The East German workers revolt

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2013 - 6:26

The June uprising of the workers in East Germany is one of the great events in modern history. The uprising in Germany will open up new historical opportunities which seemed to have vanished with the defeat of the European labour movements during the last twenty years and the emergence of the Stalinist state.

Two world wars, a defeated proletarian revolution in Germany and a “successful” proletarian revolution that failed in Russia, finally the victory of fascism in Germany, coincided with the decay and destruction of the old traditional labour movement in Europe. It seemed to be impossible to escape from new wars and the rise of totalitarian states. The hopes which the Russian revolution of 1917 had raised among the radical wing of European labour movements after the first world war had faded away. The uprising in East Germany is a historical warning that a new era of revolutionary liberation movements is possible. The June 1953 struggle of the East German proletarians may turn out to be a necessary introduction to a greater revolutionary struggle which will be political and social dynamite for similar societies all over the world.

Eastern Germany has become one of the most proletarianised areas in the world. The percentage of industrial labour is relatively great, and most industrial workers are concentrated in a few areas. Furthermore, the workers still are affected by the old traditions of the Western labour movement. They consist largely of skilled and intelligent workers. Advanced elements of these workers had opportunities to absorb the lessons of the most advanced labour movements of the nineteenth century in the course of the experiences of the great social revolutions at the beginning of this century, of the totalitarian Nazi regime, of the final collapse of society after the Second World War, and finally of the new totalitarian colonial regime.

The new German bureaucratic hierarchy has to rely on an apparatus which is very costly, which intervenes and interferes with productive efforts to such an extent that an effective control of production becomes impossible. Absolute scarcity of many kinds of goods and materials or man-power coincide with large-scale economic waste. The economic costs of mistakes of the planners must be paid with sweated labour, wage cuts and the hanging of “saboteurs.”

We may summarise the social and political conditions which were basic for the emergence of a new type of social revolutionary liberation movement as follows:
1. High degree of proletarianisation of the people. Most members of the middle classes had either vanished or had become mere proletarians. As proletarians they were not working for a private capitalist but for the state which had become a more fierce and more brutal exploiter than the worst type of private capitalist at the time of early capitalism. A similar experience was undergone by the old type of industrial worker, and also by the white-collar workers.
The entire social class structure tended to become very simple compared with the old one. Only three social classes now survive.
At the bottom of the social ladder there are the slave labourers who work for the state without monetary compensation. Then there is the rest of the population, most of whom belong to the completely proletarianised type of working class, controlled, oppressed and exploited by the state-capitalist bureaucracy. They are a tiny minority among the people, divorced from the rest of the population, without native or social roots among other sectors of the people, relying directly on the bayonets of their police forces and those of a foreign power.
2. Thus a real native ruling class has been missing. There were — and there are — new rulers and a new social hierarchy which tends to become a new ruling class. But it lacks basic elements of a ruling class. It is too small in number. It has not been able to create a sufficient stratum of members of the party or of the state-bureaucrats who may be considered as “reliable” for the regime. The social produce which the new rulers have at their disposal does not make it possible for them to extend the rise of a new social hierarchy into a new social class which has real national roots.
3. The weakness of the social and political structure is greatly increased by the foreign imperialist enslavement.
4. The methods of centralised state bureaucratic planning under the guidance of a totalitarian bureaucracy, together with the delivery of a large percentage of the industrial produce to the foreign imperialist overlord, have created a higher degree of economic anarchy and waste of the social produce than there ever existed under private capitalism.
5. The weaknesses of the regime are multiplied by the high degree of centralisation of industrial labour and by the fact that the tradition of the German labour movement — a high degree of social consciousness among individual workers, and of social class discipline and solidarity — has not yet been eliminated by the experiences of the Nazi regime nor by the new pseudo-communist dictatorship.
6. The new regime of totalitarian isolation of the individual could not be organised effectively. The neighbouring West German areas are populated by people of the same nation, living under relative personal freedom.
7. Finally, the upper crust of the new ruling hierarchy in the Eastern zones is not a firm unified mass following one specific direction. It consists of “leaders” and underlings who belong to cliques which are in an acute stage of confusion and of personal rivalries. At the centre, i.e., in Moscow itself, since the death of Stalin — and before — leading bureaucrats were purged or were in disfavour. The nature of the Russian regime and the prospects of liberation movements in the Eastern German areas have been discussed by small intellectual circles, former students and ex-officers, and in particular by former members of the labour movement.

