Search in
ADD SEARCH FILTER CANCEL SEARCH FILTER

Digital Archive International History Declassified

Essays

East German Uprising

Christian Ostermann

The roots of the summer 1953 East German crisis date back to July 1952.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The New Course

The roots of the summer 1953 East German crisis date back to July 1952, when the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) adopted a crash socialization and collectivization program termed the “Planned Construction of Socialism.” A number of other East and East-Central European states had already embarked upon this approach a few years earlier, seeking to promote rapid short-term economic growth. By late 1952, however, the devastating effects of these policies—both in human and economic terms—had gradually become evident, even in Moscow itself. Towards the end of that year, officials there were receiving a growing number of reports on economic dislocations and popular unrest. Soviet diplomatic and intelligence sources reported a state of “near-total chaos” in the Czechoslovak economy, “severe deficiencies” in Hungary, and “extremely detrimental conditions and disruption” in Romania. Local communist rulers maintained control only through massive expansion of the largely Soviet-controlled security apparatus, mass terror, purges and show trials.

Prior to the summer of 1952, Soviet designs for German unification had precluded full satellization of the GDR along the model of the East European “people’s democracies.” But the announcement of the GDR’s new policy by the country’s strong man, SED General Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Walter Ulbricht, now seemed to signal openly that the priority of promoting so-called all-German concerns had been abandoned in favor of unimpeded sovietization and consolidation of the eastern zone. As early as April 1952, Stalin had told visiting East German leaders, “you, too, need to organize an independent state.”

By late 1952, Stalinist policies had already backfired. Forced socialization in industry and agriculture had driven East Germany’s economy into the ground, and socio-economic conditions had become critical. Hardest hit was the “middle class”, mainly small entrepreneurs and wealthier farmers (“kulaks”). In this new phase of the “class struggle”, the regime levied prohibitive taxes against remaining small and medium private enterprises in trade and industry. In addition, small business owners were, by April 1953, precluded from receiving ration cards, forcing them to buy food at exorbitant prices at state stores. The regime also intensified its battles on other fronts. A particular target were the churches, especially the dominant Protestant Church and its active youth organization, the Junge Gemeinde, viewed by many young East Germans as a preferred alternative to the SED-dominated Free German Youth (FDJ). The combined assault on society by the authorities, notably through the compulsory build-up of armed forces, put additional strains on the GDR’s socio-economic fabric. While prisons were filling up with the victims of socialist criminal “justice”, an unprecedented number of East Germans fled to Western Germany. Had some 166,000 people turned their back on the regime in 1951, and some 182,000 in 1952, in the first four months of 1953, according to internal GDR statistics, some 122,000 East Germans left. As the Soviet intelligence chief could inform the CPSU Politburo, the GDR no longer held “any attraction to citizens of West Germany.” Eager to close the last escape valve—the still open sector crossings in Berlin—and to put the pressure on the Western powers by increasingly harassing the Western outpost, the SED proposed to take the drastic measure of virtually closing off the border between the Eastern and Western sectors early in 1953, thus foreshadowing the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The growing crisis in East Germany coincided with a change of leadership in the USSR, and the dawn of a new era, in the wake of the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953. Even as the dictator lay dying at his dacha in the Moscow suburb of Kuntsevo, Georgii Malenkov and Lavrentii Beria plotted to seize the reins of power. Besides Malenkov and Beria, the newly-created CPSU Presidium included Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin, and others whom had held high positions under Stalin. The momentary pre-eminence of Malenkov in what was presented to the party and the outside world as the new “collective leadership” was underlined by his appointment on 5 March as chairman of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers.

Seemingly ready to break with the hard-line and paranoid approach that had placed the Soviet Union on the defensive worldwide, the new leadership immediately moved to set Soviet foreign policy on a more calm and flexible track. On 15 March, Malenkov announced before a session of the Supreme Soviet that there was “no litigious or unresolved question which could not be settled by peaceful means on the basis of the mutual agreement of the countries concerned ... including the United States of America.” In the following weeks, the USSR signaled readiness for a truce in Korea; eased the contentious traffic problem around Berlin; called for a resumption of the quadripartite negotiations on safety in the Berlin air corridors; waived its long-standing claim on control of Turkish territory; and agreed to the appointment of Dag Hammarskjöld as new U.N. secretary general. A growing consensus within the Moscow leadership seemed to emerge on the need for drastic changes in Soviet policies toward East-Central Europe that would help stabilize the deteriorating situation in the region.

