The unthinkable took place in East Berlin and East Germany: the working class of a totalitarian country, where 30 Russian divisions are stationed, where the Communist Party disposes of all the levers of control, revolted against an implacable dictatorship, left the plants and building-yards, invaded the streets and public places, to cry out their anger and demand — what? Higher wages? No: to demand freedom.
This exploit was accomplished by a working class which suffered through 12 years of the Hitler regime, war, and eight years of the “People’s” regime and the Soviet occupation.
The June events were, of course (as we are going to explain) an elementary, spontaneous explosion. Yet small, almost imperceptible signs heralded the revolt.
During the first days of June, Neues Deutschland, the central organ of the Communist Party, and Tagliche Rundschau, the paper put out by the Soviet occupation authorities, were filled with reports on discussions inside the factories, always on the question of the “work norms.” The working class’s discontent over the inhuman exploitation, over the Soviet-model Stakhanovism, over the overtime work, had become so strong that the Communist party was obliged to take note of it at meetings and in the press.
First, grumbles. Thus one could read in every paper of the Eastern Zone that the workers were “grumbling” in Leipzig and Halle, in Magdeburg and Jena, working-class centres where the old Social-Democracy had formerly been entrenched in impregnable bastions, where Rosa Luxemburg had exercised a dominating influence. One could read that the workers of a plant in Leipzig had declared: “It is a shame that 70 years after the death of Karl Marx we are forced to demand decent living conditions!”
These words, which were taken up everywhere to some degree, were uttered at a time when the most elementary food necessities were lacking, because of the collectivisation policy, because of the frantic pace of industrialisation, and also because everything was being subordinated to rearmament.
The Leipzig workers were told by responsible Communists — “Don’t you understand that these factories are your own, that for the first time in your lives, you are working for your own interests and for the well-being of your children?” At the beginning of June, when the Communist authorities, following Soviet orders, decreed the end of “bolshevisation” in the Eastern Zone, the workers seized the pretext of the apparent relaxation of the pressure to protest more boldly against the “infernal speed-up.”
Thus the “June days” began. On June 14 the paper of the Communist party, Neues Deutschland, attacked the “irresponsibles” who were trying “to force the building-trades men in Stalinallee to increase the work norms,” in spite of the measures that had been decreed. The paper declared that this was a typical example “of a false policy which has to be brought to an end!” At the same time, Neues Deutschland pointed to “some partial strikes” among the workers of Stalinallee, an immense artery where gigantic buildings were being constructed in the purest Soviet neo-classic style.
On the morning of June 16, the norms having been once again raised, the workers of a small building-yard, consisting of 100 men, met to protect against “this new intolerable measure.” The responsible officials of the building “union,” frightened by the turn that events were taking, ran up to preach “calm.” One of the secretaries of the “union” suggested a “friendly approach” to the authorities in order to “get satisfaction.” But the reaction of the workers was unexpected: “We are all going there!” was the unanimous cry of the workers at this building, and immediately they set out to march to the central office of the Ministry of Reconstruction.
En route they were joined by all the workers of Stalinallee. It was the beginning of the revolt.
Here we must stress this point: the demonstration in Stalinallee took shape on the morrow of governmental measures decreeing the end of forced “bolshevisation”; it was directed, at bottom, against measures (increase in the work norms) which no longer corresponded to the “line” and which were due to the initiative of some “backward” elements who, dazzled by “bolshevisation”, had not yet mentally grasped that the “turn” was to be made with dizzying rapidity. The demonstration was directed against a government which was already in retreat but which yet engaged in provocations through a part of the apparatus.
The curious thing about 16 June was this: The Stalinallee workers down tools, imitated here and there by some steel plants which set up strike committees, following the example of the construction workers. Significant fact: the responsible leaders of the strike committees are for the most part workers known as social-democrats.
The demonstration, which has begun as a demonstration against the “infernal speed-up,” soon takes on a political character. The Stalinallee workers dare to shout: “Down with the Ulbricht-Grotewohl government!” On the other hand, not a word against the Russians.
The “people’s” police are bewildered and let things go: no one opposes the workers’ march, now numbering 4000, which arrives before the central construction office. A delegation is received by the “director” who promises everything: “Go back to work; you will get satisfaction!”
