The Long Result of Throwing Stones
For most of the Cold War, West Germans took advantage of a national
holiday in the spring to walk the woods or take the waters, although
had very little, if anything, to do with the origins of that holiday.
recognition of the East Germans who stared down Soviet tanks, stormed
prisons, trampled gargantuan posters of Stalin, and shouted for free
elections, the West German government declared June 17, the "Day of
Unity" in 1953, and so it remained until replaced by October 3, the Day
German Unity as of 1990. It is indicative of Steininger's position in
slim but powerful work that he laments the passing of June 17 as
national holiday. All Germans, he believes, should celebrate the
of June 17, 1953 and recognize the demonstrators' aspirations for unity
The uprising of June 17, 1953 was one of the first topics scholars
addressed during the stampede into the East German archives following
their opening, and rightly so. This, the first uprising in the Soviet
bloc, remained a murky event for western scholars. Initial works
on the nature of the revolution and the social composition of the
demonstrations and, not surprisingly, scholars came to different
conclusions. Whereas Armin Mitter, Stefan Wolle, and Manfred Hagen
offered an interpretation of June 17 that focused on a cross section of
the population participating in an event best described as a
"revolutionary uprising" or "popular uprising," Torsten Diedrich and
Gerhard Beier downplayed both the revolutionary aspect of the uprising,
and the role of the non-working class in the events of the summer of
1953. These latter authors echoed the long standard interpretation of
the uprising found in Arnulf Baring's _Uprising in East Germany: June
1953_. Given these similar conclusions pre- and post-opening of the
archives, some historians began to speculate that the East German
documents would not radically change historical interpretations of the
German Democratic Republic.
Steininger's account appeared last year amidst another flurry of
scholarship on June 17 which included works by Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk,
Thomas Flemming, and myself, as the fiftieth anniversary approached,
event that was marked in Germany by roundtables, conferences,
and two dedicated Web sites that reveal the truly astonishing amount of
material now available on the revolution of 1953. These recent works
show the distance covered since the initial foray into the archives.
Whereas some in the field scoffed at Armin Mitter and Stefan Wolle's
characterization of June 17 as a "revolutionary uprising" in 1993, the
latest works tend to emphasize popular and revolutionary aspects of the
events. At a minimum, the sheer magnitude of the events of June 1953
revealed in these works--there were demonstrations in over seven hundred
localities in East Germany on and around June 17--suggest that the
traditional moniker of "Berlin workers' uprising" is now inadequate,
perhaps even laughable.
Steininger is interested in both the revolution of June 1953 as well as
its long-term effects on East Germany. Accordingly, he has divided the
work into three sections: the first deals with the revolution, the
with the long-term effects, and the third section contains a selection
relevant documents. In the first section, Steininger provides a good,
albeit short, overview of the origins and course of the revolution.
is little that is new here, and researchers interested in a more
account of the outbreak and course of the revolution would be advised to
consult other works. Steininger emphasizes that the revolution was
extremely widespread, encompassed a cross-section of society, and
moved from work-norm to political issues. Thus, he states clearly which
camp he falls into with his characterization of June 17 as an
(_unvollendete_) revolution with long-term consequences" (pp. 10, 105).
The second section of the book details several key developments in the
history of East Germany after the uprising. Steininger provides the
reader with a dismal picture of life in the GDR, from the dreadful
situation of the 1950s and early 1960s to the building of the Wall and
explosive expansion of the system of repression. Steininger points out
that the building of the Wall was a major turning point here as the vent
of exodus was shut. Ironically, the Wall would tie the Socialist Unity
Party's (SED) hands as internal discontent had a greater chance of
to rebellion after the Wall had been built. Indeed, repression
after the Wall.
With East Germany teetering in the late summer of 1989, Erich Mielke,
of the Stasi, said in a closed session: "Is it so that we are on the
of another 17 June?" Historians have rightly cited this passage many
times in order to emphasize the specter of June 17 on the ruling Party.
