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East Germans confront Soviet tanks on Potsdamer Platz, 17 June 1953.

East Germans confront Soviet tanks on Potsdamer Platz, 17 June 1953.

Day of Dissent in the DDR

The East German Uprising of 1953 was the first major revolt to take place in the Soviet Bloc.

The first uprising in the Eastern Bloc took place on 17 June 1953. On that day, up to one million citizens of East Germany demonstrated for the removal of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), for better living conditions, free elections and the reunification of Germany. In more than 700 cities, towns and villages, protesters vented their fury at the SED and its leader Walter Ulbricht. Only the arrival of Soviet tanks and troops in the late afternoon saved the regime from catastrophe.

The ‘construction of socialism’

The causes of the uprising can be traced to the decisions taken at the second party conference of the SED in 1952. It was then that Ulbricht declared that the time was right to begin the ‘construction of socialism’ in East Germany. What this meant in practice was that the Party would remodel the country’s economy and society in the image of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Investment in heavy industry, with the aim of modernising society, took precedence over spending on consumer goods, while farmers and private businesses were forced to collectivise and nationalise. The Party also cracked down on political opponents. Dissenters were labelled ‘class enemies’ and faced punishments ranging from blacklisting to spells in prisons, such as the notorious ‘Yellow Misery’ in Bautzen, so called because of its yellow-brick buildings.

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