Tuesday, Jun 17, 2003
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By Hans-Joachim Kiderlen
The call to strike of the previous day was followed already in the early morning of June 17 by many people, largely young workers, who assembled on the Stalin-Allee, the biggest construction site in East Berlin, capital of the still quite new German Democratic Republic (GDR). When around 9 a.m. several thousands had gathered, the demand to lower the recently raised work norms and bring down consumer prices started to give room to slogans asking for political changes free elections and unification of Germany. The demonstrators burnt the offices of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), police cars caught fire, and party and state officials were beaten up. This happened in Berlin and in more than 300 other places with the participation of three-to-four million people out of the 18 million inhabitants of the GDR. The Soviet armed forces finally took over at 1 p.m. and sent in tanks. In the evening, when the curfew set in, order was largely restored. Around 125 demonstrators were shot dead. Also at least 18 Soviet soldiers were sentenced to death by court martials because they had refused to shoot at unarmed civilians.
For the German Democratic Republic, the popular uprising of June 17, 1953 was a shock at birth, which never allowed mistrust between the rulers and the people to disappear. The GDR remained also in the eyes of its citizens a protectorate of the Soviet Union. When the people rose again in 1989, the Soviet troops, still present thereby more than 300,000, this time did not move in, the GDR quietly collapsed. For the Federal Republic of Germany, June 17 for the next 38 years became its National Day a gift by the people of East Germany and an occasion to think of German unity at least once a year. The main road axis in West Berlin, leading to the Brandenburg Gate, was named "Street of the 17th of June". It is here where the U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, in 1988 would solemnly request the Soviet Union "to open the gate".
There is cause to reflect 50 years after and one unification later on the events in East Germany of that time. Karl Marx had always wanted and expected communism to realise itself first in Germany, as the key industrialised country in the centre of Europe. He was proven wrong by Lenin, and by Stalin later; communism largely became a matter of putsch and dictatorship in the first one and then, only after World War II, also in other countries. The people, rather than being the logical support, became the real problem for regimes which called themselves `socialist'. Had there been popular communist uprisings in Germany in the 1920s, the people not only in East Germany, but later also in other Eastern and South Eastern European countries, now turned anti-communist, or at least anti-Soviet. When the bloc of socialist countries came to an end in 1990, also outright nationalistic and neo-fascist tendencies grew on the European soil of a communism, which had become authoritarian and imperialistic. June 17, 1953 from the present day perspective already marks the failure of communism, not as an idea, but as an idea advanced with a specific power structure.
German reunification indeed came about on October 3, 1990 in freedom and peace of course not only because the people of East Germany once more demonstrated peacefully and strongly their will to end the rule of the communist party and then to do away altogether with the GDR. Again the East Germans presented this time the united Germany with an important gift, which cannot be outbalanced by the huge transfer of resources operated soon after from west to east the dowry of legitimacy.
As peace can be reduced to order, freedom by the force of proclaiming it can become ideology. In fall 1989 again, hundreds of thousands took their freedom in their hands. They did it not without risk, as sombre references of party and government leaders in those days to the violent crushing of peaceful manifestations on the Place of Heavenly Peace in Beijing earlier in 1989 had made it clear. But the pattern for November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally opened up, was set in 1953.
The communist regime in East Germany never felt comfortable with its own people, and therefore never could or felt able to act in decisive matters without order or the explicit support of the Soviet Union. When in November 1989 Moscow remained silent, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, on his visit to Berlin only four weeks earlier to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic had dropped his famous remark, addressed to the GDR and its ageing party elite reluctant to agree to any change. "Life punishes those, who come late." But perhaps it is more infidelity to its own founding democratic ideas, under the difficult conditions of a divided country, becoming obvious on June 17, 1953, which finally brought down the GDR.
(The writer is Charge d'Affaires of the Federal Republic of Germany, New Delhi)
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