Keeping the memories alive

Popular uprising on 17 June 1953 Keeping the memories alive

On the anniversary of the uprising in what was then the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, the German government has paid tribute to the victims. Sixty-six years later, 17 June remains an important and historic day in Germany. The central ceremony was held at the Memorial for the Victims of the Uprising in Berlin.

Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Berlin's Governing Mayor Michael Müller lay wreaths.

Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Berlin's Governing Mayor Michael Müller lay wreaths at the Memorial for the Victims of the Uprising

Photo: Henning Schacht

"Without 17 June 1953, the Berlin Wall might not have fallen on 9 November 1989," said Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, underlining the importance of this day. The victims, he said, remind us of the need to appreciate and defend liberty and democracy. The minister also called for greater social cohesion and inner unity in Germany, and pointed to the need to work for comparable living conditions in East and West.

A strong spark

In his address, Horst Seehofer compared today’s communications with those that existed 66 years ago. Back then, there was no internet that could be used by people to organise a spontaneous strike. "How strong must the spark have been that ignited the mass protests in so many places simultaneously on 17 June 1953?" he asked.

17 June 1953 – a historic day for Germany

Less than four years after the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded, the country seemed doomed: food shortages, long queues in front of shops and no electric power at night combined to fuel discontent. When the ruling party, the SED, increased performance quotas, which was equivalent to cutting wages, the bitterness grew.

It was the construction workers in East Berlin’s Stalinallee, the SED’s prestige project, who downed tools first. Within only a few hours the uprising spread to more than 700 places, became a general strike, and finally a popular uprising. The SED only managed to put it down with the help of Soviet tanks, crushing the calls for free elections and German reunification.

Commemoration during the Cold War

To commemorate the uprising in the GDR, the Federal Republic of Germany made 17 June a public holiday, the Day of German Unity. The pertinent legislation was adopted on 4 August 1953. 17 June was to be a day to remember the people who fought for their rights and their liberty, and who suffered when the uprising was quashed. Above all it was to be a reminder that the two German states, East and West, belonged together.

In the GDR there were no commemorations of the victims of 17 June. The events of that day were to be forgotten.

Commemoration in the reunited Germany

The Unification Treaty that came into effect on 29 September 1990 made 3 October the Day of German Unity, a public holiday. 17 June was accorded the status of a day of remembrance, but was no longer a national holiday.

Although 17 June is no longer a public holiday, the uprising in East Berlin and the GDR was one of the most important and defining events in recent German history. Without it, German history over the last few decades cannot be explained.

The refugee movement in the years that followed, where people "voted with their feet" would be as incomprehensible as the construction of the Berlin Wall, the systematic persecution of dissidents, the protests against the regime and the peaceful revolution. For this reason alone, 17 June must remain a day of remembrance, but also because it hones our awareness for the true meaning of liberty, justice and democracy.