB*]

III-2: SE 47: Probable Effect of Recent Developments in Eastern Germany on Soviet Policy with Respect to Germany, 24 July 1953. [PDF Only 439KB*]

These two Estimates weigh the importance of the DDR to the Soviet bloc before and after the Berlin uprising and predict Soviet actions to stabilize control of the East German state. Of note is the special concern accorded the Federal Republic of Germany in Soviet planning.

III-3: Comment on the East Berlin Uprising, 17 June 1953 (MORI No. 144301). [PDF Only 287KB*]

This the first full report of the uprising to be disseminated in Washington.

III-4: Closing of Berlin Borders, 18 June 1953 (MORI No. 144211). [PDF Only 66KB*]

The powder-keg atmosphere that remained on 18 June is reflected in this terse report of security measures taken along the inter-Berlin border.




1 On the US response to the Berlin uprising in general, see Christian Ostermann, "The United States, the East German Uprising of 1953 and the Limits of Rollback," Cold War International History Project Working Paper, No. 11 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1994).

2 Ibid., pp. 25-31.

3 Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949-1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 185-187.




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Historical Document
Posted: Apr 19, 2007 09:19 AM
Last Updated: Feb 04, 2014 12:22 PM