Opening the Iron Curtain – the East Germany’s day of dissent


It’s the summer of 1953, and, across East Germany, angry people take to the streets.

This isn’t a polite protest.

This is a furious, red flag ripping, police beating, office burning rampage.

The crowds demand:

  • better living conditions;
  • the reunification of Germany; and
  • free elections.

Instead, they would get:

  • Trabants;
  • the Berlin Wall; and
  • another 35 years of hardline Communist government.

Could the 17 June 1953 uprising have ever been successful at bringing down Soviet-dominated eastern Europe?

Or were the people’s protests doomed to fail before they even started?

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An Iron Curtain has descended across the continent 

To understand the East German uprising in 1953, we have to go back to the summer of 1945 in the UK. Winston Churchill had won the war in Europe but lost the general election in Britain.

Being kicked out of Number 10 was a huge blow, but it gave him lots of time to think, write and travel. In March 1946, he delivered one of his most famous speeches:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia.”

Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania fell easily into the USSR’s bear hug. They had, after all, been completely overrun by the Red Army. But only part of Germany lay in Soviet hands.

To begin with, this wasn’t the biggest concern for many. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Germans were united in misery.

Wherever you lived, the chances were that your home was a pile of rubble, friends and family were missing or dead and, if you were lucky, you had a job that paid in cigarettes.

But things were about to change.

In 1949, one of the first blasts of the Cold War froze east and west Germany into two opposing states.

In the west, American, French and British zones of occupation joined to become the Federal Republic of Germany.

This left the Soviet zone to become the German Democratic Republic.

By the early 1950s, stark differences were emerging between the capitalist west and the communist east.

Invigorated by the injection of American money, the West German economy enjoyed the first exhilarating signs of the Wirtschaftswunder, its Economic Miracle.

East Germany’s response to their booming neighbour was to issue punishing new production targets and focus on heavy industry as they forced march the country towards socialism.

The response was immediate, if unsurprising – the country staggered towards economic collapse.

Why did the biscuits suddenly smell and taste of petrol?

Bread and butter became scarce.

People were forced into length queues to buy food that had noticeably declined in quality.

And why did the biscuits suddenly smell and taste of petrol?

Complaints were met with slogans that were so crass it was as if the regime was trolling the people.

“First work harder, then live better!” was among the least alluring of the promises on offer.

Unlike in other Soviet-dominated countries, East Germans had a clear alternative – they could move to West Germany.

In 1952, 125,000 Easterners took this option and fled to the west.

In the first four months of 1953, a further 160,000 defected.

Altogether, half a million people would move from east to west in 1952 and 1953 alone.

And this was a crisis for a country that had only started with 19 million people.

We don’t want to be slaves to our work!

The sun rises into the pale blue sky on the morning of 17 June 1953. Across Berlin, people wait to see what will happen.

The day before, 10,000 people had marched to the House of Ministries. Their rough, hand-painted banners carried clear messages:

“Reduce the quotas!”

“We don’t want to be slaves to our work!”

“Berliners, join us!”

Today, the protesters will find out if their fellow citizens would join them.

The early signs are promising. First shifts at factories across the country are cancelled when workers don’t turn up. Strikes are declared as people converge in city centres and town squares across the GDR.

By the afternoon, half a million people are on strike. They are joined by up to a million more taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Amongst the protesters, rumours spread and become distorted.

Was it true that a demonstration ten kilometres long was snaking its way through Berlin.

Had the Columbus House department store been destroyed on the Potsdamer Platz?

Bits of information are passed on in breathless excitement. Rostock, Magdeburg, Dresden, Halle and Leipzig were paralysed.

Soon, the peaceful protests give way to angry clashes and then violent confrontations.

Blood is shed. Smoke is in the air. People lose themselves in the mob. The streets give themselves into the chaos.

Party buildings are raided, smashed and burnt.

Everywhere, red flags are torn down. Someone braver than most ignores crowds of Russian soldiers at the Brandenburg Gate and rips away the giant crimson banner.

The police are pushed and pressed and panic. They shoot – first, into the air then into the crowds.

In a rage, the crowds attack with whatever they can get hold of. Bottles, bricks and bollards fly through the air.  

And then an unmistakable sound. The crunch of a thousand boots marching through a broken city. The ominous rumble of the tanks.

The Russians had come.

A million people are out on the streets demanding change.

In cities across the country, the protests are turning violent. The government doesn’t trust its own police to quell the uprising.

Is this the end of communist East Germany? Will the Americans, British and French intervene? And how will the Russian soldiers respond?

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Build a wall

So, did the government give into the demands and let everyone go home to live happily ever after.

The end.

No, not quite.

The East German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote a stinging piece in the aftermath of the uprising:

“After the uprising of the 17th of 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?”

– Bertolt Brecht

The Soviet High Command flooded the streets with tanks, trucks and soldiers.

The Russians did not not leave anything to chance. A state of emergency was declared with martial law for offenders.

The New York Times reported Soviet soldiers driving: “trucks zigzagging wildly up and down Unter den Linden in front of the massive new Soviet Embassy building”.

