The Meaning of 17 June in Germany

Enough – enough already! – of the Czech Republic and its EU accession referendum. They voted “Yes” – “massively,” some would say, at 77,33% – so congratulations to them. Now it’s time to move on, beyond the Czech future to . . . the German past because, after all, it’s the 17th of June.

Back in 1953, from the beginning of June, work-quotas had been raised in the industry and the construction sectors throughout the four-year-old DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the former Soviet zone of occupation in Germany) . Naturally, there was no question of any higher allocation of goods and services to compensate; in fact, most quota-hikes were misleadingly labeled by the authorities as “voluntary.” So it was that, fifty years ago today, thousands of DDR citizens decided that they weren’t going to put up with this anymore, or with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in general, and took to the streets in the first large-scale revolt against Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Stalin himself had died only a few months earlier, but it really didn’t matter. Nineteen fifty-three was still the high-tide of Stalinism, and Russians in particular had very, very little tolerance for misbehaving Germans, only eight years after the end of the Great Patriotic War. Plus, they had plenty of troops still in East Germany, and they put them to work in a flash (along with assorted local DDR lackeys), quickly crushing the uprising within a couple of days.

Frankly, it’s doubtful that much of the rest of the world had much sympathy in 1953 for Germans either, whether they were desperately trying to throw off a totalitarian dictatorship or not – except of course other Germans, living to the West, but in a part of Germany that would still be under formal Allied occupation for another two years. But another strange thing about this particular revolt was that so many voted with their fists, with Molotov cocktails, when they could have voted with their feet. Sure, the “inter-German border” between the East and West halves of Germany was fairly impassable, but Berlin was still completely open. If you could just get yourself there, to the western half, you would be home free – aside from the requirement to uproot your previous life and start a new one. And 2.5 million people did just that in the years after 1953 (although that number includes the years since 1949), until the Berlin Wall was erected to stop the flow in August, 1961.

Naturally, the German papers today are full of tributes to June 17, 1953. But we have to be selective, and look for the gold hidden among the dross. Where are the insights as to what this unique event, this forerunner to Hungary, 1956, to the 1968 Prague Spring, really meant to Germany at the time, and what it means to Germany now and in the future?

The Süddeutsche Zeitung carries a standard account of the commemoration of the 17 June revolt conducted by the current German federal government: there was a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag, and then top German dignitaries went to lay wreaths at the graves of eleven people killed during the revolt, at the Seestrasse cemetery in Berlin. Among these dignitaries was of course Federal President Johannes Rau; and perhaps Rau gave at least a hint of something not-quite-right about this episode in German history when, speaking of the pre-unification Bundesrepublik, he said, “Let’s be honest: To many of us the 17th of June had become – for one reason or another – just a nuisance.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung adds the opinion of the minister of the federal German government in charge of the documents of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi), Marianne Birthler (originally from East Germany herself), that over the years the remembrance of what happened on 17 June 1953 has simply been pushed to the side, in both East and West Germany. Indeed, opinion polls reveal that most young Germans aren’t even aware of the significance of the date. And it seems that associations of the victims of the repression that followed the uprising are still struggling to win some sort of financial compensation; in many cases they are now in worse material shape than those who persecuted them and so benefited by retiring with a generous (DDR) state pension.

It is Die Zeit that offers a revealing analysis. It has taken this fiftieth anniversary of the event to get the East German revolt of 17 June 1953 celebrated at all in the now-reunited Germany. Ostensibly, this is because the official day of German reunification – 3 October 1990 – supplanted 17 June. But in reality it was because, as Johannes Rau admitted, 17 June has often been something awkward to celebrate. Of course, it was never celebrated in the DDR while it still existed; rather, all records and all memory of the 1953 workers’ revolt was strictly suppressed by a regime which lived in constant terror that something similar would happen again.

So 17 June was only celebrated in West Germany – that is, among German citizens who by-and-large had had nothing to do with the events. It was celebrated as the day of German Unity, even though the rebellious East German workers had not included reunification of West and East Germany among their demands – they were merely agitating for the lowering of work-quotas back to their previous levels, and then for the resignation of the SED (Communist) government and free elections. June 17 was celebrated in West Germany as the day of German Unity, even as it became ever-clearer that the government of the German Federal Republic (West Germany) really did not desire unity. That was because it seemed that it could only be achieved either at the price of a devastating war, or of necessarily severing ties with the West in favor of forming a neutralized Germany in the middle of Europe, much like Austria was forced to be for decades. And once the 1970s came about, and Bundeskanzler Willy Brandt started his policy of Ostpolitik, or of engagement with the Soviet Union and with the Communist satellite states of Eastern Europe – with the DDR at the forefront – 17 June was something not to be mentioned in polite company. It could easily offend our new East German partners, you see.

Still, none of this can obscure the workers’ revolt of 17 June as the first in the series of popular uprisings which would eventually all converge in the fall of 1989 to bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rejoining of Western Europe, as free and increasingly-prosperous nations, of the former satellite states of Moscow. As the first one, an especially hard fate awaited this uprising: It was put down with impressive speed and brutality by Soviet forces and their satraps. (The Hungarian uprising of 1956 produced more dead, more executed, and probably more people unjustly thrown into prison, but the Hungarians were able to enjoy a period of some weeks between their overthrow of the local Communist authorities and the invasion of the Red Army.) It therefore is a more “genuine” historical event, a prouder day in German history, than is the bureaucratic conclusion of a reunification agreement commemorated on October 3. Die Zeit author Robert Leicht calls for the former to supplant the latter as the true day to celebrate a reunited Germany.

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