Modern history




FEW DRAWN-OUT HISTORICAL events or processes came to their ends on the conveniently precise dates cited in the history books. The Berlin Blockade was no exception.

A few seconds after midnight on 12 May 1949, a corporal of the British Royal Corps of Military Police opened the iron gate at the Helmstedt crossing point on the border between the British and the Soviet zones. For the first time in almost a year, a convoy of cars and trucks moved through, heading along the autobahn towards Berlin. At 1.23 a.m., a British military train, pulled by a German engine and driven by a German engineer, set off for Berlin. The first vehicle coming from Berlin arrived at Helmstedt around two that morning, a car driven by an American.

But all was not yet quite what it seemed. Within a very short time, it became obvious that the Soviets had replaced the blockade with a new set of hindrances and restrictions.

After lengthy negotiations about the lifting of the blockade, the SMA had sneaked in a last-minute stipulation that there should be only sixteen trains a day. These must be pulled by Eastern engines and manned by Eastern crews. Moroever, they changed timetables without notice, delayed military trains so that the journey between Helmstedt and Berlin took seven hours instead of two, and produced lists of forbidden exports from Berlin that left 90 per cent of the city’s trade impossible. Trucks were forbidden to travel on the autobahn at night. All mail and postal traffic still had to come in by air, since the Soviets diverted mail trains to their sector and would not release their cargoes.

On 18 May, 400 food trucks were stuck at the border due to Russian demands for a stamp from the German Economic Commission, an organ of the occupation regime controlled by Soviet appointees. Barge traffic, a large proportion of the city’s trade, was held up by Soviet demands for crew lists and transit permits.1

Bizarrely, within days of its apparent salvation, Berlin was paralysed from within by a transport strike. The dispute’s cause was a political and economic powerplay. The S-Bahn (overground city railway) was part of the old German railways, the Deutsche Reichsbahn. The Directorate of the Reichsbahn (the RBD) was Soviet-controlled, and paid its railwaymen in East marks even after the D-Mark was introduced. The 15,000 of these who lived in West Berlin found themselves in real distress, unable to pay for goods and services. On 20 May, these employees refused to operate the rail network in Berlin and also the routes to western Germany. They occupied many stations and disabled the signals and the tracks.

The Soviet response was to send Eastern-sector police not only into Eastern stations but into Western ones, including the main Zoo station. There was shooting. Several strikers were wounded and one killed. For a state that claimed to represent the workers to behave in this fashion was, to say the least, interesting.

The British, in response, sent Stumm police into Charlottenburg, and then to Zoo. After three-sided scuffles between Eastern- and Western-sector police on the one hand and strikers on the other, the Easterners withdrew. It wasn’t until 24 May that the Eastern police agreed to withdraw from all Western rail facilities. Days of negotiations stretched into weeks. The Easterners, whose own economy and distribution networks were starting to be affected, offered up to 60 per cent of the men’s wages in West marks.

The offer was refused. The strikers were getting strike pay and unemployment benefit—all in hard D-Marks—which made them better off staying on strike than going back to work. Two further compromise packages were turned down. The Allies found themselves in a quandary. Was this not the democracy they were claiming to introduce? Were not workers within their rights to strike for the pay rate they desired?

In the end, on 26 June, the Western commandants made a final offer to the transport strikers. First the carrot: the Allied authorities would make up the men’s wages to full D-Mark equivalents for three months, and the city government would find alternative work for anyone who was afraid to go back to work for the RBD. Then the stick: anyone who stayed out on strike got no more welfare payments.

On 1 July, the S-Bahn reopened. From the following day, trains to other destinations, most importantly western Germany, were running once more.

From now on, for four decades, the Allies and the West Berlin authorities would ensure there was always enough food and fuel for the city to keep going. A reserve of five months’ supplies became standard, in case of a new blockade.

The Soviets and the German Communists continued with their obstructionism and carried on with aggressive attempts to undermine West Berliners’ morale. A four-power conference in Paris about Berlin—called as part of the blockade settlement—broke up on 20 June after a month of pettifogging argument, with only the vaguest of ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ regarding long-term access to Berlin from the West.

Meanwhile, an event of far more importance to the future of the city and of Germany had already occurred. On 23 May 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany came into being.

The expropriation of the big landowners in the Soviet Zone, plus widespread nationalisation of private companies and banks there, guaranteed well before the end of 1946 that the economies of the Soviet Zone and the other three had already dramatically diverged. Even then, Ulbricht’s SED was fully in charge.

Stalin’s policy of keeping his options open in the matter of German unity became all but untenable. He could instruct the few Communists in the West German constituent assembly not to sign the basic law that established the Federal Republic, and they obeyed. His propaganda machine could breathe fire and brimstone against the ‘fascists’, ‘capitalists’ and ‘revanchists’ in the West, and it did. But, short of invasion, Stalin could do little to stop the creation of a three-quarter-size version of Germany west of the Elbe.

In fact, the very name of the new West German state—the Federal Republic of Germany rather than ‘German Federal Republic’—was a challenge. It implied that the state represented the whole German land and people. Its provisional seat of government was the modest Rhineland university city of Bonn, which obviously could not be taken seriously as a permanent capital. To have chosen a major city such as Frankfurt or Hamburg would have implied the permanent loss of East Germany and Berlin, which was unacceptable. Right from the start, the West German state viewed itself as the legitimate successor state to the pre-war German Reich.

