Fifty years since the workers’ uprising in East Germany

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The 50-year retrospectives on 1953 have included a large amount of nostalgia for that glorious day in June when a new queen was crowned and news came through that a 'Commonwealth' team had conquered Everest. A time when the monarchy was respected, 'traditional values' were still in place and society seemed to make a little more sense than it does now�

Other events in the same year, however, symbolise the darker reality of those days. It was the year of Stalin's death and of the end of the Korean War, but the shadow of a third world war still loomed large. The intensity of imperialist rivalries between east and west also reinforced an ideological terror typified by the McCarthy phenomenon in the USA. And for the majority of the population, east and west, grim austerity and heightened exploitation were the order of the day as world capitalism reconstructed itself on the ruins of the war.

These conditions form the background to the event which we have chosen to commemorate in this issue of WR: the massive strikes of the East German workers in June 1953. Although they took place at a time when the counter-revolution - Stalinist and democratic - still reigned supreme, and were thus doomed to isolation and defeat, these struggles also pointed a finger towards the future: not only the more widespread class movements in the eastern bloc in 1956, but also the outbreaks in western Europe at the end of the 60s, which signalled the end of the counter-revolution and the return of the working class to the stage of history. But it is above all because the movement of the East German workers has left us with important political lessons - 'positive' lessons about how to organise massively against state terror, to spread a struggle as widely possible, as well as 'negative' lessons concerning the workers' illusions in 'democracy' - that the East German uprising is the real proletarian heritage of 1953. The extract that follows is taken from our International Review no.18, written for the 25th anniversary of the movement.

The so-called 'socialist' countries of Eastern Europe arose as a result of the imperialist re-division of the world brought about by World War II. The slogan of the holy war against fascism was nothing but the lie which the western and Russian bourgeoisies ended up using to mobilise their workers in the fight for more profits, markets and raw materials for their capitalist masters. The Allies' love of democracy did not prevent Stalin, for example, from doing a deal with Hitler at the beginning of the war, through which Russia was able to seize large areas of Eastern Europe.

As it became increasingly clear that the Allies were going to win the war, the conflict of interests within the 'democratic camp' itself, and especially between Russia on the one hand and Britain and America on the other, became greater. The Russians received only the minimum of military supplies from the west, and Britain even wanted to open up the Second Front against Germany in the Balkans instead of in France to prevent the Russians occupying Eastern Europe.

What kept this united front of gangsters together was the fear that the war, particularly in the defeated countries, might, as in World War I, be ended by an outbreak of class struggle. The brutal bombing raids by the Allies on German cities were aimed at crushing the resistance of the working class. In most cities the workers' areas were obliterated, whereas only 10% of the industrial equipment was destroyed.

The growing resistance of the workers, which in some cases led to uprisings in concentration camps and factories, and the dissatisfaction of the soldiers (such as the desertions on the eastern front, which were countered by mass hangings), were swiftly crushed by the occupying powers. This pattern was followed everywhere. In the east, the Russian army stood by while the German forces put down the 63-day long Warsaw Rising, leaving 240,000 dead. Similarly, the Russian army was responsible for restoring order and social peace in Bulgaria and elsewhere in the Balkans. In the west, the CPs joined the post-war governments in France and Italy, in order to break the flickering strike movements and social unrest there. The Italian CP in power was supporting the same democratic allies who mercilessly bombed the Italian workers who were occupying the factories towards the end of the war.

The 'Soviet' occupiers began to exercise an organised plunder of the east European territory under their control. In the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) of East Germany, the dismantling of industrial equipment for transportation back to the Soviet Union amounted to 40% of the industrial capacity of the SBZ. The Sowjetinen en Aktiengesellschaften (SAGs, Soviet stockholding companies) were founded in 1946 and two hundred firms in key industries, including for example the massive Leuna works, were taken over by the Russians. In some areas, at the end of the war, the workers themselves began operating the factories and such factories were especially eagerly taken over. In 1950 the SAGs constituted the following proportion of the East German economy: "more than half of chemicals, a third of metallurgical products, and about a quarter of machine production" (Staritz, Sozialismus In Einer Halben Land).