A “curious day,” we said. The workers, in fact, go back to work. But back in the building yards they start to discuss; the discussion rapidly takes a political turn and ends with the conclusion: “Tomorrow we will see!” And on June 17 — memorable date — the Stalinallee workers assemble before their building yards. Everywhere, in front of groups of 100 and 200, workers, mostly youth, well-known to their fellow workers, get up on ladders and boxes and make speeches: “Comrades!” says a young socialist, respected by his comrades, well known for his courage, “it is time to make an end of it. The government of the Grotewohls and Ulbrichts has betrayed the working class. We demand the unification of Germany, the end of slavery, and free elections!”
Thunder of applause! All over Stalinallee, innumerable speakers — not “provocateurs” but workers well known to their comrades — pick up these words of the young socialist.
Suddenly thousands of workers, dressed in their working clothes, sally out in a march toward Leipzigerstrasse, where the “People’s” government buildings are located. All along, wherever they pass construction workers, they are joined by other working men who quit work.
The women and youth begin to make placards and flags — black, red, gold: the emblem of the old Weimar Republic and of the federal republic at Bonn. Need one be surprised ? The workers do not want to be confused with those who “under the reign of the red flag” have imposed the regime of slavery. But here and there are seen on the flags the “three arrows,” under whose sign the Social-Democracy of the Weimar Republic conducted its fight against the Nazi hordes.
By the time the workers get to the government buildings, they number tens of thousands.
The “people’s” police fall back; some of the policemen openly take flight and quickly get rid of their uniforms: it is a stampede. But some detachments remain loyal; they prevent the workers from getting into the government buildings to get hold of the Ulbrichts and the Grotewohls.
Meantime, the workers of the steel plants, especially those of Henningsdorf in the Soviet zone, have heard the news and downed tools.
Henningsdorf, in the suburbs of Berlin, is traditionally “red.” There it is that in 1931-32 the Communist Party had its most solid fortress.
These were the workers who had chased the Nazis out of the factories and daily fought against the brown-shirt hordes. The sons of these workers, rich in the experience of eight years, went out on strike, but now against the Communists: And there it is: a fantastic march by 8,000 workers, in their working clothes, across the French sector of Berlin, chanting slogans: “Freedom! Free elections! We don’t want to be slaves!” A fact to be noted: the responsible officials of the Communist “cells” in the plants have disappeared, and the majority of the members of the “party” are marching at the side of their comrades, carried along by the revolutionary élan of the crowd.
On Leipzigerstrasse, in Potsdamerplatz, on the Wilhelmstrasse, there are now 40,000 chanting the old chants of the working-class movement: “Bruder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit!” — Brothers! toward the sun, toward freedom! It is revolution; it is the revolt of a whole people known for their sense of discipline; it is the most amazing manifestation of human dignity; it is open struggle against the Communist power.
The People’s Police are incapable of standing in the way of their will; they are powerless against this human sea which swirls about them, against these demonstrators who carry their placards high (“Down with the Grotewohl government! We want freedom!”), enthusiastic and determined. The police call for reinforcement; they have lost the battle. They begin to fire on the crowd, who draw back at first, only to advance again.
All the streets of East Berlin are black with people, workers who are on strike, merchants who feed the demonstrators. Isn’t this the way that Lenin defined a “revolutionary situation”? The Communist government no longer exists.
The CP headquarters are sacked and burned. The party officials have vanished.Only one of them, Minister Selbmann, dares to leave a government building.
He gets up on a platform to speak to the workers: “Comrades — “ But before he can go on, he is interrupted by the cry, repeated from a thousand throats: “You are not our comrade! You have betrayed us! We want freedom!” Selbmann quickly returns to his office, and a construction worker takes the floor to make a speech to the workers.
There was only one thing to do to meet this situation: the call to arms. The Russians did not hesitate.
Suddenly tanks roll up, menacing, and the crowd falls back step by step. Young workers, courageous and determined, begin to bombard them with stones and pieces of metal. The Soviet soldiers fire, cries ring out, men fall.
Up to now (we are writing this article on June 23), the number of dead and wounded in East Berlin is not known exactly; but in West Berlin alone, where the demonstrators dragged them, 16 workers lie dead of their wounds; and hundreds of people were wounded. The Soviet leaders immediately understood the scope of the events: if they had not intervened, it would have been the end of the regime, the fall of the Communist government, whose leaders were isolated from the masses and whose determined people could have liberated themselves from their chains by their own strength, given no outside intervention.