Moscow was forced to make its move. In May 1949, elections were held in the Soviet Zone for a so-called ‘People’s Congress’ (full name: ‘People’s Congress for Unity and a Just Peace’). In March, Stalin had sanctioned a purge in the SED and reluctantly allowed plans for an East German government and parliament to be drafted. All the same, nothing was done until the West acted. Stalin may have done a lot to cause the division of Germany, but he was determined not to be blamed for it.2

The elections took place for the first time on a basis that would become all too familiar: the single-list ballot. This offered a pre-decided list of candidates from the so-called ‘block’ parties that, whatever their official names, were controlled by the SED. Electors could vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (since there were no alternative candidates, purely a protest vote). Under the circumstances, the 66 per cent ‘yes’ vote—34 per cent daring to register fruitless dissent—was scarcely a ringing endorsement. At the next elections the ‘yes’ vote suddenly increased to 90 per cent plus, and stayed unwaveringly at that level throughout the history of East Germany.

The 2,000-member People’s Congress met in the Russian sector of Berlin and selected a People’s Council of 330 members. On 30 May, a constitution for the ‘German Democratic Republic’ was agreed. But even as a Marxist-Leninist state was being assembled, the rhetoric of German unity remained official usage in the Soviet Zone. Sometime between the elections to the West German federal parliament, the Bundestag, on 15 August 1949, and the emergence of the first West German government a month later, the balance tipped.

On 16 September 1949, the venerable Catholic politician, Konrad Adenauer, became chancellor in Bonn. That same day, an East German delegation in Moscow agreed on the foundation of a separate state in the Soviet Zone. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was formally established on 7 October 1949. Pieck, the veteran KPD leader, became president, while Grotewohl, the former Social Democrat, became provisional prime minister, pending elections of whose outcome there could be no doubt. Ulbricht, First Secretary of the SED, remained the real power in the land.

The new government took over most functions of the SMA. The SED’s security service became the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit = Stasi). Its role was to persecute opponents of the Communist state and protect state and party apparatus against subversion. To this end it established a labyrinthine system of informers, agents and provocateurs. Like the Federal Republic, and the Weimar Republic before, the GDR took as its flag the black-red-gold banner of the 1848 revolutionaries. The flag remained indistinguishable from the West’s until 1959, when the GDR symbol of a hammer (for the workers) and a compass (for the intellectuals) inside ears of grain (for the farmers) was placed at its centre to give it a clear identity.

So now there was a capitalist and a Communist Germany. The seat of the GDR government was declared to be Berlin. The people of the Western sectors, embarking on their first post-blockade winter, were surrounded not just by Russian occupiers but by a separate German state, with its capital in the eastern part of the Berliners’ own city.

The Berlin blockade signalled the advent of the ‘hard’ Cold War. Relations between the West and the Soviet Union finally deteriorated from disillusioned and sporadically violent bickering to a kind of undeclared conflict.

Nineteen forty-nine also saw the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China under the brilliant and ruthless Mao Tsetung. The American-backed former Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was driven from the mainland. He took his government, army, and even his parliament to the offshore island of Formosa (Taiwan). There, for the rest of his long life, he fulminated against the theft of his country. Nationalist or Kuomintang parliamentarians, still officially representing Shanghai, Chungking or Canton, based on the elections of November 1947, sat for decades in a ghostly assembly, the Yuan, in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, and tried to behave as if China was still theirs.

The German situation was different. Two Germanys had arisen because of disagreements among the victorious anti-Hitler coalition. Both sides knew that Germany, even in its weakened and truncated post-1945 condition, was the key to Central Europe, and perhaps even of the entire continent.

America would have liked to bring the whole of Germany over to the Western, capitalist camp, but had decided, when it became clear this was unlikely to happen, to settle for less; similarly, Stalin would have loved to get a united Germany under his influence, but would, as it turned out, be prepared to keep just the bit that he held.3 By contrast, the remaining two Allies—France, especially, but also Britain—were not at all displeased by a disunited Germany. They could, of course, never admit this to the Germans for fear of hurting their feelings.

Only the Germans wholeheartedly wanted their entire country back, and at this juncture they had little say in the matter.

Adenauer was chosen as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany by its newly elected parliament. He won by just one vote. Born in January 1876 (two days after Communist leader Wilhelm Pieck) to a pious middle-class Catholic family in the Rhine Province of Prussia, Adenauer studied law and served his native city of Cologne as a legal official. Later he went into politics for the Catholic Centre Party, first elected as a city councillor, then assistant burgomaster, and finally (from 1917) High Burgomaster of the city.

Adenauer became a prominent figure in the Weimar Republic. From 1921 to 1933, he was president of the Prussian State Council, the second chamber of the state’s parliament, made up of representatives of the city and provincial assemblies. Afer 1945, he helped found the Christian Democratic Party, which hoped to unite Catholic and Protestant Christians in creating a socially aware but broadly conservative post-war German state.

As a leading member of the CDU in the British Zone, Adenauer was asked to chair the constituent council that drew up the constitution for the Trizonia state. Like the venerable George Washington, who in 1776 had occupied a similar position in the Continental Congress, Adenauer, at the age of seventy-three, would now occupy the highest position in the state over whose creation he had presided.

Extremes were utterly foreign to him. He had little time for the absolutist Right. On the other hand, he was also a firm Catholic anti-Communist. He looked at central and eastern Germany and saw an ‘unreliable’ electorate that was not only predominantly Protestant but had tended to support radicalism, of the brown-shirted or red-flagged persuasion. Adenauer was a patriot, but was not prepared to sacrifice his vision of a Western-orientated, Christian Germany on the altar of unity.

It was the firebrand Social Democrat leader Kurt Schumacher who, though also fiercely anti-Communist, yearned to restore German unity. Schumacher was a Prussian from the east, born in what had become Poland. His savage attacks against Adenauer, and his tireless campaigning for German reunification (despite a war wound that would send him to an early grave), established the courageous Schumacher as a legend in the SPD. However, they did nothing to unseat the wily Adenauer, or to attain the goal of unity that Schumacher so passionately sought.

Nine months after Adenauer became leader of the new West German state, something happened that would change the Western powers’ attitude towards the German situation even more drastically than the Berlin Blockade.