But a genuine underground movement able to withstand the pressure of a totalitarian regime could be built up only by the industrial workers.

What helped them was the fact that they had daily contact with each other through their work and their working and living conditions. Furthermore, there were many workers experienced in underground work.
Finally they were unwilling to become the tool of another power and declined advice and in most cases even contact with circles or parties outside of their own area. Members of foreign intelligence organisations were carefully ignored as far as possible.

The situation was different for members of the old middle classes and members of academic professions.
They had lost their old social status and had declined to the bottom level of social stratification. There were no comrades and no social milieu where they felt that they were members of a group or of a circle to which they felt responsible and which may have helped them in an emergency. In 1951-52, when the East-German satellite regime had the task of restoring industrial production and the industrial capacities of East Germany, it had to increase the social and political weight of the industrial workers.

East Germany includes areas with highly concentrated industrial labour, where masses of industrial workers have been concentrated for several generations, with proud traditions of social-revolutionary struggle and socialist-communist organisational influence. We refer in particular to the industrial centres in Saxony, Thuringia, the area of Halle-Merseburg (incl. Leuna). The old political and organisational split between socialist and communist workers seemed to play a minor role at the end of the Nazi regime, at the end of the second world war. There was a spontaneous movement to overcome the old division. At first, the new Communist (and SED) party apparatus tried to exploit this spontaneous drive for unity among the workers.

But the new experience under the Russian-controlled regime completed the process of unification of the workers.

“Old Communists” among workers who would support the new regime were almost non-existent. The same applied to former members of the Social-Democratic party. At the beginning some success was recorded by the appeal of the new SED (Socialist Unity Party or official State Party) among young workers. But this appeal virtually vanished after several years of practical experience with the Stalinist Ulbricht apparatus.

A new kind of underground has emerged. It is a combination of loosely and also tightly knit organisation.
Only a minority of politically experienced workers, mainly former communists who had already been disillusioned by their experiences with the German CP, had realised the nature of the transformation of the Russian revolution when the second world war ended and the Russian armies marched into Germany. Most social-democratic workers and also ex Communists who had joined the CP only a short time before the rise of Hitler to power sincerely believed, until the end of the war, that Moscow would become some kind of social liberator. But these hopes faded away with the Russian occupation. Thereafter a personal struggle for survival started. Such conditions were extremely unfavourable to any political thinking and movement.
The Ulbricht clique sought to copy the pattern of the Russian state in Germany. They had to build up their totalitarian party under the protection of a foreign army. The fate of Ulbricht and Co. depended on the foreign policies of Moscow.

The underground organisation of the labour opposition does not consist of a real mass organisation. Experienced underground workers in totalitarian countries will agree that a mass organisation or an organisation which is part of a mass organisation — perhaps organised from abroad — will not survive for any length of time. What is possible in countries or areas which cannot be shut off air-tight from the rest of the world is the emergence of underground circles of a small number of oppositional workers. They may establish a few personal contacts with men who belong to key sectors of labour and who are a major influence among them. Such groups of workers who, because of their position, are able to act more independently than other workers, will be able to use their particular group of workers as a kind of advance guard which at a critical moment will be followed by other sectors of labour.
The government spy system was not able to penetrate the underground of industrial and skilled workers effective. The underground was made up to a great extent of a net of contacts which were not a closely knit organisation but which relied on personal experiences with those who were willing to resist the new regime.
What helped was the fact that the government has superseded the old private capitalist boss. The government does not appear as a physical person.

Essential and helpful for a real underground centre was the fact that it had the cooperation and more or less active support of numerous sympathisers, and active helpers among members of the bureaucracy, within the SED. hierarchy and even among the highest ranks of the SED hierarchy. Through them, a few contacts also existed with old-time members of foreign Communist Parties in Eastern countries, and also with a few Russian bureaucrats. As a result there was not one single decision of the government which did not become known to the underground opposition.

Warnings of planned arrests of old-time communists or socialists were sometimes given in time. This was done on the highest levels, as well as for rank-and-file members and through contacts with the Administration.
Something should be said about the special status of Berlin and the new role of the Berlin labour movement.
This applies to West Berlin as well as to East Berlin. In spite of the Iron Curtain which goes straight through Berlin, there are, of course, many contacts between both sectors of Berlin which do not exist in other East-West border areas. These special ties have been very important for the struggle in Eastern Germany. At the same time, East and West Berlin represent two different worlds.