Steininger argues that this sentiment was continually present in the
As the East German economy plummeted in the 1970s, as a result of such
factors as an oil crisis with worldwide repercussions, hapless economic
management and the elimination of private industry, the sensible
would have been to reduce expensive foreign imports and prepare the
population for belt-tightening (pp. 10, 97, 100). Even twenty years
the fact, however, the image of East Germans dragging Party comrades
through the streets still informed SED decision-making. The SED did not
adopt the necessary corrective because it feared another June 17 (p.
The head of the Central Committee Planning and Finance Department
to the economic bind in 1989: "[At] least since 1973 we have lived
our means ... We paid for debt with debt" (p. 102). This eventually led
to the situation in 1989 when the SED confessed that the reduction in
standard of living necessary for the GDR to meet its debt obligations
would make the GDR "ungovernable" (p. 103). Steininger has provided an
important component to answer the question of why the SED had so little
economic room to maneuver.
Of course, the worst fears of the SED were realized in the mass
demonstrations of October 1989 throughout East Germany. Here,
sees very little fundamental difference between the revolutions of 1953
and 1989. June 17, 1953 was similar to October 9, 1989 in Leipzig,
in 1989 the Russians stayed in their barracks (p. 106).
The section of the work that contains documents is slightly
Only five of the twenty-four documents are not available in printed form
elsewhere, and there is a heavy reliance on the 1989 documents in Armin
Mitter and Stefan Wolle, _Ich liebe euch doch alle: Befehle und
Lageberichte des MfS, Januar-November 1989_ (1990), a book which has
considerable academic attention. Documents from the 15th Plenum of
Central Committee of July 1953 at which the SED adopted a policy that
Kowalczuk, Mitter, and Wolle call the "Innere Staatsgruendung" would
been a welcome addition to Steininger's book, given the importance of
meeting--which the author also recognizes (p. 10).
Steininger's work is reminiscent of _Untergang auf Raten_ in so far as
argues for an analysis of the end of the GDR that takes into account the
June 17 revolution. Although historians may well continue to argue the
poet Manlius' assertion _finis origine pendet_ (the end depends on the
beginning), it seems prudent to recognize that June 17, 1953 was not
without serious long-term consequences for the ruling Party. As Guenter
Grass so elegantly said, referring to June 17 in _My Century_:
even if decades after the fact, stone throwers do prevail."
. Armin Mitter and Stefan Wolle, _Untergang auf Raten: Unbekannte
Kapitel der DDR-Geschichte_ (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1993); Manfred Hagen,
_DDR--Juni '53: Die erste Volkserhebung im Stalinismus_ (Stuttgart:
Steiner Verlag, 2002); Torsten Diedrich, _Der 17. Juni 1953: Bewaffnete
Gewalt gegen das Volk_ (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1991); and Gerhard Beier,
_Wir wollen freie Menschen sein--Der 17. Juni 1953: Bauleute gingen
(Cologne: Bund Verlag, 1993).
. See Lutz Niethammer's comments in Juergen Kocka and Martin Sabrow
eds., _Die DDR als Geschichte_ (Berlin: Akadamie Verlag, 1994).
. Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk _17.6.1953:Volksaufstand in der DDR_ (Berlin:
BStU, 2003); Thomas Flemming, _Der 17. Juni 1953_ (Berlin: be.bra
2003); and Gary Bruce, _Resistance with the People: Repression and
Resistance in Eastern Germany 1945-55_ (Lanham, Md: Rowman and
. See <http://www.17juni53.de/>http://www.17Juni53.de and
. Bruce, _Resistance with the People_ and Christian Ostermann,
_Uprising in East Germany, 1953_ (New York: Central European University
. David Childs and Richard Popplewell, _The Stasi: The East German
Intelligence and Security Service_ (Houndsmills: MacMillan, 1996) is
almost exclusively on _Ich liebe euch doch alle_.
. See Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, Armin Mitter and Stefan Wolle, _Der Tag
X--17. Juni 1953_ (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1995).
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