At around four a.m. on 25 June 1950, a rainy Sunday morning, North Korean artillery opened fire on South Korean army positions south of the 38th parallel, the line then serving as the border between the two Korean states. The barrage was followed by armoured and infantry attacks all along the parallel. Only at eleven a.m. did North Korea formally declare war.

The Korean War resulted from a situation similar to that in Germany: a country divided according to the positions of Allied forces at the end of the Second World War. A Soviet protégé (Kim Il-sung) had quickly been installed in the north, where Russian troops had the power, as leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea; and an American-supported counterpart (a conservative representative of the Korean ancien régime, Syngman Rhee) in the south, where US forces held sway and the country was known as the Republic of Korea. Now the Communist side had directly attacked the other.

The rapid advance of the Communist forces terrified everyone in the West. US President Harry S. Truman returned from his home in Independence, Missouri, to Washington, DC, arriving in the early afternoon of that June day in 1950. The UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean forces. Instead, the North Koreans advanced and took the South Korean capital, Seoul, at enormous human cost. The war would see-saw back and forth. It would last almost three years and millions of innocent Korean civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers would die—including some tens of thousands from the largely Western-supplied United Nations force that was sent to stiffen South Korean resistance.

Stalin’s support for the invasion of North Korea, which extended beyond propaganda to military aid and the use of Soviet pilots to fly combat aircraft, was one of the his last and worst mistakes. Inevitably, many in the West drew the conclusion that Korea was just rehearsal for a similar violent coup in Europe.

The first Soviet atomic bomb had been tested on 29 August 1949. There was rising anxiety in the West. Either Stalin didn’t see this, or he misjudged it. The same might be said for Ulbricht, who immediately made boastful claims that, after South Korea, West Germany would be the next makeshift capitalist state to fall.4

So, what if something similar had happened in Germany? The balance was less equal. West Germany had 50 million people, and the East only around 18.5 million. But there were 300,000 Soviet troops stationed in the Soviet Zone, and in 1946 the East Germans had started to build up paramilitary People’s Police units, initially classified as Grenzpolizei (border police) or Bereitschaftspolizei (public-order police) but soon organised on a proper military basis and given the title of Kasernierte Volkspolizei (People’s Police in Barracks = KVP).

The KVP uniform bore a disturbing similarity to the old Wehrmacht garb, as did the jackboots. Only the helmet, an adaptation of the Red Army’s, differed radically from what a Second World War German soldier would have worn. Drill and discipline were tough. Former Wehrmacht generals were appointed to regional commanders’ roles. Officers who had been Nazis and in some cases judges in the notorious military tribunals set up towards the end of the war, were also given prominent positions.5

So, perhaps the means existed in the East to attack. But the will? It seems unlikely. Ulbricht and his Soviet sponsors wished to subvert the West German state. Their propaganda power was channelled ferociously and persistently to this end. Although East German society was at this point further down the road to remilitarisation than West Germany, talk of ‘revanchism’ in Bonn and of a reborn SS had become standard in Communist circles. But a direct military attack on West Germany seems unlikely to have been seriously considered.

The West did not know this. Due to the Korean War, few Americans thought any more of cutting, let alone withdrawing, US forces from Germany.

Earlier that year, Truman had received National Security Council Memorandum No. 68 (NSC-68) in which experts at Defense and State broadly recommended rearmament as a response to Communist ambition and the testing of the Soviet bomb. Then came Korea. Resistance to the recommendations dissolved in the face of clear Communist aggression. The armed-forces budget almost quintupled from $15.5 billion in August 1950 to $70 billion at the end of 1951. By 1952-3, defence expenditure took up 17.8 per cent of American gross national product, versus only 4.7 per cent in 1949. Military expenditure increased in all Western European victor states.6

In shattering what remained of post-war complacency in America, Stalin and Kim Il-sung had awoken a giant who may not have been sleeping, but who had been hoping to get some rest. Throughout the half-decade following the Second World War, there was talk, especially from diplomats, of ‘not upsetting’ the Russians. Now that talk dwindled. Many of these same diplomats were under heavy attack from Republican Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy and his Permanent Investigations Sub-Committee, which was reaching the zenith of its inquisitorial power.

For the people of the Western sectors of Berlin, the intensified Cold War had paradoxical effects. On the one hand, the dangers for the capitalist-democratic boat bobbing in the dark sea of Stalinist rule appeared more threatening than ever. On the other, thesolidarity of the NATO powers and the USA in the face of Communist ambition meant that the West was much less likely to quietly abandon Berlin.

The blockade had turned West Berliners from washed-up Nazis into anti-Communist heroes. The retention of Allied military rule in Berlin had become a prestige matter. The city was a military and political asset, a valuable listening station and irritant inside the belly of the Red beast. The experience of the blockade had showed that Western rule in Berlin would not succumb to any action short of outright military conquest—which would mean full-scale European, even world war.

Living in West Berlin had been an unpredictable business since 1945, and it remained so. But by 1950 it was also, strangely enough, more secure.

The Basic Law of the Federal Republic did not apply in West Berlin, where the writ of the Allied commandants remained the ultimate power. The grandly titled ‘governing mayor’ (Regierender Bürgermeister) of the Western sectors—from November 1948, Ernst Reuter—was responsible to the Western military, who also controlled the West Berlin police and regulated such events as political rallies and demonstrations. In Bonn, West Berlin’s representatives were mere observers.

The partially unfree status of the half-city was a bargain struck for perilous times. In the loss of some rights for West Berliners lay the guarantee of more important ones.

There were now two Berlin city administrations. One in the West and the other in the East. At the same time as Reuter was elected in the Western sectors, in the East a prominent SED man named Friedrich Ebert had been made mayor.

Berlin still functioned, in many ways, as one city. There were signs showing sector borders, occasional checkpoints and restrictions, temporary or permanent, but for a dozen years after the end of the Berlin Blockade, citizens moved freely around the former German capital. Telephone lines, sewage, transport were all shared.

