The June uprising of the East German workers demonstrated to the world — and to Moscow — that the Grotewohl-Ulbricht regime was built of sand and rested on water. Since it could no longer pretend to represent anyone but its Russian masters, its usefulness as a pawn in Moscow's game to draw Western Germany out of the American orbit seemed at an end.
Nevertheless, Moscow did not sweep the wreckage of the discredited regime aside and attempt to install a new government that could bid for some degree of popular support. Instead, the Kremlin began to do everything within its power to rehabilitate and prop up the old ruling Stalinist party, called the Socialist Unity Party (SED).
At the same time, the policy of economic concessions was reaffirmed. However, to the East German workers the combination of the old Grotewohl-Ulbricht gang and the new policy, especially after the June revolt, must have seemed as monstrous and unbelievable as the unfortunate character of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night's Dream — a reasonable body crowned by the absurdity of a donkey's head that brayed when it thought it was speaking.
In the course of the last three months, Moscow’s line has been symbolised by the growing power of Walter Ulbricht, deputy premier of the regime and first secretary of the SED. It is he who has been given the power and the responsibility for rebuilding the shattered party-police-state apparatus. Today, Ulbricht's most important task is the creation of a party within the party, a hard core of party faithful who are to supervise the activities of the ordinary run of party members.
This corps of party elite, according to Ulbricht, is to number 150,000 to 200,000 out of a total membership of 1,230,000. The members of this praetorian guard will receive special political training and have periodic conventions separate and aside from the regular party congresses, at which they will discuss the most important problems facing the regime.
Members of this select group will be chosen, says Ulbricht, on the basis of their behaviour during June 17. Only those will be so “honoured,” and receive of course the corresponding material privileges, who neither “faltered” nor “gave in” to the demands of the “provocateurs,” that is, the workers, during the uprising.
Behind the political shock troops will stand the newly rebuilt Volkspolizei (“People's Police”) and the East Germany army which is poorly concealed under the name of Bereitschaften (alert units). The factories are being combed for those who refused to join the strikers or actually resisted when the workers spontaneously rose up against the regime. Ulbricht is even dreaming of creating factory militias by arming “loyal” workers who are not recruited into the police or army. Truly, Ulbricht is taking-upon himself the labours of a Sisyphus!
When the Russian occupation troops intervened on June 17, they saved the satellite empire from being broken at its weakest link by preventing the strike demonstrations from turning into the first stages of a revolution. They could not and did not, however, crush the spirit of the workers, who retreated and shifted the scene of the struggle from the streets to the factories.
The slogans underwent a corresponding change: from the most general political demands to more limited ones which could serve as a point of departure for undermining the regime within the given framework, i.e., the presence of the occupation troops. And in those first weeks the workers won some notable victories.
On June 17 the workers, supported by the rest of the population, called for the liquidation of the Grotewohl-Ulbricht government, the unification of Germany, and the election of an all-German government by universal secret balloting. Driven back to the factories, they raised a new set of slogans which they backed up with strikes and slowdowns in production.
Among the demands they raised, the most notable were:
• The release of all arrested July 17 demonstrators and the promise of no further reprisals.
• The political “neutrality” of the trade unions, their independence from state control.
• Election of new non-party trade-union officials from the shop upwards on the basis of genuine secret balloting.
• The immediate reduction of work-norms and their subsequent abolition altogether.
• The 46 hour work-week at the same rate of pay as the 48-hour week.
• The lowering of prices by 40 per cent in the state commercial stores.
First and foremost the workers demanded the immediate and unconditional release of their comrades who had been arrested, and they struck to enforce, their demand. One example out of many will suffice to demonstrate their courageous actions and class solidarity.
The workers of the Zeiss Works in Jena demanded the release of their strike leaders, and when it was learned that the chairman of the strike committee, Norkus, had been sentenced to three years in jail, the workers delivered an ultimatum to the factory directors: Norkus was to be released by July 10 or there would be another strike.
It is difficult to adequately describe the panic which took possession of a good part of the bureaucracy in the face of this militancy, but the actions of the regime itself are testimony to the powerful pressure from below.