Stalin’s death and his successors’ “peace offensive” had surprised not only Ulbricht, but also the new administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite the fact that Stalin’s demise had been expected ever since the end of World War II, nobody had apparently examined the scenario very seriously. “Ever since 1946, I know that all the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies and what we as a nation should do about it,” Eisenhower complained at a cabinet meeting on 6 March. “Well, he’s dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out—in vain—looking for any plans laid. We have no plan. We are not even sure what difference his death makes.” The thinking of the president and his administration soon crystallized around the idea of a presidential speech. Internal disagreements, however, forestalled any immediate reaction to the events in Moscow.

Soviet Premier Georgii Malenkov’s 15 March speech increased the pressure on the Eisenhower administration. Across the board, U.S. officials doubted that the speech or Moscow’s other conciliatory gestures indicated a basic change in Soviet policies and long-range objectives. But Malenkov, not Eisenhower, had seized the initiative. Everything now seemed to be “building up towards a new offer on Germany,” as the new U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Charles Bohlen, predicted—-possibly even, “with Stalin gone ... a really big one involving Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Germany.” In the end, Eisenhower’s 16 April speech, “A Chance for Peace,” delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, called for a “deeds not words” test of the Soviet peace campaign. Eisenhower suggested, among other things, an agreement to end the Korean War and to address the German and Austrian problem. The speech was designed to seize the political and psychological initiative from the USSR. Internally, Secretary of State Dulles sounded more pessimistic: “The present course we are following is a fatal one for us and the free world. It is just defensive: we are always worrying about what the Soviets will take next.”

The German issue was under intense review within the Soviet leadership in the spring of 1953. The hope was both to boost the prestige of the East German regime and resurrect the idea of German unification. Though occasional diplomatic and intelligence reports hinted at the “worsening class conflict in the GDR,” Moscow seems to have had little awareness of how quickly the situation in the GDR was deteriorating, due in part to Beria’s efforts after Stalin’s death to revamp the security apparatus. By early May, however, the worsening condition increasingly drew attention in Moscow. Beria concluded that “the Central Committee of the SED and the responsible state organs of the GDR do not conduct a sufficiently active fight against the demoralizing work carried out by West German authorities” and that “they falsely assume that as long as free circulation exists between West Berlin and the GDR, such flights are inevitable.”

The debate after Stalin’s death within the Soviet leadership over policy toward the GDR probably culminated at the 27 May session of the Soviet Presidium of the Council of Ministers and the following days. It remains unclear exactly how the German issue played out, whether the crisis in East Germany led to arguments in favor of pursuing all-German concerns and even abandoning of socialism in the GDR altogether, or whether it prompted the exact opposite, moving the debate away from more all-German considerations to consolidation of the GDR. Most likely the crisis in the GDR forestalled any decision on the overall issue of an initiative on Germany. The Presidium members agreed that the policy of “forced construction of socialism” had to be terminated in order to avert a full-blown crisis. According to later recollections of Soviet leaders, Beria was not satisfied with merely adjusting the pace of socialization in East Germany. Instead of terminating the forced construction of socialism, he allegedly shocked his colleagues with a proposal to abandon socialism in the GDR altogether in favor of creating a united, neutral and non-socialist Germany. “We asked, ‘Why?,’” Molotov later recounted. “And he [Beria] replied, ‘Because all we want is a peaceful Germany, and it makes no difference whether or not it is socialist.’” Only after several other discussions and telephone conversations among the Soviet leadership did Beria finally gave in: “To hell with you! Let’s not go to another meeting. I agree with your stand.”