On June 17 and 18, in spite of the tanks, in spite of the dead and wounded, the battle continues : everywhere photos of the “well-beloved leaders” are torn down, everywhere the files of the “party” are burned; the SED [Stalinist party] offices are burned; it is the end of the “Sedistan Republic,” an end made symbolic by the courageous action of two young workers who climb up the Brandenburg Gate, on the border of the Western and Eastern sectors, to tear down the Soviet flag, symbol of slavery.
And the whole city is on strike. In all the factories, strike committees have been named and formed, for the most part, of socialist workers and comrades known to be determined enemies of the Stalinists.
While the Berlin events were played, so to speak, on a public stage, before the eyes of all the Berliners of the Western sectors, the revolt over the whole Eastern zone can be reconstructed only from information that came to Berlin. We will note only that part of the reports which could be checked and whose authenticity cannot be contested.
In Magdeburg, a working-class city, an old fortress of trade unionism and the Social-Democracy, all the workers downed tools about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when, alerted no one knows how, they learned of the events in Berlin. Here again: election of strike committees in the factories, hurried manufacture of placards (“Down with the government! We want freedom!”), and — a march by ten thousand workers on the party headquarters, which is taken by storm. The leaders of the Communist Party are given a thrashing and abused, the station is occupied, and then suddenly comes the cry: “To the jails!” Then, a memorable liberation of the political prisoners who, carried on the crowd’s shoulders, join the demonstration! The Soviet troops, having received no instructions, do not budge, at least at this time.
In Halle, the city where the “Leuna” plants are located, where in 1920-21 revolutionary movements were touched off: street demonstrations, general downing of tools, liberation of political prisoners. At this time we cannot get confirmation of the rumour that the “Leuna” factories were burnt down.
The Leipziger Volksstimme, the Communist party’s paper, admitted, “The building workers and workers of other branches of industry have gone on strike!” And the Communist paper wrote that on June 20!
“In Halle,” writes the Neues Deutschland, central organ of the CP, “fascist hooligans attacked the headquarters of the Communist Party!” The minister of railroads of the Soviet zone, Roman Chwalek, admits: “There were acts of sabotage pretty much everywhere in Thuringia!” We learn from him, besides, that “the management of the railroads in Magdeburg was taken by storm and sacked!” What this minister does not say, but what can now be affirmed with complete certainty, is that on June 17, 18 and 19 there was a general strike on the railroads throughout the Soviet zone.
At Stralsrund the leaders of the Communist Party were jailed; at Gera (Thuringia) the police offices were taken by storm; at Gorlitz the railroad station was seized by the strikers; at Leipzig 15,000 workers demonstrated in the streets and sacked the party headquarters; over “the whole Democratic Republic,” we read in a proclamation of the Communist party on the 21st, “workers’ clubs, apprenticeship houses and workers’ canteens have been burned down!” It is a likely story, isn’t it, that the demonstrators took to the “workers’ canteens”? At Chemnitz and Erfurt, the demonstrators occupied the Communist Party headquarters (Chemnitz was baptised “Karl Marx City” recently...)
Let us not continue the enumeration of details: future historians, possessing all the details of this popular explosion, will doubtless give us precious information which will permit us to get a better picture than we have at present of the ups and downs of this proletarian revolution.
From today on we must draw conclusions from the June days.
This first of all: it is not necessary to take into serious consideration the Stalinist “argument” that “a gang of conspirators” succeeded in inciting hundreds of thousands of workers to revolt. If that were true, it would in any case be a confession that the Stalinist regime is rotted through to an unheard-of extent! Then too, the “explanation” that the workers were encouraged “from the top,” that is, by the Soviet leaders, to demonstrate and even to get rid of the Communist leaders is also not deserving of consideration: the events themselves constitute a very clear refutation.
And we know that “over the whole Democratic Republic,” the people hunted down the Communist loaders, liberated the political prisoners, organised a general strike.
What is amazing about this workers’ revolt is that the picture is extremely simple — one is tempted to say, simplistic: it is the kind of situation described by Lenin where “the governments confess themselves incapable of going on in the same way and the people no longer stand for being ruled in the same way.”
When the “people’s” regime announced on June 12 that “bolshevisation” was ending, that forced collectivisation had ceased, that the work norms would be lowered, the working class immediately and instinctively understood that these steps, although they were dictated by Soviet foreign-policy considerations, were a confession of the bankruptcy of a regime which rested solely on Russian tanks. It was after the publication of these measures that the first open demands were heard, that the first localised strikes broke out.