To emphasise their determination, they would let off bursts from their machine pistols.

The Manchester Guardian was more graphic, reporting that: “one man who was not quick enough was run over by the leading armoured car. His head passed directly under the wheels. Women screamed and somebody was sick.”

By the late afternoon, the vast crowds had dissolved leaving small pockets of dissent for the police to deal with.

This left the Soviets plenty of questions.

Why did this happen?

How could workers rise up against the workers’ state?

And why would comrades strike when they worked in the people’s own factories?

It was perhaps even more of a surprise for the Soviets.

The Russians didn’t even think that the Germans were capable of protests. Stalin had once amused himself at the thought of a German uprising:

“Revolt?” he had joked “why they won’t even cross the street unless the light is green.”

But Stalin was dead.

And, in the aftermath of the uprising, so too were 34 demonstrators, passers-by and bystanders and a further five GDR police and functionaries.

And East Germany’s leaders and their Soviet masters had to learn lessons from the uprising to help them stay in power over the coming years.

Do you think that 17 June will break out again?

Their first lesson was that it was vital never to be caught by surprise.

Over the coming years, billions of marks were poured into the Ministry for State Security.

With stereotypical efficiency, East Germany developed a secret police force, spy network and surveillance society that wound delicate threads of intelligence around every aspect of life.

The country’s infamous Stasi was set on its course to become one of the most effective and repressive secret police agencies ever to have been unleashed on its own people.

In Nazi Germany, the German secret police, the Gestapo, employed one policeman for every 2,000 people.

By the 1980s, in contrast, the Stasi had one agent for every 166 people. These terrifying numbers were bolstered by up to half a million unofficial collaborators.

That gave the Stasi roughly one informer for every sixty people, numbers that were significantly higher than for the Gestapo or the KGB.

Nowhere was free from state surveillance – doctors, nurses, priests, janitors, teachers and public transport workers were regarded as being particularly good sources of information.

The leadership was still, however, terrified of another popular uprising. In the dying days of the regime, the feared Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, nervously asked his advisers: “Do you think that 17 June will break out again tomorrow?”

Not just any border. A dangerous one.

The second lessons was that they had to seal off the border to West Germany.

Ulbricht had been warned by the Soviet Ambassador that unless he took immediate measures, there would be no one left in East Germany.

Fences and barbed wire were strung out along the inner German border. Before the uprising, Stalin had advised the East Germans to create a proper border between the two Germanys and “not just any border, but a dangerous one”.

But what could be done about Berlin?

West Berlin, forged from the US, British and French zones of occupation, was a constant irritation to the Soviet system.

The Soviet Ambassador was remarkably candid in observing that: “the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favour of Democratic [East] Berlin”

How could it favour East Germany?

Jan Morris provides a characteristically vivid snapshot of crossing into the GDR:

“Travelling from west to east through [the inner German border] was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, peopled by all the ogres of totalitarianism, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you, I used to feel, without anybody ever hearing of it, and your every step was dogged by watchful eyes and mechanisms.”

For East Germans, the West could still be reached through Berlin. Just a subway stop away was a world of technicolour, light, opportunity and freedom.

It was so enticing that, by 1961, the GDR had lost a fifth of its population.

The solution was clear, uncompromising and desperate.

On the morning of 13 August 1961, 200 kilometres of barbed wire was rolled out to encircle West Berlin. Fences followed the wire, and concrete was added to the steel.

The last open link between east and west had been closed. The entombment of the GDR was complete.   

The Berlin Wall would become one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War. In 1982, the Iron Lady visited the Iron Curtain. Margaret Thatcher was uncompromising in her views, stating that: “every stone bears witness to the moral bankruptcy of the society it encloses”.

A penny for your loyalty

Finally, the leadership resolved to maintain workers’ living standards and satisfaction in a desperate attempt to keep support from at least part of society.

By 1989, it was still possible to buy a bread roll for a penny and tram tickets that hadn’t increased in price since the uprising.

People enjoyed job security. And, even if they didn’t, they could self medicate with booze and keep their jobs even if they routinely turned up drunk.

Was the protest doomed?

So, could the protests on 17 June 1953 have unified Germany and toppled the Soviet Bloc?


The Soviet Union would simply not accept the loss of its hard won gains from the Second World War.

This was shown time and time again, especially in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. No matter how violent the uprising, it would be met and put down with crushing military power.

Until 1989, when the Soviet Union itself tottered on the brink of dissolution and, one by one, the communist regimes of eastern Europe fell.

So, from Almost History, we’re almost done!

I love hearing from you. If you like the podcast, please take a moment to rate or review it on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast service.

If you want to find out a bit more about this subject, I can recommend an excellent piece in July 2018’s edition of History Today called Day of Dissent in the DDR by Dr Richard Millington, which was the key inspiration for this episode.

Also Anne Applebaum’s book The Iron Curtain, is a fascinating survey of the ten years after the Second World War which forged the Eastern Bloc.

The theme music is Newsroom by Riot and transition theme is Behind Your Windows by Kai Engel. Details for all of the other music featured this week is set out in the episode description.


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