Germans remembered as revolting - in the best sense

Half a century ago today, and only 8 years after the end of the Nazi regime, long-suffering workers in east Berlin decided they had had enough. Because of Russian tanks however, it would be almost another 4 decades before the revolt against dictatorship begun that day would succeed.

Some of the earliest activists are still around to talk about it today.

The longtime main goal for Paul Werner Wagner, who was 5 years old in 1953 when he marched beside his father in the first workers' uprising in Soviet-controlled Central Europe, has been to make sure that the men and women who suffered and went to prison at that time not be forgotten.

"At 17," he recalled today, "I founded a party. It was the Progressive German Freedom Party. We published a 14-point program that was inspired by the 10-point program of June 17, 1953. For that, I spent a year and a half in the Red Ox Prison in Halle.

"So for me, June 17 is a symbol of hope, and the people who undertook the events of June 17 must not be forgotten."

Mr. Wagner was talking, though, about an event that has been largely forgotten outside of Germany. It has been obscured by subsequent heroic actions, like the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland of the 1980's, which led, ultimately, to the fall of Communism all over Eastern Europe.

But 50 years ago this Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets in 272 cities and towns across what was then the German Democratic Republic, the eastern half of divided Germany.

Within the space of that single day, they raided jails to release political prisoners, made and listened to speeches outlining a possible better future, issued manifestos calling for both democracy and better conditions for themselves and threw a scare into the East German leadership from which it never completely recovered.

At the end of the day, Soviet troops and the East German police, backed by tanks, put down demonstrations and arrested many of the movement's leaders. A number of people were killed in the process, estimated at between 25 and 300. Brief as it was, the June 17 uprising remained a treasured and inspiring memory for thousands, for whom, when East Germany finally did die in 1989, it seemed a precursor, a herald of what was to come.

Sadly, and for less than honorable reasons, at least until very recently the events of that June have been largely ignored in the West. Apparently I haven't been the only one who has been bothered by the strange silence which began decades ago. In commemorations today the politicians tried to make amends for past neglect.
"There are so many days in our history associated with defeats or mistakes," President Johannes Rau told a special session of parliament in Berlin. "June 17 is one of the proud days in German history."
In the socialist East, there were certainly many idealists who had not supported the 1953 uprising, but in the West the lack of support, even shortly after the events, was and remains so much less understandable.*
Germany lost interest in the uprising during more than 40 years of Cold War separation that led to a gradual accommodation with the communist German state.

"Let's be honest: For one reason or another, June 17 had become a nuisance to many of us," Rau said.

The uprising began with a protest by East Berlin construction laborers over higher work quotas as Germany rebuilt after World War II. It evolved into broad unrest with calls for free elections and German unity.

Protesters stormed public buildings and, in some cities outside Berlin, set up strike committees with the aim of wresting power from the communists.

East German propaganda and schoolbooks portrayed the protesters as fascist Western agents until the country collapsed in the wake of huge peaceful pro-democracy protests in 1989.

West Germany had a June 17 annual memorial day. But after reunification, it was replaced by Oct. 3, the date on which the east rejoined the larger west in 1990.

Well, they seem to be working out a lot of stuff right now; maybe the holiday thing can get resolved too. Happy anniversary to a free people who understand what it takes.

For more, from witnesses and from today's youth, "And now they can be proud of it," see the BBC story and the video linked there.


* The CIA site admits the U.S. was both surprised and disinterested.

The Berlin uprising was a spontaneous action that took American intelligence officers by surprise. Although the United States had waged an active propaganda campaign that encouraged dissatisfaction with the Communist regime, it had not worked directly to foster open rebellion and had no mechanism in place to exploit the situation when it arose. US authorities in Berlin thus had no alternative but to adopt an attitude of strict neutrality.1 Many East Germans nonetheless expected the United States to intervene. These expectations persisted, unintentionally fueled by a US-sponsored food-distribution program that began on 1 July and lasted until the East Berlin government put an end to it in August.2