This was all the odder in view of the fact that the long border between the two German states, running 1,381 kilometres (858 miles) from the Baltic coast in the north to the Bavarian forest in the south, where Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany met, would soon become a fortified and all but impassable barrier.

In the summer of 1945, the victorious Allies established buffer areas and checkpoints on routes that passed between their areas of rule. The initial object was to catch diehard Nazis and war criminals if they tried to cross zonal borders. Then came the problem of smuggling, the movement of money and goods in defiance of the strict Eastern customs regime. None the less, borders remained relatively porous.

In March 1952, the Cold War still seemed frozen solid. Then Stalin surprised the world by sending a note to each of the other three occupying powers—France, Britain and the USA—in which he offered a peace treaty and free elections in a unified Germany. A draft of such a treaty was helpfully included. This was at first sight an amazingly attractive proposal, especially for the Germans; designed, in the words of a recent German writer, echoing Mario Puzo’s Godfather, as ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’.7 The main stipulation was that a reunited Germany, while permitted to rearm for its own defence, must not join any alliance directed against any of its former opponents in the Second World War.

Adenauer dismissed the offer almost immediately. It was argued that the East German government (which would, while negotiations were going on, have constituted an equal partner to West Germany) was not freely elected. This ‘no’ to the Stalin note has since been criticised by historians, including Germans East and West, for ruining a serious chance of painless German reunification without war and thereby condemning the country to almost forty more years of division. To them it is a big black mark against Adenauer’s record.

The West German Chancellor was convinced that only a Germany anchored to the West could survive, at least in a form he found tolerable. ‘Only an economically and spiritually healthy Western Europe under the leadership of England and France,’ Adenauer wrote in 1946, ‘a Western Europe of which the area of Germany not occupied by the Russians forms an essential component part, can halt the spiritual and power-political advance of Asia’. By ‘Asia’ the old Rhinelander clearly meant Stalin’s Russia.

There were, of course, the usual stings in the small print of Stalin’s suggestion. For example, part of his proposal involved the recognition of the eastern Oder-Neisse boundary for a reunited Germany. This meant the permanent abandonment of the ancient Prussian heartlands of East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania, only a handful of years after their populations had been violently expelled. This concession alone would have wrecked Adenauer’s party, in which the vocal refugee organisations representing these millions of expellees played a powerful and uncompromising role. An opinion poll threatened catastrophe for any party that abandoned the ‘eastern territories’: two-thirds of ordinary Germans were against attaining reunification at that price.8

It would be another forty years before a bold German leader, empowered by post-Cold War euphoria, would be able to officially recognise the new boundaries.

After his proposals were turned down by the West, Stalin received the East German leadership in Moscow. He told Ulbricht and his colleagues that he was resigned to a divided Germany and instructed them to ‘organise your own state’. As for the porous border between the former Soviet Zone and the West, it had become a danger. The East Germans must therefore ‘strengthen the protection of this frontier’.9

The GDR leaders didn’t waste time, or scruples, in carrying out this command. The zone border was closed, and its transformation into a fortified international boundary began. The project carried the startlingly brutal title of ‘Operation Vermin’ (Aktion Ungeziefer).

A no man’s land five kilometres wide was cleared. In ‘night and fog’ actions planned by the Stasi, thousands of people living near the border were removed at short notice from their homes. The authorities concentrated on ‘unreliable’ types such as known anti-Communists, those with close Western contacts, or farmers known to oppose collectivised agriculture. Towns and villages were split in two, families often divided. Barbed wire was laid down along its entire length, and secondary and local roads leading to the border were ripped up in order to prevent access.

Special permits were needed for non-residents to enter the border area. There were further graduations within this: between ‘five kilometre’ permits, the more select band allowed within 500 metres, and the élite permitted to approach the ‘ten metre’ zone without being fired upon (in practice, only officials and border guards).

By no coincidence at all, the day of the border closure, 26 May 1952, was also the day the ‘Germany Treaty’ was signed in Bonn, confirming West Germany’s sovereignty and preparing the way for it to join the anti-Soviet alliance system.

Meanwhile, the Communist regime was tightening its hold on society and economy within the Soviet Zone/GDR. Further purges in the SED were accompanied by a campaign against the churches.

In the past two or three years, the number of people in Eastern Germany who decided to leave everything behind and head westward had increased dramatically. In 1947, around 165,000 people had been detained for ‘illegal’ crossing of the zone border in Thuringia alone, though many of these did not intend to leave, but were merely exercising a casual freedom of movement that before 1945 was taken for granted.10 Three years later, permanent resettlement had become the aim of many ‘illegal’ border-crossers. In 1950, 197,788 headed for the West. The following year saw a slight drop to 165,648. The number of those who chose exile in 1952, including those who left after the border was fortified, increased again to 182,393.

Unlike Poles, Bulgarians, or Czechs, when East Germans crossed the border they did not leave their culture behind. They did not have to learn another language or adjust to a different way of life. In the Federal Republic they could still feel at home—and enjoy not just more political freedom but, especially as the 1950s went on, better conditions and wages than all but a tiny minority enjoyed in the GDR.

If someone wanted to leave East Germany, but did not want to brave the long and now-defended border, they had only to get to Berlin. In Berlin they could cross to the Western sectors. Thence the refugee could fly to West Germany proper without worrying about being arrested by a GDR border patrol and thrown into jail.

There was one more factor that encouraged many to take the step to the West. In July 1952, the SED announced that East Germany was entering the phase of ‘building socialism’, signalling its development into a fully fledged Stalinist-Communist state. Pressure on farmers to join collectivised units increased. Discriminatory measures against churches, intellectuals, business people and so-called ‘border-crossers’ (who lived in East Berlin but worked in the Western sectors) were stepped up. The West beckoned ever more urgently for those who valued the fruits of their own enterprise.

