Uprising 1953 and War Today

IN FOCUS, 19 Jun 2023

Victor Grossman – TRANSCEND Media Service

17 Jun 2023 – June 17th is a special day in the German calendar. For years a holiday, a major West Berlin boulevard is still named after it. This year it marks the 70th anniversary of the uprising in what was called – in the East – the German Democratic Republic. On that day in 1953 perhaps a million East Germans left their jobs, marched, seized government buildings, opened prison doors and voiced their demands.

Western media and politicians ever since have glorified this uprising as a call for freedom, mercilessly crushed in a few days with the help of Soviet tanks. This week they are pairing the event with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that county’s heroic defense.

What caused the angry uprising? In March 1952 the USSR, in a letter signed by Stalin, proposed the creation of a united Germany, with democratic, free elections, and one caveat: like Austria and Finland it must remain unarmed and join no military formation, East or West. The USA and Britain swiftly said “NO!” and West German Chancellor Adenauer added his “Nein!” This basically forced the Soviets and the leading East German party to go ahead on their own, in spite of every disadvantage: paying over 90% of all war reparations, with virtually no natural resources, almost no heavy industry, a heavy load of post-war doubts, cynicism and secret opposition, yet determined, in at least a quarter of Germany, to build up an anti-fascist, socialist, poverty-free  state – with no Marshall Plan financing or that of millionaire Krupps, Bayers or Siemens, whose  nationalization was popular and complete.

The new leaders were often very heavy-handed, sometimes cruel; the influence of 30 years of Stalin and 12 years of struggle against Nazis were not to be denied. A free choice in elections was not dared; “Those in 1933 brought in Hitler.” But while the pro-Nazi elite mostly moved or fled westward the GDR moved ahead; by 1952 the war-battered land had attained pre-war industrial level, in many or most fields with working-class leadership.

But the abrupt break in 1952 crippled trade; the GDR was largely cut off from western coal, iron, steel, coke. Previous improvements in transportation, farm assistance and price-cutting were abridged and treatment of opposition was tightened. Worst of all, wage scales based on production quotas were tightened, perhaps unavoidably, but without consultation with the workers.

In the spring of 1953, after Stalin’s death, Moscow’s new rulers saw the dangers threatening in what was still their occupation zone and insisted on easing-up and many reversions. The GDR leaders complied with a New Course, a great improvement in all but one point, the wage quotas, which was most important. Their retention was the tinder which sent almost a million into the streets.

The CIA-run Radio in American Sector (West Berlin), RIAS, with its wide GDR audience, jumped in at once. Within the first few hours it broadcast a list of demands, not only regarding quotas but also a new government and the call for a general strike, which might well end in east-west conflict between two atomic powers, USA and USSR. The uprising ended with a curfew enforced by Soviet tanks – under strict orders not to fire a single shot, which they adhered to even when some groups, often young men from West Berlin, pelted them with stones and set a department store on fire.

After things cooled down (with many arrests and about fifty deaths on both sides), the New Course proceeded and led to a stabilization of life and rapid improvement (till the next higher level crisis).

What did not cease were the efforts from the West, top-heavy with ex-Nazis until the late 1960s, to hinder improvement, cause crises, encourage dissidents, isolate the GDR from world culture, sports, diplomacy – and above all to encourage envy of consumer attractions and travel possibilities in what,  with USA assistance, was becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Also unceasing are thoughts about democracy, with 2-, 3-, or more party rule and secret elections but ending up against working people, or with one party rule but with representatives from them and for them. Is some mix possible?

In 1990 the heirs of the cartels which grew rich in World War I, built up Hitler and fattened in World War II thanks to huge numbers of slave laborers,  finally succeeded in regaining their lost possessions and opening the path to further expansion southward and eastward, with new sources of skilled, lower paid work forces, investments, marketing and raw material. Some German industrial  barons were satisfied to achieve these gains peacefully in trade, if not friendly at least tolerant, since the old fear of socialism no longer threatened their wealth, now increasingly measured in billions. But many, above all the military-industrial-complex, as strong  in Germany as in the USA, had other plans, and tried them out in Serbia and Afghanistan as it had sixty years earlier in Aragon, Catalonia or Guernica.

One difference was that they now had to measure their ambitions with those of a mentor, ally and rival, the USA. For decades its leaders, too, had found as their main adversary a state which nationalized industrial and financial empires and largely banished the profit motive, using money gained from employees not for yachts, jets, mansions (or space flights) but for social purposes; free education, health and child care, equal pay for women, cheap housing, affordable culture.

But even after the main threat of any such take-over had been eliminated (though not entirely erased in the memories of many, or their children), that huge territory offered room for the expansion which their growing monopolies never ceased to demand. Both Germany and the USA, despite occasional rivalry, and occasional differences,  became united in their first main goals: Russia.