The minister of justice, Fechner (deposed by Ulbricht in the middle of July) capitulated to the demands of the workers when he wrote in the official party paper Neues Deutschland of June 30 and July 2nd that “only those persons will be punished who are guilty of major crimes. Other people will not be punished. This holds true of the strike leaders. The right to strike is guaranteed by the constitution. The strike leaders will not be punished for their participation in such an action.”
That Fechner kept his word to a degree was shown not only by his subsequent disgrace, but by the actions of his successor as minister of justice, Hilde Benjamin, who has earned for herself the description “Hilde, keine milde.” The news service of the West Berlin Social Democratic Party reported that in the last two weeks of July, 562 participants in the June 17 events, who had been released from jail by Fechner's orders, were rearrested.
In factory after factory, the workers drew up their list of demands and presented them to the factory directors and the trade union bureaucracy. In the great Buna chemical works near Merseburg, the factory personnel drew up a list of 29 demands and presented them to the management (in this case Russian, since the works are controlled by the Russian holding corporation, SAG). On July 15 they went on strike to enforce their demands.
In the Heavy Machine Building Works, ABUS, in Nordhausen, the workers elaborated a 16-point program to be submitted to the factory administration. In the clothing, textile and leather union, the workers demanded and won a 46-hour work-week with the same pay for the previous 48-hour week.
The intense struggle waged by the workers by means of slowdowns and sitdown strikes exerted a tremendous pressure on the entire state apparatus, and created a profound split that spread to the very top — a split that was quite distinct from the personal struggle for power between Zaisser, minister of internal security (Beria's man), and Ulbricht which reflected the fight in Moscow. The “moderate faction” in the SED Politburo — consisting of Grotewohl, the premier, Fechner, the minister of justice, and Herrnstadt, the editor of the official party organ Neues Deutschland — wanted the program of concessions that had been publicly set in motion on June 13 to include the workers, but it was just on this point that Ulbricht continued to resist bitterly, after as well as before June 17.
The resolution of the struggle in Moscow with Beria's fall permitted Ulbricht to eliminate not only Zaisser, who represented Beria, but also the majority of the independent “moderate faction” from the Politburo and their jobs. This was accomplished officially at the plenum of the SED Central Committee held on July 24-26. Nevertheless, although Ulbricht had triumphed, it was impossible for him to set the New Line of June 13 in motion again with the bureaucratic apparatus in its current state, of demoralisation. Particularly was this so since the essence of this program of concessions was its anti-working-class nature.
Not only did the organised underground groups have their adherents strategically located in the trade-union and party apparatus, but in addition sections of the bureaucracy had simply succumbed under the intense pressure and gone over to the side of the workers. At a plenary session of the official trade-union organisation (FDGB) on August 13-15. Herbert Warneke, its head, cited the activities of some top-ranking trade union officials during and after June 17.
The district president of the Postal Workers’ Union of Magdeburg, for example, had collected all the demands he could from the workers — 55 in all — and presented them to the government. The recently dismissed chairman of the Metal Industrial Union (IG Metal), Hans Schmidt, had carried on an “anti-trade union and anti-working-class activity” in the secretariat of the union's executive committee, which had been condoned by the members of the secretariat. The second president of the Power Workers’ Union, Sturm, had “failed to take suitable countermeasures at certain critical moments,” and therefore Sturm had been dismissed from office.
On September 7, the official trade-union federation newspaper Tribune published a list of over a hundred trade union officials and factory administrators who had been fired from their jobs. Of this number 82 alone had been dismissed from the great Buna Chemical Works, the heart of the workers' resistance movement in the Merseburg-Bittefeld area.
Inside the party Ulbricht has been personally carrying through the purge of the infected cadres. On August 11 Ulbricht fired the SED party chiefs in four of the large industrial centres: Magdeburg, Dresden, Halle and Chemnitz. In each case he accused the deposed bureaucrats of treason in connection with the June 17 revolt. But there is more to it than this. It so happens that in each of these areas the workers have been carrying on a vigorous struggle since June 17.