In West Berlin the Social Democratic Party dominates the political life of the city. The West Berlin Social Democrats are under the leadership of highly experienced members of the old pre-Hitler labour movement.
West Berlin is the only part of West Germany where the local organisation of the Social-Democratic Party is under the leadership of a political group which derives from a real fusion of former left-wing young socialists (“Jung-Sozialisten”) and anti-Stalinist ex-Communists. Some of them once played a prominent role in the Communist Youth Movement during the Twenties and joined various oppositional Communist groups thereafter.

Leaders of the West Berlin SPD are used to considering their own situation as different from the situation in any other part of Germany and as directly related to foreign big-power politics. Nowhere in the world are foreign policies and world-wide political shifts of so much immediate concern to the local leaders and to the population as in West Berlin.

The labour movement in East Berlin is also unique. East Berlin is the only area in the Behind-the-Iron-Curtain world where an anti-Communist party is officially permitted and actually tolerated. At the beginning of the East Berlin regime, attempts were made to liquidate the Social-Democratic Party in East Berlin, too, and to terrorise individual party members.

But the West Berlin Social Democrats answered with effective counter-measures and threats of retaliation. As a result, some kind of unofficial modus vivendi developed.

The underground organisation in East Berlin relies more or less on former trade unionists, largely ex-Communists (sometimes still official members of the SED) and former members of the SPD. Contacts exist between the SPD. organisation in West Berlin and the labour underground in East Berlin. But such contacts rely on a few personal ties. A distinctive feature of the underground in East Berlin and East Germany is that it relies on groups of workers who have common traditional ties and who do not acknowledge any centre “abroad,” not even in Western Germany, including the SPD, as their leadership.

During the 12 months which preceded the uprising, the living standard of the workers in particular had fallen off. Consumer goods had been de-rationed.

Practically all consumer goods had to be purchased at “free” prices. The latter had declined but they still were higher than prices for rationed goods had been before. Thus items which could be bought only by the small privileged new aristocracy had become cheaper while bread, margarine, potatoes, etc., had become more expensive.

In the early Spring, practically already in March, near-famine conditions developed in many areas of the Eastern zone. In most towns, even in Berlin, rationed meat, fats, butter, sugar and vegetables could not be supplied. Many people waiting in queues wasted their time and had to go home empty-handed and hungry. At the same time, it became known that the government was building up huge stocks of foodstuffs, apparently for political reasons and “on orders from Moscow.”

The complete record of the historical events of the uprisings cannot be written now. There were no “central leaders” who directed or organised the uprisings in such a way that they were able to anticipate the events and to keep themselves informed about the actual situation at all major industrial or population centres.
But an underground centre in Berlin does exist. It relies on groups of workers who have unchallenged authority among new colleagues. They followed a wait-and-see policy and resisted the temptation of heroic actions which would not make sense, or which would expose them, their families and “innocent” oppositionists, to the new super-Gestapo.

Then, in early Spring, something happened that stirred all oppositional workers and that was much discussed among the underground circles: Ulbricht and his personal adherents were no longer in favour with Moscow.
[The “thaw” began in Russia, with the death of Stalin, and in Eastern Europe.] Experienced former Communist Party members were sceptical about the change. Would the new party line only be a short-term, temporary affair? What would happen afterwards, after having revealed the identity of the members of the opposition? Would the party bosses provoke the oppositional or potentially oppositional workers to reveal themselves only in order to purge them thereafter? Experienced former Communist Party members also suggested that an attempt should be made to turn the semi-legal movement for improved work and wage conditions into a political struggle which would spread among all industries and also other social classes in East Germany.
There was much reluctance among former active Communist party members and among socialists to appear openly as leaders of the movement or to take the initiative for the call for strikes and demonstrations.

Much thought had to be given to the aftermath, and to the need of survival during the terror period which could be anticipated as a sequel to any attempt at open resistance against the regime.

Everybody, the underground leaders as well as the leading members of the SED. or of the East German government, and in particular the Russian representatives, were surprised at the scope and intensity of the oppositional movement which soon gained the character of mass uprisings, though there was not one single underground leadership which believed that the situation was “ripe” for a real revolution.