Ulbricht was quite aware of this. In January 1953, he succeeded in gaining Stalin’s approval for a scheme that would allow the East Germans to station their own guards along the border between the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin so as ‘to end uncontrolled access to East Berlin from the Western sectors’—and, more to the point, vice versa. It was essentially the charter for a fortified border in Berlin.11

But this was eight years before anything of the sort happened. Just when Ulbricht had his nod from the Soviet dictator, a train of events began that would rock the world to its foundations. It would also bring Ulbricht’s own domination of his new fiefdom into urgent question and test his survival skills to their limit.

In the small hours of the night between 28 February and 1 March 1953, after a lengthy drinking party at his dacha outside Moscow, Josef Stalin took to his bedchamber. He remained there well into the next day, which was not unusual. However, when by the evening Stalin had still not emerged, guards hesitantly entered the dictator’s room. They found him motionless by his bed, sprawled in a pool of his own urine. He had suffered a stroke, lost control of his faculties, and never again regained consciousness.

Stalin remained in a coma until his death at the age of seventy-four on 5 March. His passing unleashed a wave of grief among many Russians. To this surprisingly large group, the vodzh (leader) was a harsh but protective father figure, who had saved their homeland from Hitler’s hordes and brought about a spectacular increase in its power and prestige. To others, including his closest colleagues in the Communist leadership, he was a homicidal monster, at whose demise they felt little else but profound relief.

At the same time as approving Ulbricht’s plan to seal off Berlin, Stalin also announced the arrest of a group of prominent doctors, whom he accused of poisoning members of the leadership. The physicians were Jewish, allegedly agents of ‘world Zionism’ and the West. There were rumours of a major pogrom. The old man had started to get completely out of control. Some still suspect he was murdered.

Within two weeks of Stalin’s funeral, the new Soviet leadership abandoned the plan to enforce tough border restrictions within Berlin. This would ‘lead to the violation of the established order of city life’ in Berlin, as Foreign Minister Molotov put it. The new leaders wished to embark on a conciliatory course, to pull back from Stalin’s paranoid brinkmanship.

Accordingly, Marshal Chuikov, chairman of the Soviet Control Commission, which liaised with the German Communists, was given clear instructions. Ulbricht had missed the chance to seal his infant republic tight. Worse was to come.

In his advice to Chuikov, Molotov (on behalf of the new leadership in Moscow) made the revolutionary—or perhaps under the circumstances counter-revolutionary—suggestion that the problem of population loss from the GDR should be solved not by shutting the people in but by making their life better. The political system should be less harsh and the economy tailored more towards consumers. Light industry should be given priority over heavy industry. Between 1951 and 1953, 60 per cent of growth in the capital stock of state industry had occurred in the areas of iron, steel, mining and energy. Only 2 per cent had been devoted to the production of consumer goods.

The East German economy was in trouble. In 1952, the budget showed a deficit of 700 million marks. The negative trade balance with other Communist countries was almost 600 million (more than it sounds—these are 1952 prices).

Big brother in Moscow no longer wanted to subsidise Ulbricht’s experiment. The Soviets made some concessions to the East Germans to soften the blow but, as Moscow made clear, the Soviet Union needed to make expensive changes of its own in order to improve the lot of its own people. The GDR leadership’s answer to their problem should be wideranging liberalisation.

All this was anathema to Ulbricht. In his grim way, he was an idealist whose quasi-religious belief in a rigorous command economy constituted a lifelong article of faith. If the masses disliked such a policy, this could not be because it was wrong, but because they lacked the proper political consciousness.

Not all his colleagues shared his unbending views. Rudolf Herrnstadt, editor of the SED newspaper, Neues Deutschland (‘New Germany’) and the head of the secret police, Wilhelm Zaisser, openly supported a more flexible, liberal course and told Ulbricht so. They began talking to Soviet representatives along these lines.

Meanwhile, Ulbricht carried stubbornly on with ‘building socialism’. Farms were sequestered—after their owners had been bankrupted by the machinations of uncooperative state officials. Citizens trying to get round the shortages with a little private trading were prosecuted under a catch-all ‘law for the protection of the people’s property’. This law was also used to persecute the owners of hotels and boarding houses, who represented a reservoir of ‘reactionary’ elements. Thousands had their businesses confiscated or fled to the West (even better for the state, since it made the paperwork easier).12

By 1952, the standard of living of ordinary East Germans had actually declined compared with 1947.13 Production targets were not being met. This was blamed on ‘subversion’ and the corrupting effect of capitalist remnants. Ration cards were withdrawn from ‘bourgeois’ elements such as the self-employed and the owners of rental property. This meant they had to turn to state-owned shops, which were dearer and offered a less wide choice of goods.14

Nearing his sixtieth birthday, Ulbricht celebrated in advance by using the 13th plenum of the Central Committee of the SED on 13-14 May to oust his most likely rival, Franz Dahlem, from the leadership. He piled on more misery by announcing the raising of ‘work norms’ by 10 per cent (making workers do 10 per cent more work for the same wage).

The Moscow leadership was not clear what it wanted. These mixed feelings were revealed in mixed recommendations. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s report on the GDR called, on the one hand, for leniency and liberalisation, while on the other suggesting that GDR citizens visiting East Berlin from the provinces be forced to apply for a special permit. The state gives with one hand, and snatches back with the other. Such mutually contradictory ideas typified an authoritarian system in crisis, feeling its way towards a ‘safe’ level of liberalisation that would leave its power intact, but constantly forced to pull back where it saw danger—which, given the all-embracing and constantly overlapping mechanisms of the system, ended up lurking almost everywhere. Post-Stalinism was already revealing itself as ‘Stalinism Lite’.