The USSR Council of Ministers adopted as an “order” the final draft resolution on the GDR that had been under discussion since the Council Presidium’s meeting on 27 May. The 2 June order, “On Measures to Improve the Health of the Political Situation in the GDR,” sharply criticized the SED’s policy of accelerated construction of socialism. It called for a decided shift in economic policy on a broad front: an end to forced collectivization and the war on private enterprise, for a revision of the Five Year Plan at the expense of heavy industry, and a relaxation of political-judicial controls and regimentation.

The decree was handed to SED leaders Ulbricht and Grotewohl on 2 June, the same day they had been hastily ordered to Moscow. In their conversations at the Kremlin, Grotewohl noted, the Soviet leaders expressed their “grave concern about the situation in the GDR.” The East German response, half-heartedly drafted the following night and tabled the next day, fell short of Soviet expectations. The 2-4 June talks with the East German leaders presaged similar consultations with other satellite leaders, which, in each case, resulted in the announcement of a comparable “New Course” program.

The SED delegation returned to East Berlin on 5 June. The emotional uproar over the New Course documents soon turned into explicit criticism of Ulbricht. Various Politburo members vented their dissatisfaction with Ulbricht’s personality cult and management of the Secretariat. Semyonov, who had returned with the SED delegation from Moscow and participated in the sessions, seemed increasingly inclined to support Ulbricht’s critics. The Politburo on 9 June also adopted language for a public announcement of the New Course. Most Politburo members had agreed that the announcement warranted careful preparation of the party and the population at large. The communiqué and its frank admission of past mistakes shocked many East Germans in and out of the party. Reports from local party organizations, carefully monitored by SED headquarters in Berlin, candidly described the widespread disappointment, disbelief, and confusion within party ranks, as well as among the populace. To many, the communiqué signaled the SED’s final bankruptcy and the beginning of its demise. Party members felt betrayed and “panicky,” some even called for Ulbricht’s resignation. Many thought the SED retreat from crash socialization resulted from pressure by the West German government under Konrad Adenauer and the Western powers.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Eisenhower administration reacted cautiously to the New Course announcement, treating it with the same skepticism as it did the Soviet peace campaign. The U.S. government tended to underestimate the crisis in the GDR . As late as 2 June, the day Ulbricht was in Moscow to listen to Malenkov’s dire warnings, the West estimated that the economic crisis brought on by collectivization and socialization was not critical: “[T]here is currently no reason to believe the situation has reached the stage of catastrophe or that the GDR Government does not have the means at its disposal to prevent it from becoming such.” Not surprisingly then, the Eisenhower administration initially doubted the seriousness of the “New Course” announcement by the SED Politburo. U.S. intelligence estimates concluded that “the recent Soviet move in [the] GDR, coupled with [the] Korean Armistice and other Soviet moves on [the] world chess board, represent a tactical and not ... strategic shift in Germany.”

The Uprising

With the SED paralyzed and weakened, workers in East Berlin—and soon a growing number from other segments of East German society—decided to act on their grievances. The exact course of events that led up to the demonstrations and riots of 16-17 June remains difficult to reconstruct. Beginning a few days earlier, on several construction sites workers had clashed with union and party officials, instituting work slow-downs or protests. On 12 June for example, six transport company workers had started a demonstration in front of the Brandenburg prison; by the end some 5,000 people had joined in. During a plant retreat cruise on the Müggel lakes in southeast Berlin the following day, workers at the “Hospital Friedrichshain” construction site, discussing their complaints over beer, decided to force a revocation of the norm increases by going on strike. On Monday, 15 June, dissatisfaction with the norm increases dominated party meetings convened by SED functionaries at several Berlin construction sites to adopt prepared resolutions thanking the party and state leadership for raising the norms. At the “Stalinallee Block 40” site, workers decided to send a delegation to Grotewohl to deliver a petition to rescind the norm increase. Underestimating the explosiveness of the situation, Grotewohl, on the advice of his aides, ignored the workers’ demands. The next morning (16 June), emotions were running even higher at construction sites in Berlin. An article in the union paper, “TRIBÜNE,” restating the necessity of the norm increases, seemed to signal that the government would not back off. By 9 a.m., some 300 workers had gone on the move. The workers apparently decided to proceed to other sites first to increase their ranks, then move in loose formations towards the city center. Hoisting banners, the demonstrators soon broadened their demands beyond the social-economic issues that had first sparked the protests to include political changes. The bulk of the demonstrators moved to the government seat; others went in the direction of the SED headquarters. On the way, they managed to take over two sound trucks which they used to spread their calls for a general strike and a demonstration at 7 a.m. the next day. In front of the GDR House of Ministries, the quickly growing crowd demanded to speak to Ulbricht and Grotewohl. But only Heavy Industry Minister Fritz Selbmann and Professor Robert Havemann, president of the GDR Peace Council mustered the courage to appear. They tried to calm the workers, but were shouted down. Later that afternoon the crowd dispersed and East Berlin sank into an ominous and deceptive calm, interrupted only by isolated clashes between the People’s Police and groups of demonstrators.

