|"This excellent collection of documents ... is an indispensable new
source for the study of Cold War history."
John Lewis Gaddis
|"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."
(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
|"It is an invaluable service to the study of Cold War history to have
these documents brought together and translated into English."
The George Washington University
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
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
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.