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Uprising in East Germany, 1953

Shedding Light on a Major Cold War Flashpoint

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 50

Published – June 15, 2001

Edited by Malcolm Byrne
Compiled by Gregory F. Domber

For more information contact:
Malcolm Byrne 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Advance praise for the new National Security Archive 
Cold War document reader:
Uprising in East Germany, 1953
Edited by Christian F. Ostermann
"This excellent collection of documents ... is an indispensable new source for the study of Cold War history."
John Lewis Gaddis
Yale University
"The editors, from the National Security Archive and the Cold War International History Project -- organizations whose continuing publications have provided essential insights into the recurring crises of the Communist system from the l940s until its collapse by l991 -- have assembled a series of sources that demonstrate the true depth and amplitude of the East German uprising of June 16-17, 1953."
Charles Maier
Harvard University
(From the Preface)
"Outstanding volume ... with its multinational and multi-archival collection of documents, it is truly unique in the field of Cold War studies ... This collection should become a model for approaching Cold War flashpoints."
Thomas A. Schwartz
Vanderbilt University
"It is an invaluable service to the study of Cold War history to have these documents brought together and translated into English."
Hope Harrison
The George Washington University


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Washington, D.C., June 15, 2001 – Forty-eight years ago, on June 17, 1953, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) erupted in a series of workers' riots and demonstrations that threatened the very existence of the communist regime.  The outburst, entirely spontaneous, shocked the GDR's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and their Kremlin sponsors, who were still reeling from the death of Joseph Stalin three months earlier.  Now, a new National Security Archive document volume based on recently obtained and translated records from archival sources throughout the former Soviet bloc and the United States sheds light on this landmark Cold War event, which exposed some of the deep political and economic rifts that led to the collapse of the communist system in 1989.

Uprising in East Germany, 1953: The Cold War, the German Question, and the First Major Upheaval behind the Iron Curtain is edited by Christian F. Ostermann, a National Security Archive Fellow and currently the Director of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  The volume is the second in the "National Security Archive Cold War Reader" series to appear through Central European University Press.  (The first was Prague Spring '68, edited by Jaromír Navrátil et al with a preface by Václav Havel.)

Long overlooked by historians, the 1953 worker uprising was the first outbreak of violent discord within the communist bloc -- the so-called "workers' paradise" -- and helped to set the stage for more celebrated rounds of civil unrest in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980) and ultimately the demise of communism itself in Central and Eastern Europe. 

The uprising began as a demonstration against unreasonable production quotas on June 17, but it soon spread from Berlin to more than 400 cities, towns and villages throughout East Germany, according to top-level SED and Soviet reports and CIA analyses, and embraced a broad cross-section of society.  As it spread, it also took on a more expansive political character.  Beyond calls for labor reform, demonstrators began to demand more fundamental changes such as free elections.  Chants were heard calling for "Death to Communism" and even "Long live Eisenhower!"  As Christian Ostermann writes in his introduction, for the first time ever "the ‘proletariat' had risen against the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat'." 

The protests, which soon turned violent, were not only more extensive and long-lasting than originally believed, but their impact was significant.  In revealing the depth and breadth of social discontent, they shook the confidence of the SED leadership, and especially the authority placed in party boss Walter Ulbricht.  The Kremlin, too, was stunned by the riots.  While reacting swiftly -- sending in tanks and ordering Red Army troops to open fire on the protestors -- the Soviet leadership found its policy debates tied up in the ongoing domestic political struggle to replace Stalin.  The arrest of secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, for example, was partly explained (at least for official consumption) as a result of his policy stance on Germany. 

The West, too, was divided on how to respond.  In Washington, the reaction by proponents of "roll back" in Eastern Europe was to press the psychological advantage against international communism as aggressively as possible.  Documents in the collection show that some officials wanted to go as far as to "encourage elimination of key puppet officials."  But Eisenhower himself balked at pushing the Soviets too far in an area of such critical importance for fear of touching off another world war.  The cautious compromise was to initiate a food distribution program to East Berlin as a way to help those who needed immediate aid while simultaneously scoring major propaganda points against the East.  The program turned out to be a stunning success, with more than 5.5 million parcels distributed in the course of roughly two months' of operations.

The summer crisis had several important consequences.  It demonstrated that Soviet-style communism had not made any significant dent in East German political attitudes.  Neighboring communist party leaders implicitly understood this point, worrying that the spill-over from the GDR might touch off similar outbreaks in their own countries.  For Moscow, the lesson was to abandon, at least temporarily, any thought of liberalizing East Germany's internal policies, a process that had been underway until the crisis erupted.  Ulbricht was able to regain Kremlin support after convincing the Soviets that rather than unseating him (for trying to be as good a Stalinist as Stalin) they needed his authoritarian approach to keep the lid on political and social unrest.  The crisis also confirmed for the Kremlin the need to bolster the GDR diplomatically and economically as a separate entity from West Germany.  On the American side, the uprising proved, ironically, that Republican verbiage about "liberation" of the "captive nations", so prominent in the 1952 presidential campaign, was largely empty -- at least as far as near-term prospects for action.

For more than three decades, the Soviet Union stuck to the pattern set by its reaction to the events of 1953 -- responding with force or the threat of it to keep not only East Germany but the rest of the Soviet bloc under firm control.  Only when Mikhail Gorbachev repudiated violence as a means of suppressing dissent in the latter 1980s did the structural weaknesses of the communist system revealed in 1953 finally break loose and seal the fate of the Soviet empire.

In presenting this new volume, our hope is that this under-studied flashpoint of the Cold War will receive more needed public and scholarly attention.  The 1953 crisis has been a focus of the National Security Archive for the past several years as part of a multi-year, multi-archival international collaborative research effort conducted under the auspices of the Archive's "Openness in Russia and East Europe Project," in collaboration with CWIHP and our Russian and Eastern European partners.  From November 10-12, 1996, the uprising was a featured subject at an international conference which the Archive, CWIHP and the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung organized in Potsdam on "The Crisis Year 1953 and the Cold War in Europe."

Uprising in East Germany, 1953 comprises 95 of the most important recently released records from Russian, German, Czech, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, British and American archives.  Each record contains a headnote to provide context for the reader.  The volume also contains introductory chapter essays as well as a detailed chronology, lists of main actors and organizations, a bibliography, maps and photos.  The following sampling provides a flavor of the documents that are in the published volume.  They are numbered as they appear there.  To view the samples and their headnotes, just click on each of the links below.


DOCUMENT No. 23: Letter from Lavrentii Beria to Georgii Malenkov Reflecting on the Events of Spring 1953, 1 July 1953
DOCUMENT No. 28: Radio Telegram from Vladimir Semyonov Providing Situation Reports to Vyacheslav Molotov and Nikolai Bulganin, 17 June 1953, as of 2:00 p.m. CET
DOCUMENT No. 38: Psychological Strategy Board Memorandum from John M. Anspacher to George A. Morgan, 17 June 1953
DOCUMENT No. 67: Otto Grotewohl's Handwritten Notes of a SED CC Politburo Meeting, 8 July 1953
DOCUMENT No. 74:  NSC 158, "United States Objectives and Actions to Exploit the Unrest in the Satellite States," 29 June 1953
DOCUMENT No. 87: Conclusions from Reports of the SED District Leaderships, 8 August 1953


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