Throughout the night of 16 June and early morning of 17 June, the news of events in East Berlin spread quickly throughout the GDR—by word of mouth as well as by Western radio broadcasts. While Soviet troops entered the outskirts of the city early in the morning of 17 June, crowds of workers began to gather in public places, and began marching towards the city center. Along the way, they encountered GDR security forces—regular and Barracked People’s Police units (KVP)—who, apparently lacking instructions, initially did not intervene. Along with SED and FDJ functionaries, police officials tried—usually without success—to convince the marchers to return to their workplaces and homes; in cases where police did try to halt or disperse the crowds, they quickly wound up on the defensive.

From all East Berlin districts and surrounding suburbs, smaller or larger groups continued to arrive in the city center, many using the city tram and metro. As they drew ever-greater numbers, a feeling of solidarity permeated the crowds. Much like the day before, loudspeaker cars and bicycles provided communications between the different columns of marchers from the outer districts as, all morning, they converged on the city center. On improvised banners and posters the demonstrators demanded the norm rescission, price decreases, the release of fellow protestors who had been arrested the day before, and even free all-German elections.

By 9 a.m., some 25,000 people were gathered in front of the House of Ministries, and tens of thousands more were en route. Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., some 80 to 100 demonstrators apparently managed to storm the government seat, visibly demonstrating that the 500 members of GDR People’s Police and State Security had been overpowered. Only the sudden appearance of Soviet military vehicles, and then tanks, seemed to prevent a complete takeover. Within an hour, Soviet troops had cleared and isolated the area around the government headquarters. But fighting between Soviet forces (and later GDR police) and the demonstrators continued into the afternoon and night; eyewitnesses reported that in some instances the Soviets fired directly into the throngs: “It was awful to see [. . . ] how the crowds of people fell to the ground. One could immediately see several writhing on the ground, covered with blood; everybody screamed for ambulances and police.”

Developments throughout the GDR mirrored the events in East Berlin. In several cities, such as Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt, observers had noticed the workers’ “explosive mood” prior to 16 June, but most of the interruptions, strikes, and other actions had taken place at the workplace; only in rare instances had there been public demonstrations. Rumors about worker unrest in Berlin and impending strike actions had filtered to the rest of the GDR as long-distance commuters return home for the weekend. RIAS’ afternoon broadcast on 16 June confirmed the news about the mass demonstrations in the capitol and the demands for a rescission of the norm increase, the resignation of the government and free elections; by mid-day on 17 June, the RIAS reports had reached broad segments of the East German population. Meanwhile, popular unrest was also spreading to the rest of the country. Strikes and demonstrations were particularly strong in industrial centers in central Germany, in the Magdeburg area as well as in Jena, Gera, Brandenburg and Görlitz. More than 500,000 people in over 560 East German cities and communities are now estimated to have participated in the first wave of protests between 16 and 21 June.