A large proportion of these profits went to the Russians directly as reparation payments. The GDR was committed to reparation payments to the USSR up until 1953-4, until it became clear that the reparations were damaging the Russian economy itself. The decimated East German economy paid the bill through a brutally rising exploitation of the working class. The proletariat was forced in this way to help finance the reconstruction and expansion of the Soviet war economy. Stalin never explained why the working class and the 'Workers' State' in Germany should have to pay for the crimes of its exploiters.

This consolidation of Russian imperialism's economic power in East Germany and Eastern Europe was accompanied by the coming to power of pro-Russian factions of the bourgeoisie. In the SBZ, the Stalinists of the KPD came together with the Social Democratic murderers of the German revolution, to form the Sozialistische Einheits Partei (SED). Its immediate post-war goals had already been expressed clearly shortly before the war began: "The new democratic Republic will deprive Fascism of its material basis through the expropriation of fascist trust capital, and will place reliable defenders of democratic freedoms and the rights of the people in the army, the police forces, and the bureaucracy" (Staritz, op. cit.).

Strengthening and 'democratisation' of the army, the police, the bureaucracy�such were the lessons which these good bourgeois 'Marxists' had drawn from Marx, from Lenin, from the Paris Commune.

Then, three years after the war had ended, came the announcement that the building of 'socialism' had now begun. A miraculous 'socialism' this, which could be constructed upon the corpses of a totally crushed and defeated proletariat. It is interesting to note that between 1945-8 not even the SED pretended that the state capitalist measures they were putting through had anything to do with socialism. And today, leftists of all descriptions who propagate the idea that nationalisation equals socialism, prefer to 'forget' the high degree of statification present in the east European economies even before the war, and especially in those countries most renowned for their 'reactionary' governments, such as Poland and Yugoslavia. This centralisation of the economy under the state had proceeded during the German occupation.

In fact, the famous declaration of the 'building of socialism', along with the economic, political and military tightening up which took place in eastern Europe after 1948, was the direct result of the hardening of the global conflict between the American and the Russian blocs:

"The Two-Year Plan (measured on the 1949 standing) foresaw a rise in production of 35% until 1950, reckoned with a rise in labour productivity of 30%, a 15% growth in the total wage mass, and a 7% sinking of the costs of public firms. The aim of the SED was thereby to raise work productivity twice as fast as wages. The means to these ends were seen by the planners above all in the improvement in the organisation of work, the introduction of 'correct norms' and in the struggle against absenteeism and carelessness at the workplaces" (Staritz, op. cit.).

The rise in wages after 1948, insofar as they took place at all, were merely the result of piece rate norms and 'productivity achievements', or in other words they were the result of higher levels of exploitation. This was the period of the Hennecke movement (the East German equivalent of Stakhanovism) and of an iron discipline in the factories imposed by the unions. But even so these small wage rises became more and more an intolerable burden for the economy and had somehow to be cut. The economically weaker eastern bloc, less and less able to compete with its American-led rivals, was forced, in order to survive, to squeeze super profits out of the proletariat and to invest in the heavy industries (or more precisely, in those industries connected to the war economy), to the detriment of the infrastructure, the consumer goods sector, etc. This situation, which required the immediate and centralised control of the economy by the state, pushed the bourgeoisie into making frontal attacks on the living standards of the working class.

The response of the proletariat came in a wave of class struggle which shook Eastern Europe between the years 1953-56. The movement began in early June 1953 with demonstrations by workers in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, which led to clashes with the army. These were immediately followed by the rising in the GDR and by the revolt in the massive Vorkutz labour camps in Russia in July of the same year. This movement reached its climax in 1956 with the events in Poland, and then in Hungary, where workers' councils were formed.