The underground leaders of the opposition had often talked about the risks of open opposition. The participants of any movement which defies the Party or the Party leaders and therefore also the entire regime, could not protect themselves against the terror regime. A small-scale group action for improved living conditions exposed the participants to almost the same risks as an open political action against the regime. The workers themselves were fearful of isolated small-scale actions of resistance. “If all workers of all industries would rebel...” This “if” was repeatedly talked about by the workers, as an excuse for not being able to act themselves, but also as a ray of hope.

It was easy for the building workers and the workers of the Hennigsdorf Steelworks to convince themselves that their resentment over the higher work norms and lower wage schedules would be useless and even dangerous if they merely launched a small-scale group struggle for better economic conditions for themselves.
They had to get out the workers of other factories, the women and men of the working class districts, in one big mass movement against the government, against the entire regime.

What was secretly discussed and expected as the only chance, had to become true. The professional pride of the building and steel workers turned into a political pride to be at the helm of a movement which was acclaimed by practically the entire population, except the Party elite and the new aristocracy.
Working and foodstuff conditions became so desperate that many acts of spontaneous resistance occurred in many industrial towns. But the Party leadership somehow welcomed the justification for intensified terror. The old anti-labour instructions and orders for 10 per cent more work without more pay could not be cancelled because of the shaky economic foundation of the state economy, and because of Moscow’s unwillingness to give up the claims for large tribute or preferential supplies from the exhausted economy.

Many rationed goods were not distributed at all, or they were replaced with inferior goods which were offered at greatly increased prices.

Under such conditions the workers felt encouraged to discuss their grievances openly. It was obvious that the top leaders of the regime were unable or unwilling to act ruthlessly and with totalitarian terror methods against the critics of the regime.

Then the leading members of the underground had to deal with the issue: “What to do next?” The decision to call the workers out for strikes and open demonstrations against the regime was made in view of the following factors:
1. The people were hungry and desperate but the regime had imposed new additional burdens, including new increased work norms without extra pay.
2. The peasants were desperate and would support any action against the government in the towns.
3. The terror apparatus of the regime was not fully effective, for the government was dependent on a foreign overlord who was dissatisfied with the government. Its members were confused about the further course of action.
4. Important international behind-the-scene negotiations were being held in Eastern and Western capitals where the fate of Germany was to be decided. These negotiations could be favourably effected by an open act of defiance of the regime.
5. The political parties and the government in Western Germany were to be aroused about the urgency of the problem of unity and liberation of East Germany from the Eastern totalitarian state and the unbearable conditions imposed by it on the people.

On 7 June, the building workers of the Stalin-Allee project in East Berlin for the first time received their weekly wage on the basis of the newly-introduced work norms, i.e., at greatly reduced rates. The bureaucrats of the trade unions and of other official agencies refused to listen to the complaints of the workers and threatened police action against “sabotage” and “resistance” against the state authorities. Then, on 9 and 10 June, the official decrees about a change of the party line were made known.

Now there seemed to be confirmation of what had been said in the whisper campaigns: The Ulbricht apparatus will find it difficult to use methods of physical terror in order to suppress open mass resistance. The workers will have a chance if they express their dissatisfaction with the bureaucrats. Moscow will hesitate to appear in the role of the mass liquidator of the industrial workers of East Germany.

On 15 and 16 June, the building workers of the Stalin-Allee project openly demanded withdrawal of the new work-norms and wage cuts. Ulbricht’s apparatus still refused to give in. Then the workers stopped working, left their jobs and marched into other workers’ quarters, especially to other plants, in order to spread the movement. Many thousands of workers marched to the East German government and Party headquarters.

This action was still relatively peaceful. Two members of the government, Rau and Selbmann, who had the reputation of not being especially close to Ulbricht, personally tried to pacify the masses. They were frequently interrupted when they talked to the workers but they were not personally attacked. Then, on 17 June, the order for new work norms and wage cuts was withdrawn. It was too late. In the evening, the slogan spread among the workers in all East Berlin districts.

The next morning, all workers of East Berlin would go on strike and march against the government. The next morning, the workers of the municipal utilities (gas, water and electrical power plants) joined the strike and marched against the government headquarters, too. In a matter of minutes Russian tanks intervened and saved the SED and government headquarters from destruction by the infuriated workers. Without the last-minute intervention of the Russian tank division, the workers would have seized party and government headquarters with little chance of escape for the SED leaders.

The workers did not run away when the guns of the Russian tanks were turning against them. They faced them with desperate courage and iron discipline. Politically conscious workers advised their colleagues not to engage in an open and unequal fight with the Russian forces.