The Reactions of the SED Leadership

While the East German leadership was aware of the worsening mood in the country, the depth of the resentment and the extent of anti-regime actions no doubt came as a surprise. Later that night, the Berlin party aktiv (the most reliable SED functionaries) met in the Friedrichstadtpalast. In a demonstration of unity and determination, the entire Politburo, headed by Grotewohl and Ulbricht, appeared before the group of nearly 3,000 people. Grotewohl acknowledged that mistakes had been made by the party leadership and criticized the “cold-blooded” administrative and police measures. “The avant-garde of the German working class,” he admitted, had lost touch with the masses; the workers’ dissatisfaction was justified; changes—which many understood to imply leadership changes—were necessary. Ulbricht also conceded errors—“Yes, mistakes were made”—even “with regard to the development of a personality cult,” but then tried to deflect blame onto the threat posed by “provocateurs from West Berlin.” Ulbricht asked the party activists to “take to heart correctly and draw the right conclusions from the lesson which we received today. Tomorrow even deeper into the masses! ... we are moving to the mobilization of the entire party, up to the last member! ... We are now getting to the point that tomorrow morning all party organizations in the plants, in the residential areas, in the institutions will start to work in time and that one is watchful everywhere: Where are the West Berlin provocateurs?” Based on the myth of an external provocation, the SED leadership expected that a massive propaganda drive would be enough to cope with the crisis. About 10 a.m., the Politburo met at party headquarters, the House of Unity. By 10:30 a.m., concerned about the growing disorder Semyonov ordered the leadership to proceed to the Soviet headquarters in Karlshorst, from which they were finally dispatched to major cities in an effort to observe and maintain political control throughout the GDR. Ulbricht, Grotewohl, Zaisser, and Herrnstadt remained in the Soviet High Commission headquarters. According to Rudolf Herrnstadt’s recollections, Semyonov at one point confronted them over how badly the situation had deteriorated. “RIAS is broadcasting that there is no government any more within the GDR,” he remarked, ”Well, it is almost true.”

The Politburo did not meet again until 20 June—at party headquarters. The afternoon session was marked by the devastating first-hand impressions members had brought back from the districts. “In the face of continuing attempts by the fascist provocateurs and the wait-and-see attitude of certain elements of the population the Politburo did not consider it advantageous to terminate martial law,” the minutes noted. The leadership hastened to declare, however, that “the decision was a prerogative of the responsible Soviet authorities and that superior international interests may necessitate lifting martial law as soon as possible.” Certainly aware of the difficult position that military rule had placed the Soviets in internationally (and perhaps not quite sure to what degree the Soviets shared its views of the revolt’s source), the Politburo also resolved to ask Moscow not to immediately abandon “the measures to prevent the intrusion of fascist bandits from West Berlin” once martial law was lifted in East Berlin. The Politburo also decided—as it would repeatedly in the next few days—on additional measures to increase consumer goods production and the importation of raw materials and foodstuffs. By early July, therefore, Ulbricht was walking a tight rope. Sometimes passive, seemingly even resigned, at other times belligerent, the besieged party leader appeared to be playing for time. Admitting to mistakes, even to a personality cult, he nevertheless was able to deflect heavy blows. With Semyonov in Moscow for consultations, indecision momentarily prevailed—providing Ulbricht with yet another chance to regroup. The struggle within the SED Politburo culminated at an 8 July Politburo meeting, when a new draft was tabled. According to surviving notes, the debate quickly focused on whether Ulbricht should step down. Herrnstadt refused to accept the position of first or general secretary, as had been proposed by MfS chief Zaisser. According to Zaisser, Ulbricht “was no more responsible for the wrong course than we all are.” Nevertheless, he added the leader’s attitude had “spoiled the Party,” and would undermine efforts to implement the New Course: “[To leave] the apparatus in the hands of W.U. would be catastrophic for the New Course.” One by one, the Politburo members declared their opposition to Ulbricht’s continued leadership; only Freedom German Youth League chief Erich Honecker and Party Control Commission Chairman Hermann Matern supported him. Again temporizing—and perhaps with an inkling that winds in Moscow were beginning to blow in his favor—Ulbricht prevented a decision by promising that he would make a statement at the forthcoming 15th SED CC meeting, scheduled for later that month.