This ambivalence was reflected in the discussions among the new Soviet leaders. Khrushchev and Molotov later claimed that Beria, the black eminence of Stalin’s security empire, had wanted to abandon the GDR in favour of a ‘bourgeois, neutral and peaceful’ Germany. According to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Beria declared contemptuously: ‘The GDR? What does it amount to, this GDR? It’s not even a real state. It’s only kept in being by Soviet troops.’15

The package presented by the Soviets to Ulbricht in Moscow between 2 and 4 June 1953 was a compromise. It was nevertheless a bitter pill for him to swallow. The Soviets’ list involved halting forced collectivisation of agriculture, encouraging small and middle-sized enterprises, ensuring universal and fair distribution of ration cards, and switching the emphasis of industrial development from Stalinist-style heavy industry to light and consumer industry. The anti-church campaign was to be reined back, civil rights to be more widely respected, and the finance system reorganised. The aim was not just to staunch the flow of population from the GDR but if possible to tempt the exiles back.16

On their return to East Berlin, the SED Politburo was in almost continuous session from 5 to 9 June, under the supervision of Soviet High Commissioner Semenov. Finally it signalled willingness to enact the reforms. The liberal Herrnstadt was in charge of drafting the announcement. When he suggested to Semenov that they delay its release for two weeks to prepare the people for such radical changes, Semenov replied cuttingly: ‘In two weeks you may not have a state any more.’17

The Politburo communiqué was issued on 11 June. The leadership even admitted that ‘in the past a series of mistakes has been made’. This degree of frankness was unheard of. Secret police reports on the public’s reaction described surprise and pleasure, but also suspicion of the ruling party’s motives.

The one thing missing, however, was any move to rescind the onerous new work norms, which particularly affected workers in manufacturing and construction. In fact, on 11 June, Herrnstadt’s Neues Deutschland actually praised the workers for fulfilling the new, more arduous work norms so assiduously.

There was a confusing contradiction even in the pronouncements of the SED’s mouthpiece newspaper. Three days later, Herrnstadt wrote in the same newspaper, expressing doubt about the new norms and arguing that they should not be imposed ‘dictatorially’ but only after consultation with the workers. The article was passed from hand to hand in factories and construction sites.

Rumours were circulating in East Berlin that Moscow had heavily criticised Ulbricht, his ‘mistaken line’ and the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding him. The Russians were seriously wondering what do about Comrade Ulbricht and his stubbornly unpopular programme of ‘building socialism’. These rumours were true. Ulbricht, a short, superficially unimpressive leader with a strong Saxon accent, had now lost his great protector—a short, superficially unimpressive leader with a strong Georgian accent by the name of Josef Stalin.

It was also said that the Soviets had asked Herrnstadt to submit a new Politburo list that would not include Ulbricht.18 After eight years as Moscow’s loyal though far from tractable instrument, at sixty Walter Ulbricht seemed to be heading for compulsory retirement, to be replaced by someone more in tune with the times.

What saved him was, as Ulbricht had always hoped, the East German working class—though not in any way that, no matter how keenly he searched the dark recesses of his ageing Marxist-Leninist heart, he could ever have imagined.

The party should have been forewarned. Trouble was already rife elsewhere in the Soviet imperium.

In early June 1953, as East Germany’s Politburo wrestled with the ‘new course’, there were strikes and riots in industrial areas of Czechoslovakia, affecting 129 factories. On 6 June, there were mass demonstrations in the key manufacturing and brewing city of Plzn (German, Pilsen). Workers stormed the city hall and occupied the Skoda armaments factories. Portraits of Stalin and Gottwald were burned. Demonstrators hoisted the American flag. The government sent in the army. There were deaths. Thousands were imprisoned.

In the GDR the problems began on 16 June 1953. In the Stalinallee (formerly Frankfurter Allee) a huge, high-rise residential building project was emerging from bombed-out ruins. Designed in 1930s Stalinist ‘wedding cake’ style, with neo-classical touches that quoted the Prussian master Schinkel, on a scale that hinted at Albert Speer, the building process began with a huge propaganda fanfare.

The Stalinallee—no accident that the name of the vodzh had been lent to the project—was to show what the new, Communist Germany was capable of. The buildings would stretch, like a great windowed wall, along a wide, tree-lined boulevard. And the ‘first socialist street of the German capital, Berlin’ was to be built very quickly.

On 16 June 1953, the construction workers decided that the pace demanded of them was too much. They held a meeting at which they voted to deliver a petition directly to Otto Grotewohl, protesting against raised work norms. As they marched through the streets they found other construction and factory workers joining them. In time the demonstrators reached the huge 1930s building in the Leipziger Strasse that had once housed Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry but was now the home of the GDR’s Council of Ministers. They were now 10,000-strong.

The cream of the working class assembled outside the headquarters of their alleged representatives. They started shouting insults aimed at the SED leadership, such as ‘Spitzbart, Bauch und Brille sind nicht des Volkes Wille!’ (Pointy beard—Ulbricht—Belly—the corpulent Pieck—and Glasses—bespectacled Grotewohl—are not the people’s will!). A construction worker named Horst Schlaffke sprang on to a table and demanded that Grotewohl and Ulbricht address them in person. ‘If they don’t come out, we’ll call a general strike!’ he declared to huge applause.

None of the big names showed themselves. The relatively junior Heavy-Industry Minister, Fritz Selbmann, was sent out to placate the workers. He tried a routine appeal to their political solidarity (‘My dear colleagues, I, too, am only a worker’), but got boos and whistles. Selbmann re-consulted and then reappeared. He announced changes in the work-norm ordinance that would make compliance voluntary.

The workers, who knew how little the concept of ‘voluntary’ meant in the SED state, became increasingly angry. A general strike was declared for the next day. The workers marched back via Police Headquarters in Alexanderplatz. Windows were broken, SED banners and posters destroyed or defaced. They seized a government loudspeaker van and used it to spread their message as they headed back towards the Stalinallee. There the crowd broke up, parts of it heading towards Lichtenberg and other eastern suburbs, where many lived. Touchingly, the government-property loudspeaker van was parked where the authorities could find it.19

In Berlin, two night shifts refused to work: first some track-maintenance crews of the transportation authority and then the workers at the ball-bearing factory in Berlin-Lichtenberg.20 When the workers arrived at the huge Upper Spree Cable Works in Berlin at 6.30 a.m., they also refused to work.

