RIAS and the Revolt of 17 June 1953

Going through the Dutch press today, I ran across an article that sheds further light on the workers’ revolt in the DDR (East Germany) in June, 1953 – in the daily Trouw, formerly a religiously-affiliated journal, now simply a respected, mainstream Dutch newspaper. It is entitled Duitsland/De revolutie waarover niemand sprak – “Germany/The Revolution that No One Talked About.”

Much of the first part of the article is concentrated on the recollections of Egon Bahr, who in the 1970s worked closely with Chancellor Willy Brandt to formulate and carry out Ostpolitik, the policy which reversed the Bundesrepublik’s fifteen-year policy of refusing to recognize or deal with the DDR, the Soviet Union, or any of her other satellites, in favor of engaging in relations with these countries in order to reduce Cold War tension in the middle of Europe. Back in 1953, though, he unwittingly found himself in the middle of historic events as editor-in-chief at RIAS – “Radio in the American Sector,” the West Berlin radio station broadcasting from the southwestern American sector of the city.

RIAS (which doesn’t exist anymore, of course, along with the American sector itself in a reunified Berlin) then had an extensive listenership, not only in Berlin, but also in the surrounding DDR, as it was located too close for the Communist East German authorities to be able to jam its Western-oriented broadcasts effectively. What’s more, RIAS was also physically accessible, as all of West Berlin still was in 1953: OK, most East Berlin streets leading into West Berlin were closed, but if you were willing to walk – and avoid any Volkspolizei on the look-out – you could make it.

That is what a group of East Berlin construction workers did on 16 June 1953, showing up at RIAS’ studios. They had already gone on strike, most immediately over grievances connected with the ten-percent-higher work-quotas that had recently been decreed; they asked RIAS to call for a general strike throughout the DDR.

That itself would be going too far – much too dangerous! – but Bahr was willing to broadcast the strikers’ demands. Problem was, they hadn’t really formulated any yet. So Bahr gave them a hand, after telling them sternly (and in a very German way) “There can be no revolution without organizational preparation!” Once these demands had been catalogued and written down in good German, they were reported over the air by RIAS – up to and including the strikers’ last, and most radical demand: for free elections in the DDR, which everyone knew would in effect mean the end of the Communist regime.

It wasn’t long before Bahr got an earful from his American supervisors: “Are you trying to set off the Third World War?!” He was ordered to cease immediately RIAS’ reports on the strikers’ demands.

Still, by then the station had already established itself in the minds of East German citizens now up in arms against their government as a key tool for communicating with each other. We now know that, far from being a mere local protest action occurring only in East Berlin, as the Communist authorities tried to write the history, in actuality over one million DDR citizens were involved, in demonstrations and acts of rebellion that spontaneously sprang up all over East Germany. And the RIAS studios became a Mecca of sorts for representatives from the various outbreaks of rebellion, who made their way to West Berlin to report on the unrest in their localities. The station may have been forbidden to broadcast any more demands, but they could pass on reports over what was going on in the DDR, which then gave encouragement to incipient outbreaks of rebellion elsewhere in the former Soviet zone of occupation.

As Bahr puts it: “RIAS, without knowing it and without wanting it, became a catalyzer of the uprising.” At least that was convenient in one way for the Soviet and DDR authorities: they could depict the American-sponsored station as instigating the troubles, and thereby smear the entire episode as a Western capitalist plot to undermine the East German worker’s paradise.

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