One step further, and the tanks would have been used against the unarmed workers. It was too early to attempt a revolution against the government and against the Russian armed forces.

The action had started under the leadership of workers who were especially reliable and courageous in their defiance of the regime. They were skilled workers traditionally known for their personal willingness to take risks in the struggle against oppressive authorities. The building workers of Berlin and the steel workers of Hennigsdorf were known for their support of revolutionary actions during the pre-Nazi era 1918-1933.
They were strongholds of the Communist movement in Berlin during that period. Under the Nazis they defied the regime wherever possible.

They certainly did not become adherents of Nazism. These workers were called out for an open act of defiance of the regime, but under slogans which at first concerned their own economic interests: against the new work norms and for better living conditions. The economic demands were fulfilled by the regime almost within a few hours after the start of the strike.

But an immediate “transition of the economic into a political struggle” took place in the best tradition of the old tactical experiences of revolutionary action. The advance guard of the Berlin working class had called out the other workers and the entire working class population to defy the regime and to march to the centres of the administration with the demand: immediate resignation of the government.

Spontaneously, in towns and villages where the underground did not have direct contacts but where local underground leaders existed, too, or where such leaders arose during the action itself, workers went on strike and local populations, often openly supported by peasants, marched to the prison buildings where political prisoners were kept or where the administration was located.

Overnight the net of underground organisations was multiplied and a new revolutionary organisation was born.
There was a serious danger that local hot-heads would go too far and that the government would provoke a revolutionary uprising or an all-out struggle under conditions which spelled defeat for the movement. An underground leadership which existed in nucleus-form intervened.

The spontaneous demand for a general strike was declined. For such an extension of the action would have been an attempt to seize political power and would have involved the movement in an open premature struggle against the foreign occupational power. There was no chance to win against the Russian tanks and machine guns, while open support from the West was not available.

The local leaders of the movement were warned to avoid any clash with the representatives of the Russian occupational powers. When Russian tanks and guns controlled the streets and further mass action would have resulted in an open clash with the Russian forces the action as such was called off.

But in many towns and industrial centres open mass resistance still continued. The leaders of the underground discovered that they had unknown sympathisers and active supporters. The basic weakness of the police machine of the regime became apparent: it was acting on behalf of a foreign power and it relied on “security forces” recruited largely from young workers who did not want to act against their own people. Many acts were seen of heroism and evidence of disintegration of the regime.

The only elements who were really reliable from the viewpoint of the Ulbricht clique and of the Russian commander were the former S. S. members or Nazis who had joined the SED and the new Security Forces of the regime. But the old Communist party members who had joined the new administration were in most cases “unreliable” and except for a few top leaders bore within themselves the germs of disintegration.

In one town, the mayor, an old-time Communist, personally knocked down with his fists the policeman, a former Nazi, who was shooting at the anti-government people. The Communist mayor was later arrested and condemned to death.

The uprising improved the bargaining position of the Western powers. But the desperate masses would have to pay the price. Any underground leader and active member of the resistance movement had to be aware of the possibility that the regime would take vengeance on him if it could ever gain absolute power. But does Moscow want to return the Ulbricht clique to absolute power and will the Russian regime support such purges? The Russian leaders are experienced in administrative rule and oppression of oppositional movements.

But they are not too experienced with such movements in satellite countries especially in areas forming the border line between East and West, and especially not in highly industrialised countries with proletarian leaders who are trained in the tradition of the old labour movements and with workers who also have a tradition of defiance against their exploiters and oppressors.

A violent suppression of the anti-totalitarian national and social liberation movement in East Germany and other Russian satellite countries, with the silent or indirect consent of the Western powers, would liquidate the only force which makes it possible to avoid a third world war. For the Russian overlord will see to it that the suppression of such movements will be used in order to propagate the idea of betrayal of any progressive movements by the Western powers and in order to build up a stronger police and military machine than ever existed before. It would be used in order to wage war against the Western powers at a later stage, under conditions where the Western powers would be unable to use the means of political warfare effectively in Europe.

This is the international background to the events in East Germany. They are either the beginning of a new era of revolutionary national and social liberation movements, or they will seal the fate of any social liberation movement in our time.

The Western powers are in greater danger of being defeated in Germany if they refuse to support such movements because the final consequences of such a struggle are much more far-reaching than it may appear to the casual observer.

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