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Remembering an Uprising – June 17, 1953

June 19, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Berlin today. In it, he spoke of the need to remember the East German workers who rose up on the 17th of June, 1953, against the oppressive policies of their government during the Cold War. Remembering this event provides for a discourse into the German nation’s collective memory; their reckoning with the past and the long struggle for freedom.

Sixty years ago, a workers’ uprising in the  German Democratic Republic reached a fever pitch with 30,000 to 50,000 workers marching in the streets against the Communist government, which had recently raised work norms to newer, higher levels. It started on the 16th of June with some construction workers, and quickly led to calls for a new government and free elections.

They asked for this:


(the sign reads “Free Elections”)

And got this:


(images found here)

Those are Soviet tanks, a part of a full armored division that the USSR sent in to help the Stasi (East Germany’s Secret Police) to put down the uprising. By the evening of the 17th, the Soviet military authorities had declared martial law and restored order, putting down the largest act to-date of dissent against the “Evil Empire,” as it would later be deemed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet action received much criticism from abroad, particularly in the West, but little else.

Over a million East Germans took to the streets on June 17 all across the German Democratic Republic. Seven hundred distinct locales protested the oppressive policies of the East German government. It all started with a broadcast sent from West Berlin to the East.

The “official external broadcast institution of the United States Federal Government,” Voice for America, declared: “The workers of East Berlin have already written a glorious page in postwar history. They have once and for all times exposed the fraudulent nature of communist regimes.” That’s not exactly the case. The Cold War would freeze on for another few decades until 1989, when things unraveled and Global Communism faltered as a viable alternative to Western-style liberal democracy.

Today’s German president,  Joachim Gauck, the first from the former East Germany, called for a “thinking day,” urging people the world over to pause and think and remember the first popular uprising in Soviet-controlled East Germany.  At the time, the events of June 17, 1953 were seemingly inconsequential for the fortunes of East Berlin’s workforce. The democratic prospects of those areas of Europe under Soviet military occupation after the Second World War would remain dim for decades.  However, the event resonated in the minds of East German workers, and won’t be forgotten. Until 1989, June 17 was officially “German Unity Day” in West Germany, serving as a testament to the divided country and its urge for unity. And it was remembered today, 60 years later, as the U.S. President called for a mutual reduction in nuclear arms, stockpiles of which seem to be the most lingering memory of the Cold War.

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