The question has been raised, legitimately: “Why didn’t these workers revolt against the Hitler regime, since they have just proved that they were capable of it?” The answer seems to us very simple: the Hitler regime had solid bases in the population, even in a part of the working class; its mass organisations were something real; on the contrary, the Stalinist regime in East Germany always was, and is, a bluff, and only that.
Politically the workers of the Eastern zone lived their own lives during these eight years of the “people’s” regime; the slogans touched them only very superficially; the “mass organisations” of course had adherents (forced adherents), but only some thousands of Stalinist functionaries sought to put a breath of life into them.
As we said, the Stalinist rulers in Germany could not establish that monopoly on information and news that the Communists possess in the other satellite countries of Soviet Russia: West Berlin is there, a Berlin that courageously resisted the Soviet blockade [of 1948-9], which nourishes a strong socialist and free trade-union movement, and which has shown itself capable, in spite of the Iron Curtain, of sending a message of hope and fraternity to the workers of the Eastern zone.
But this explanation, however important, is still insufficient. The course of events in East Berlin and in the Eastern zone proved that no illegal organisation was at the head of the demonstrations and strikes. Those who took the initiative, in the outbreak of the strikes as well as the demonstrations, were trade unionists and socialists, without any material support other than the will of the workers to free themselves of the slave-drivers.
The revolt in Berlin and East Germany is the spontaneous uprising of hundreds of thousands of workers. Take the example of the steel workers of Henningsdorf: when two workers arrived from Stalinallee to bring the news to their steelworker comrades, if was sufficient for a single worker, a young socialist, to cry: “We are going there!” for 8000 workers to set out on the march!
Everywhere, in all the cities of the Eastern zone, things happened in the same way: in Leipzig, in Halle, in Jena, among the “Leuna” workers. Monatte and Rosmer [the editors of the Revolution Proletarienne] know that it was practically in these cities that the German workers’ movement was forged. And the June days supplied proof that in Berlin, in Saxony and Thuringia the workers’ movement remains alive, beyond all expectations.
And that is the hope that remains, in spite of the summary executions, in spite of the draconic sentences imposed on those who feared neither the “people’s” police nor the Soviet tanks. Another hope inspires us: isn’t it certain that the bases of the “popular democracies” in all the satellite countries is hardly more solid than in Germany?
The events in Czechoslovakia prove this, from all the evidence. And doesn’t this fact open up perspectives which could hardly have been believed before the June, days? Has it not been proved that the “liberation” of the satellite countries is possible otherwise than by war? Has it not been proved that a firm policy by the Western powers, joined with moral and material solidarity with the oppressed people, can hasten the process of dissolution in the Soviet camp? This is one side, an important side of the problem.
But what is more important, meanwhile, for the free workers’ movement as a whole is the fact that Stalinism, modern totalitarianism, has not succeeded in destroying the workers’ movement and its traditions.
The cry of “Freedom” was accompanied during the memorable days of June 17-18 by the cry of “Solidarity!”
The workers were in solidarity: that was what was fundamental, while the; totalitarian regime had striven for eight years to destroy their class-consciousness, to erase every feeling of solidarity, to atomise the will of the working class. All of us hang over the radio, anxiously awaiting news. We are likewise anxious to know the reaction of the workers’ movement of France. Don’t say “nothing can be done for them,” that the repression will in any case follow its own course.
While we write these lines, on June 23, there are still strikers in various cities of the Eastern zone. The workers are also listening to the broadcasts from the West. They want to hear that the West, the workers’ movement, has not forgotten them. They have had to learn that up to now the weighty apparatus of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has scarcely gotten into motion, that up to now there has not even been any results in taking care of the families of those who are dead, of the hundreds and thousands who were wounded, of the others who were executed without a trial, of those who were given heavy jail sentences.
Right now, all the cities of the Soviet zone are surrounded by Soviet troops. Soon “peace” will reign in all these cities. For how long? That will depend to a great extent on the West and its workers’ movement. The “June days” are a message sent to us not only by the workers of Berlin and Magdeburg, but likewise by the workers of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Bucharest.
The Stalinallee workers, trade-unionists, socialists and free men, have perhaps changed the destiny of the world.
• From Labor Action, 27 July 1953, where it was introduced with the following note: “Reservation can be held on some of his interpretations — for example, the connection with the Social-Democrats which he sees, and the completely spontaneous and unorganised character of the actions — but the picture he presents adds much to our knowledge. The article is translated from the current issue of Révolution Prolétarienne. — Ed.”