Meanwhile, police units had been bused in from Potsdam, Leipzig and Magdeburg in preparation for more trouble. The authorities had closed the Strausberger Platz subway station, at the western extremity of the Stalinallee. At yet more factories, the morning shift did no work but engaged in discussion of the situation. Soon dozens of other workplaces in East Berlin, including large-scale enterprises such as the Borsig locomotive works, were also paralysed by strikes. When the party sent in agitators or (state-employed) union officials to persuade the strikers to return to work, they were howled down.

West Berliners streamed over the Oberbaumbrücke from the American sector to join the demonstrations around the Ostbahnhof. At Friedrichstrasse station and the nearby House of Ministries, state-owned shops—blamed for high prices—were set on fire. SED banners were torn down, piled up and also torched.

At the same time, between the Strausberger Platz and the Alexanderplatz, Soviet army all-terrain vehicles were seen for the first time rumbling into position, though as yet taking no action.

By ten o’clock, demonstrators were seen carrying banners that declared: ‘We demand free elections!’ A euphoric crowd surged towards the Brandenburg Gate, singing the Social Democratic workers’ song, ‘Brothers to the Sun, to Freedom!’, and later the third verse of the old German national anthem, ‘Deutschland über Alles’, which called for ‘unity, law and freedom’ and had recently been adopted as the official anthem of the Federal Republic.

At the modernistic Columbushaus, on the Potsdamer Platz, where a police station shared the space with a state-owned retail store, the police were overpowered and forced to strip. Windows were broken, furniture and police documents tossed from on high to crash into the Potsdamer Platz below. A white flag was hung from the building. It was said that several of the captured Vopos (Volkspolizei) were delivered to the Western police, who stood just over the border in the Tiergarten. A group of youths clambered up the Brandenburg Gate and tore down the Soviet flag that flew there, chanting: ‘We want freedom, we want bread, we will beat all Russians dead!’

Something close to a full-scale uprising was taking shape, involving tens, even hundreds of thousands of ordinary Berliners. They were calling for freedom, elections and, increasingly, a reunited Germany. The Communist authorities were preparing to give them their answer.

Noon came and went. After trying unsuccessfully to break into the Economics Ministry, a large crowd veered off towards the Potsdamer Platz to be confronted by the power of the Red Army. Dozens of Soviet T-34 tanks had moved into Berlin. The official order had been given by the Russian city commandant, Major-General Dibrova, but behind the decision lay the Soviet leadership, which had been informed the previous day of the gathering unrest.

Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s executioner, had flown to Berlin during the night and was now personally supervising the counter-attack.

The first shots were fired on the Marx-Engels-Platz, where a group of young East Berliners tried to clamber atop a tank. Demonstrators fought back with bricks, paving stones, and chunks of metal, but they could make little impression on the might of the Red Army. The Russians fired into the crowd. Their guns swept the border areas to prevent demonstrators escaping into West Berlin.21

At 13.00, a state of emergency was declared by the SMA. Public gatherings of more than three people were banned. Anyone contravening these instructions could be shot. Once the Soviet tanks had broken the momentum of the uprising and sealed the sector border in the centre of Berlin, a mass of KVP squads, including the reinforcements summoned during the night from other cities, moved in to clear up. Many were as brutal as the Russians—beating up protesters and bystanders alike and firing into crowds—even shooting some from behind as they tried to run away.

Among those shot was Rudi Schwander, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy from East Berlin, son of a bakery worker. He had been fleeing the scene when a Vopo’s bullet hit him in the back of the head. Young Rudi collapsed. The unconscious boy was picked up by fellow demonstrators and carried over the nearby border into the French sector, where he died. By late afternoon, the resistance in Berlin was broken.

The seventeenth of June, the day of the GDR workers’ uprising, gave its name to a long, wide boulevard in West Berlin. Formerly the Charlottenburger Chaussee, the ‘Street of the 17 June’ (Strasse des 17. Juni) runs four kilometers from the Ernst-Reuter-Platz, past the ‘Victory Column’ to the Reichstag and then the Brandenburg Gate. Its name makes many think of the uprising as a Berlin event, but in fact it was a phenomenon that spread across the length and breath of the GDR.

According to official records discovered after the fall of the East German regime, around half a million employees throughout the country went on strike on 17 June 1953. Four hundred and eighteen thousand were estimated to have taken part in demonstrations. Strikes and demonstrations were even more widespread in the southern industrial area of Halle/Merseburg than in the capital. The number of strikers in the light- and precision-industrial city of Dresden actually equalled those in Berlin. In Leipzig and Magdeburg, historic strongholds of the Left and the trade-union movement, there were violent clashes between workers and security forces.

In rural areas, there was violent unrest. Party officials and collective-farm managers were attacked. There were protest meetings and mass withdrawals from agricultural collectives. In eastern Saxony, Soviet troops intervened when a farmers’ demonstration attracted hundreds of sympathisers from local factories, a junction of resistance forces that amounted to a nightmare for the authorities.22

As in Berlin, the actual outbreaks of disorder were dealt with by martial law and curfews, but so deep-seated were the resentments that protests rumbled on into July in individual factories and farming collectives.

The demonstrators called for Ulbricht to discuss their grievances, but where was the all-powerful First Secretary of the SED? The answer was a humiliating one. Ulbricht spent 17 and 18 June under Soviet protection at Red Army headquarters in Berlin-Karlshorst, with Grotewohl, Herrnstadt, and Zaisser, while the Soviets and the police dealt with the trouble.