Much like the SED, the Soviets were completely surprised by the widespread protests that followed the demonstrations in East Berlin. Much of their initial reaction was therefore uncoordinated and improvised. According to his memoirs, Semyonov and the newly appointed commander of Soviet occupation forces, Colonel-General Andrei Grechko, agreed to deploy troops from their summer training camps back to the garrisons on 15 June. Later in the evening of 16 June, Semyonov met with the SED leadership and informed “our friends of the decision we had taken to send Soviet troops to the city of Berlin”—supposedly at first encountering some opposition to this idea on the part of the Germans. Semyonov also urged Ulbricht to warn the regional party apparatus of the impending strikes. Early the next morning, Soviet tanks entered Berlin. By mid-morning, Semyonov had evacuated the SED Politburo to Karlshorst. At noon, the Soviet authorities terminated all tram and metro traffic into the Eastern sector and essentially closed the sector borders to West Berlin to prevent further demonstrators from reaching the city center; one hour later, they declared martial law in East Berlin. Some of the worst violence occurred outside the East Berlin police headquarters, where Soviet tanks opened fire on “the insurgents.” Executions (most prominently of West Berlin worker Willi Göttling) and mass arrests followed. Overnight, the Soviets (and the MFS) arrested thousands of people; by 19 June, some 1,744 persons had been arrested; by 23 June some 6,000 people had been detained. In the course of the uprising, the authorities executed at least 20, and probably 40, persons including Soviet soldiers who refused to obey orders. In all some 8,000-10,000 people were arrested; more than 1,500 were given sentences (including 2 death penalties.) Elsewhere in Berlin and throughout the GDR, the Soviet military seemed to hold back and remain more passive; Soviet soldiers at times even displayed a friendly attitude towards the demonstrators.

Few details are known about how the Kremlin leadership perceived the crisis on 16-17 June—nor about the impact it had on the power struggle in Moscow. Khrushchev, Molotov and others constantly called the Soviet; Beria sent two of his top men to Berlin. Shortly before 9 p.m. on 17 June, Soviet Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of Staff Marshal Vassilii D. Sokolovskii arrived in Berlin, along with Marshal L. A. Govorov, another high-placed Soviet official. Sokolovskii’s dispatch to Berlin—rather than Beria’s which apparently had been considered first—indicated that in the eyes of the Soviet leadership a military crisis of major proportions had developed; reports from East Berlin that the British has declared martial law in their sector, and that NATO forces had been put on alert must have confirmed this assumption in Moscow. Sokolovskii’s arrival also suggested that some doubts seem to have existed as to whether the local Soviet authorities would be able to handle the situation: “I don’t understand how this could happen,” he supposedly wondered aloud upon his arrival.

Despite being unprepared for the outbreaks, Semyonov and Grechko, hastened to assure Moscow that they had regained control and that the strikes and riots had subsided rapidly after the display of Soviet military force. Late on 17 June, Grechko, representing the Soviet military authorities, reported that the “provocative plan of the reactionary and fascist elements has collapsed,” and that order had been “restored in the majority of the cities of the GDR” According to the GDR security service, not until 24 June had the situation finally calmed down.

Probably the first Western officials to take note of the demonstrations in East Berlin were the employees of the American Radio in Berlin, RIAS. Controlled by HICOG but staffed mainly with German personnel, RIAS was extremely popular in the GDR: U.S. intelligence agents estimated that more than 70 percent of East Germans listened on a regular basis. RIAS played had played an important role before the uprising. While neither it nor any other U.S. government agency instigated the demonstrations, RIAS had certainly encouraged labor unrest and passive resistance. The radio station’s significance as an “alternative public opinion” within the GDR is reflected in internal SED reports, which pointed to the widespread and, in fact increasing, reception of RIAS broadcasts in the spring of 1953.

Based on information provided by workers from the Stalinallee construction site, RIAS had reported on the afternoon of 15 June that protest strikes were being staged against the increase in work norms. Broadcast in the late evening and then again in the early morning of 16 June, when reception throughout the zone peaked, these reports were based on scant evidence whose tenuousness initially led other radio stations not to send them. By noon (16 June), reports from various sources confirmed that demonstrations at the Stalinallee construction site had indeed taken place. After a short announcement of the news at 1:00 p.m., RIAS gave a lengthy account of the day’s events in the Soviet Sector on the 4:30 p.m. news, providing uncensored reports of the shift in the demonstrators’ demands from rescission of the higher work quotas and price cuts, to shouts of: “We want free elections.”