But there were still obstacles. Always scouting for problems, blunders, weaknesses and chinks in the armor, the first victories were Poland and Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, even little Albania. The industrial GDR was a major prize. Of course, people in these countries were indeed dissatisfied, and often hypnotized by Marlboro, Disney, by dreams of Golden Gate or Golden Arches, they hated all the empty slogans and any restrictions. Institutions like the CIA, the NED and many NGOs with innocent-sounding names found the weak spots, used them and led the way to “regime change” in one after the other.

Russia was reached and almost won when a pliant Yeltsin opened the gates to new oligarchs and to western investment. After he had brought Russia to nearly total collapse he was pushed out by Putin, who immediately set about reestablishing its internal economy and welfare and its status in world politics. Though no communist, he was able to make Russia a major power again, and this was an intolerable situation for those who – in the name of democracy and freedom – sought world hegemony. Washington, in its renewed crusade, found it possible to enlist or press East European satellites, most West European dependents and its friends in Germany. The threat of terrorism, since 2001 greatly eroded, could be refreshed with a new threatening adversary – “Putin imperialism”.

This is where Ukraine fit in. Instead of a risky, difficult head-on conflict, it and possibly Georgia could be used as provocateurs and, if necessary, as victims. Since the two almost completely surrounded Russian access to the Black Sea, its only warm water connection,  their friendship, or at least neutrality,  were vital to Russia.

In 2008 William Burns, then US ambassador to Moscow, now director of CIA, warned Washington in a secret message:

“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. ..NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”

But Washington purposefully disregarded such warnings, both with their “Orange Revolution” in 2004-2005 and the coup in 2014 which, despite all the declamations about democracy, was largely financed and directed by Victoria Nuland for the US State Department, as her overheard telephone message made all too clear:

“I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. .. what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside.”

The next day it was indeed “Yats” – Arseny Yatseniuk – who became government head. “Klitsch” –  Vitali Klitschko, a boxer, is mayor of Kyiv. Oleh Tyahnybok, who also helped “on the outside, ” had been expelled from his parliamentary fraction after a speech to nationalist fans praising fascist guerillas during the war: “You are the ones that the Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine fears most…They were not afraid and we should not be afraid. They took their automatic guns on their necks and went into the woods, and fought against the Muscovites, Germans, Jews and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state. ”

In 2014, in an interview, Putin adviser Sergey Glazyev recalled the Budapest Memorandum of 1994: “Under the document, Russia and the USA are guarantors of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and … are obliged to intervene when conflict situations of this nature arise… And what the Americans are getting up to now, unilaterally and crudely interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, is a clear breach of that treaty. The agreement is for collective guarantees and collective action.”

But the new government went full steam ahead, antagonizing its Russian-speaking minority and, when they rebelled (somewhat paralleling Kosovo or Catalonia), and rejecting a pro-Russian referendum in the Crimea and, violently, an uprising in the Russophone East, with a resultant very bloody civil war – just as Burns had predicted.

In November 2014, Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, also uttered a warning:

“The West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War. Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination of the world, refusing to heed words of caution … The events of the past few months are the consequences of short-sighted policy, of seeking to impose one’s will and fait accompli, while ignoring the interests of one’s partners. A short list will suffice: the enlargement of NATO, Yugoslavia, particularly Kosovo, missile defense plans, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the list goes on. To put it metaphorically, a blister has now turned into a bloody, festering wound.”

His words had no more effect than those of Ambassador Burns. One provocation followed another, Russia was isolated, threatened, while Ukraine was armed, became the site of one series of military and naval maneuvers after another, joined US and Ukrainian scientists in highly suspicious biological laboratories (as admitted by Victoria Nuland) and increased its attacks on the rebellious eastern provinces, using pro-fascist units like the “Azovs” as spearheads.

Tragically, Putin, fearing a strangling noose,  took the bait and attacked; the scale of killing and devastation increased immensely and still continues. It cannot be defended, it cannot be approved, but it must be explained – and above all, it must cease. Ukraine cannot and should not be destroyed as a state; the fate of Crimea and the Donbas can and must find some form of settlement guided by their inhabitants, as seemingly possible at Minsk. But a “fight to the end,“ as demanded by Zelenskiy by loudly blaring war hawks in the USA, some in Germany, and by a very loud one named Stoltenberg, are increasingly reminiscent of long past years and decades and can lead us only to more death and destruction or, with increasing confrontation between  Russia, the USA and Europe, to a catastrophe, risking atomic missile strikes and world annihilation.

Pressure from all directions and in all countries must demand and achieve a cease fire, negotiations and some agreement, even temporary at first. In Germany this means opposing much the same forces which have previously tried to expand eastward – vainly against the USSR in 1941, vainly in the GDR in June 1953, but successfully in 1990. It is this eastward push by Germany with its tried and true Masters of War and by its even more powerful siblings in the USA which has been the root cause of today’s bloodshed – and, unless it can be halted – can only lead to future disaster.


Victor Grossman, 95 years young, is a US native who defected to East Germany in 1952–a fascinating story he recounts in his 2 books “Crossing the River” and “A Socialist Defector: from Harvard to Karl Marx Allee”.  He became a journalist and has lived there since.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Jun 2023.

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