Semenov, Moscow’s representative, was also at Karlshorst, and reportedly showed only contempt for the East German leaders. At the height of the crisis, he told them: ‘RIAS says that there is no longer any government in the GDR’. Semenov then turned to his senior Red Army colleagues. ‘Well,’ he remarked acidly in Russian, ‘that is just about true.’23

When the Central Committee of the SED met again on 21 June, its members were seriously shaken. ‘If masses of workers do not understand the party,’ someone said, ‘then the party is guilty, not the workers’. Only slowly did a counter-version emerge: the uprising had been the product of Fascist agents provocateurs, operating at the behest of Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and their puppets in Bonn, with the hyenas of RIAS screaming encouragement over the air waves.

All the same, in the cold light of the post-uprising dawn, Ulbricht was not in a strong position. Beria was said to have called him an ‘idiot’.24

Ulbricht’s support in East Berlin was even shakier. Only the arch-Stalinist Herman Matern, and the youth-movement leader Erich Honecker (a relative stripling at forty but a hardliner just the same) still supported Ulbricht. A couple of others were undecided. It seemed that Ulbricht was doomed.

The problem was that his enemies lacked killer instinct. In late June, Herrnstadt proposed that the single-person party secretariat be modified, the Politburo expanded, and a committee formed that would oversee the ‘new course’. This would turn the SED over to a collective leadership. The Soviets seemed supportive. Greeting Ulbricht on his sixtieth birthday, they addressed him not as ‘General Secretary’ but as ‘one of the most well-known organisers and leaders of the SED’.

They had underestimated him. On 2 July, after a week of intrigue, the Politburo met again. This time, the veteran leader fought back, his tactic clearly to hold on at all costs. When Zaisser proposed replacing Ulbricht with Herrnstadt, the result was a heated debate but no resolution. In the end, Semenov’s deputy, Miroshinchenko, who presided over the meeting, insisted that they postpone any decision until his boss returned from Moscow.

Zaisser, the Stasi chief, tried again on 7 July, the day before Ulbricht and Grotewohl were due to fly to Moscow on a brief, apparently routine visit. After a meeting lasting several hours, it remained obvious that the SED boss had little support. However, Ulbricht was a master of detail and procedure. He knew how to delay things while he planned his counter-attack. Again, the matter remained undecided. Then he and Grotewohl left for the airport.25

The embattled East German leader arrived to find Moscow full of other heads of satellite governments, who had also been summoned to the Kremlin to be briefed on the latest developments. And these were dramatic in the extreme.

Beria had been arrested almost two weeks previously for alleged ‘criminal anti-party and anti-governmental activities’. He was, the charge went, ‘an agent of imperialism’. His colleagues, terrified of what the Security Minister would do to them when he got the chance, had struck first; and, unlike Ulbricht’s enemies, their aim was swift and true. Beria had been seized at a Kremlin meeting, where his professional killers and special troops could not protect him. He was now languishing in jail and would be executed the following year. Ulbricht’s most active enemy in Moscow was no more. Had Beria remained the most powerful man in Russia, Ulbricht would undoubtedly have been deposed (and worse).

Ulbricht and Grotewohl returned to Berlin twenty-four hours later to attend an evening session of the Politburo. They reported the news of Beria’s arrest. Again Ulbricht’s opponents did not go in for the kill, assuming that the end of the autocratic Beria would inevitably mean the end of the autocratic Ulbricht.

Not so. Ulbricht used the time to gather his forces. Faced with renewed criticism, he announced that Zaisser’s and Herrnstadt’s behaviour amounted to an ‘anti-party’ attitude. They must be investigated by the party’s control commission, which happened to be headed by his ally, Matern. Using his still-extant powers, Ulbricht announced that the monthly plenum meeting of the SED Central Committee would take place on 24-6 July. He prorogued the Politburo session until then.

It soon became obvious that it was not Ulbricht but his opponents who were finished. Semenov had performed a 180-degree turn and now supported him, on instructions from his superiors in Moscow. The plenum later that month was graced with the presence not just of Semenov but of I. Kabin, the shadowy but powerful figure responsible to the Soviet Central Committee for relations with Germany.

When Ulbricht took to the podium to address the SED plenum, it was already plain he had the Kremlin’s approval. He launched a blistering attack on his enemies, asserting that Zaisser had conspired with the disgraced Beria to betray the GDR, and that Herrnstadt had been part of the plot. The plenum voted to dismiss Zaisser and Herrnstadt as a ‘party-hostile faction with a defeatist line’ from their jobs and from all party posts.26

Ulbricht had triumphed. They might dislike him, but the Soviets had decided that to let him fall would be a sign of weakness. And weakness, it was clear from the turmoil in the satellite countries that had followed Stalin’s death, was one thing they could not afford.

So the workers, by rebelling against Ulbricht’s regime, paradoxically saved their tormentor’s political life. Ulbricht would allow the ‘new course’ to continue for a time while he re-established his grip on power, purging reformists and weak links. Thousands of those who had participated in or expressed approval of the 17 June uprising were tracked down, arrested and imprisoned. Two hundred and sixty-seven East Germans had been killed during the disturbances. A further 200 were executed, 1,400 imprisoned for life.

From now on, no one could pretend that the SED government was based on popular approval. It was, as anyone could see, a regime imposed by Soviet tanks.

Berthold Brecht, the world-famous radical poet, playwright and darling of the international Left, had returned from America to East Berlin after the war, supplying vital cultural credibility to the SED. On 17 June, he supported Soviet intervention against the strikers, but before his death three years later, he was sufficiently conscience-stricken-or cunning—to show that he too understood what had happened on that day. The SED state, while ever more loudly protesting its democratic credentials, had shamelessly abandoned the last remnants of them.

In his poem, ‘The Solution’, Brecht satirised 17 June 1953 with supreme irony:

After the uprising of 17 June

The Secretary of the Writers Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

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