For example, the railway repair shop workers in Halle have been conducting a slowdown that is apparently still in progress, for planned output in these shops was kept down to half of the quota in September. In Chemnitz, the SED paper Volkstimme complained bitterly in its issue of August 12 that the coal mines in the area were consistently failing to meet their daily quotas of output. The paper further noted that the failure to restore production was directly due to “poorly organised party work.” In brief, the local SED party groups from top to bottom were either passive in the face of the workers' resistance or secretly sympathized with it.
The purge of the old cadres and the creation of the new party elite have apparently progressed to the point where Ulbricht feels secure enough to renew the offensive against the workers. As mentioned, the distinctive feature of the New Line of June 13, with its concessions, was its anti-working-class character. And it is to this point of attack that Ulbricht has returned,'apparently intent on proving to his masters in Moscow that he is in full control of the situation.
On September 24, the official press quoted Ulbricht to the effect that the demand for a general 46-hour work-week in industry could not be accepted because it involved a “reduction of production and hence a cut in goods for the population.” And where the 46-hour week had been wrested from the trade-union bureaucracy by the workers, as in the leather, textile and clothing union, it was to be cancelled.
But this declaration was only a trifle compared to the news that the campaign to raise the work-norms was being resumed!
Again the press has begun to carry officially inspired stories, as in the early June days, of workers “voluntarily” demanding that their production quotas be raised. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. For this is the same inflammable issue that ignited the explosion of June.
To be sure, the regime is prepared for mass strikes and demonstrations. But the resistance of the workers is taking forms that do not and will not permit the regime to succeed in its provocations.
The workers have raised the “peaceful” but extremely effective demand for the “political neutrality” of the trade unions, their independence from state control. Specifically, this means they want genuine secret elections of trade-union officials from the factory up. Furthermore, these officials must be chosen from the ranks of the workers themselves, and not from the party apparatus.
And as we have seen earlier, the workers are maintaining a persistent pressure on the regime by means of the slowdown of production. Against such forms of struggle the regime is helpless, because it cannot jail every worker who engages in such acts of defiance. Nor can it call on the Russian occupation authorities to put a soldier behind every worker's back.
The workers understand very well that they can engage in defensive actions only within the given framework, i.e., the presence of the Russian occupation troops, and it would be irresponsible to call it by any other name. But at the same time, the Ulbricht regime rests on nothing else but the tanks and machine guns of these same foreign troops. And just this is its Achilles' heel.
For if the uprising of June 17 revealed how profound and unbridgeable the gap between the regime and the masses, the days and weeks that followed revealed how complete was the demoralisation of the bureaucratic apparatus.
This is what Ulbricht means when he inveighs against the mood of “depression and scepticism” that persists among party members. The regime can no longer convince its own party members, as it could to some degree before June 17, that the ruling SED represented and had the support of the advanced class-conscious workers. Its ability to perpetuate this illusion for so long rested on the historical fact that in the post-war beginnings of the regime, Stalinism did have such support to a considerable degree.
The Russians were able to force the creation of the SED in 1946 only because a considerable number of Social-Democratic workers as well as Stalinists genuinely desired the unity of the working class, expressed in the formation of a single workers' party. The tragic experience of the division in class ranks in the pre-1933 days had, after all, etched a bitter lesson in their hearts and minds. .
These workers in the Eastern zone hoped the SED would serve this function. June 17 marked the end of this road forever.
The creation of the new “elite” party is the response of Germany Stalinism to this new historic situation. For the chief characteristic of the SED today is that it hangs suspended in mid-air.
It has no support below and it must be severely and increasingly policed from above. The mass of the party no longer have any stomach for their jobs and stay only because of the material privileges which result from membership, and the danger of persecution if they leave. When called upon to execute the anti-working-class directives from above, they recoil. Not only do they lack faith, but they confronted by the open hostility of a united working class.
To combat this situation, Ulbricht has created an elite, an inner party to keep watch over the ordinary party member. But who will exercise vigilance to see that in its turn this inner party “elite,” this new praetorian guard, does. not succumb to the pressure of the working class?
Labor Action, 19 October 1953