It has been estimated that the real wages in East Germany were half the 1936 level (Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, p.80). In July 1952 the SED announced the opening of a new period of 'the accelerated construction of socialism', by which was meant a further increase in investment in heavy industry, a greater increase in productivity and a greater increase in production norms. It was clearly intended to speed up the post-war reconstruction. In the spring of 1953, at a time when the unions in West Berlin were having difficulty controlling the combativity of the building workers, the government in East Berlin was stepping up a full-scale campaign to increase the production norms generally, and particularly on the building sites. On 28 May it was announced that 60% of the workers on the huge building sites in Stalinallee had 'voluntarily' raised their norms (this is the language of 'socialist' realism). The effects of the nationwide production campaign on the working class were already beginning to show. That same month strikes took place in Magdeburg and Karl Marx Stadt. In response the government proclaimed a general norm rise of 10% for 5 June.

Becoming frightened by the mood among the workers, an anti-Ulbricht grouping within the SED leadership, and apparently with Kremlin backing, pushed through a reform package aimed at gaining the support of the middle classes. This group even began to suggest an easing-up policy as regards the question of the production norms.

But such manoeuvres came too late to prevent a proletarian eruption. On 16 June the building workers took to the streets and marched calling out other workers. Finally the demonstration made for the government buildings. The general strike called for the following day paralysed East Berlin and followed in all other important cities. The struggle was organised by strike committees elected in open assemblies and under their control - independent of the unions and the party. Indeed the dissolution of the party cells in the factories was often the first demand of the workers. In Halle, Bitterfeld and Mersburg, the industrial heartland of East Germany, strike committees for the entire cities were elected, which together attempted to coordinate and lead the struggle. These committees assumed the task of centralising the struggle and also temporarily organising the running of the cities: "In Bitterfeld, the central strike committee demanded that the fire brigade clear the walls of all official slogans. The police continued to make arrests; whereupon the committee formed fighting units and organised the systematic occupation of the city districts. The political prisoners of the Bitterfeld jail were released in the name of the strike committee. In contrast the strike committee ordered the arrest of the town mayor" (Sarel, Arbeiter gegen den Kommunismus).

Because of the speed with which the workers took to the streets, generalising the struggle and taking it straight to the political level, above all because the need to openly confront the state was understood, the proletariat was able to paralyse the repressive apparatus of the East German bourgeoisie. However, just as the rapid spread of the strike across the country was able to prevent the effective use of the police against the workers, in the same way, the international extension of the struggle would have been necessary in order to counter the threat of the 'Red Army'. In this sense we can say that, taking place as it did in the depths of the world wide counter-revolution following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the East German workers were defeated because of their isolation from their class brothers abroad, east and west. In fact, the weight of the counter-revolution placed political barriers more terrible than the bayonets of Russian imperialism against the extension of the movement from a revolt to a revolution. The links binding the class to its own past, its experiences and struggles, had long been smashed by Noske, Hitler and Stalin - the bloody heroes of reaction - by concentration camps and mass bombings, by demoralisation and by the destruction of its revolutionary parties (the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the political decimation of the KAPD). Having suffered for so long under the fascist and Stalinist one-party states, the workers believed that parliamentary democracy might protect them against naked exploitation. They called for parliament and free elections. They sent delegates to West Berlin, asking for help and solidarity from the state and the unions there, but in vain. The West Berlin police and the French and British troops were posted along the borders of the city with East Berlin to prevent any movements of solidarity between workers east and west. The unions in the west turned down the suggestion to call a solidarity strike, and warned the east European workers against illegal actions and adventurism. The workers called on the Russian army to remain neutral (not to interfere in internal German affairs - according to the strike committee of Halle and Bitterfeld). They learned a hard lesson: in the class war there is no neutrality. The workers wanted to get rid of Ulbricht and Co., not realising that one Ulbricht would simply be replaced by another, and that it's not a question of overthrowing this or that government but of destroying the world capitalist system which hangs like stone around our neck. They didn't understand the need to centralise the struggle politically at the level of workers' councils which would smash the bourgeois state.

Kr, June 2003.