Not surprisingly, then, it was RIAS to which the East Berlin workers turned on the afternoon of 16 June with requests for assistance in spreading their call for a general strike the next day. RIAS officials recognized that the rebelling workers expected the radio station to be their central coordinating point, since only RIAS could effectively establish a link between strikers and the general population. One of the worker delegates later recalled that they anticipated RIAS’ full support for their strike, followed by a Western Allied invasion to reestablish order. Apparently unable to consult effectively with Washington or HICOG Bonn, local RIAS officials opted for caution. Mindful of the warning by HICOG’s Eastern Affairs Element Chief Charles Hulick that night—“I hope you know what you are doing. You could start a war this way” —RIAS political director Gordon Ewing decided that the station could not directly lend itself as a mouthpiece to the workers, yet would factually and fully disseminate information about the demonstrations. This policy decision was soon confirmed in Washington.

RIAS reports on the demonstrations contributed to quickly spreading the news throughout the GDR. The 7:30 broadcasts that evening featured the demonstrations, and reported that a delegation of construction workers had submitted a resolution for publication. The resolution stated that the strikers, having proved by their actions that “they were able to force the government to accept their justified demands,” would, “make use of their power at any time” if their demands for lower quotas, price cuts, free elections and indemnity for all demonstrators would not be fulfilled. Moreover, RIAS reported that the demonstrators were determined to continue their protest and convinced that “strikes and demonstrations would not be limited to the workers of the Stalinallee site.” Later that night, RIAS broadcasts came close to open encouragement of the protests. RIAS’ cautious but increasingly supportive stance during the early hours of the uprising mirrored the response of local Western officials. Meeting at 11 a.m. on 17 June, even before the Soviet declaration of martial law, the Western Berlin Commandants agreed that their primary duty was “to maintain law and order in their sectors.” U.S. officials were equally eager to avoid escalating the crisis at first, even though they acknowledged that the Soviet military’s brutal suppression of the uprising afforded Washington an “excellent propaganda opportunity.” In the aftermath of the events of 16-17 June, the American attitude—both in Washington and Berlin—soon grew tougher. Eisenhower’s assistants, by the end of June, had drawn up an “Interim U.S. Plan for Exploitation of Unrest in Satellite Europe.” The plan sought to capitalize on the East German crisis by keeping the Soviets and the Ulbricht regime on the defensive in order to undercut their “peace and unity offensive” and to strengthen the position of those who favored West German rearmament and joining the EDC and judged that the GDR uprising created “the greatest opportunity for initiating effective policies to help roll back Soviet power that has yet come to light.” Essentially, the plan prescribed actions at two levels: First, the administration was to re-emphasize “at the earliest possible moment” strong U.S. support for German unification based on free elections, thereby responding to the momentum for Four-Power talks. It also proposed a variety of overt, covert and psychological warfare measures designed “to nourish resistance to Communist oppression throughout satellite Europe, short of mass rebellion ... and without compromising its spontaneous nature, [and] to undermine satellite puppet authority” The proposed measures included a wide range of activities, from allocating $50 million for the reconstruction of West Berlin to exploiting Soviet repressive tactics at the United Nations, launching “black” radio intruder operations to induce defections, and encouraging the “elimination of key puppet officials.” But few of the measures, as far as one can tell from the declassified documents, were actually carried out. By far the most visible activity which did take place was a large-scale food program for East Germany. The aid action was hailed in Washington, Bonn, and West Berlin as a “highly successful operation.” But because U.S. policy throughout the program retained limited objectives and did not intend to tip off a second “Day X,” it could not prevent the consolidation of the Ulbricht regime in years to come.

About the Author

Christian Ostermann is the Director of the History and Public Policy Program and the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the editor of the Cold War International History Project Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), Co-Editor of the Cold War History (London), lecturer in History and International Affairs at the George Washington University, and Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University. He was a consultant for Historical Documentaries (including CNN/Jeremi Isaacs Productions’ COLD WAR (1998)), a Senior Research Fellow, National Security Archive (George Washington University) and a Research Fellow at the Commission for the History of Parliament and Political Parties in Bonn (Germany).