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Wednesday, June 17, 2020 Leer en Español

Paving the Way for Future Freedom: The East German Uprising of 1953

A labor revolt in a "workers' paradise."

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0 (

Crowds of people defacing Soviet symbols and demanding free and fair elections… If you think I’m talking about the 1990s, you would be off by a few decades. On June 17, 1953, East German workers revolted against their communist government and Soviet overlords.

The backstory of oppression is typical for what the Soviets did in territories they occupied after World War II (or “liberated,” in Soviet doublespeak). The Soviets dismantled entire German factories, loaded them on rail cars, and moved them to the USSR (and just to be clear, the Nazis did even worse things in the territories they occupied). Strangely, this practice survived even into the 21st century. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Russian army even stole beds and toilets from the Georgian army barracks.

After looting East Germany, the Soviets started the “construction of communism” in East Germany. This meant the reallocation of resources to heavy industry, the taxation of the last private businesses, and the forced collectivization of agriculture. Farmers had to surrender their land to the government and work on collective farms.

Then the production quotas were increased, which meant that workers had to work more for the same pay. Prices for food, transportation, etc., were also increased, which meant that the same pay translated into less food in your local—most likely government-run—shop. Add to this that many farmers preferred escaping to the West rather than becoming semi-serfs in Soviet collective farms, and you have another condition common to the whole Eastern Bloc: falling living standards.

Discontent eventually spilled onto the streets with workers from a construction site on “Stalin’s Alley” starting a march to demand the reduction of production quotas and eventually for the resignation of the government and free elections.

The conclusion is also typical of how dissent from labor was dealt with in the “workers’ paradise.” Tanks and troops rolled in, fired on the crowds, and arrested thousands of people.

Even though it took more than three decades, the German people eventually got their wish: reunification, free elections, and liberation (the true kind) from the Soviets. The sacrifice and determination of the rebels of 1953 also caused the Soviets to ease up on their “construction of communism” in East Germany. Consequently, in the 1980s, East Germany looked like “the West” to the rest of the Eastern Bloc. And the fact that East Germany looked so backward to the actual Westerners illustrates how bad things were behind the Iron Curtain.

Perhaps more importantly, it sowed the seeds of German reunification in the 1990s. The “June 17th Street” runs into the Brandenburg Gate, where the Berlin Wall stood to prevent people from escaping from the communist East to the capitalist West.

There were more protests—Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Not to mention, actual armed resistance to the Soviets in the Baltics that lasted up to 1953. These actions helped to dispel any pretense that communism in Eastern Europe was voluntary. The mass desertions from the German Socialist Party and trade unions also illustrate that even some of those sympathetic to the ideas of the left quickly change their minds when confronted with the practical fruits of the ideas.

In a tragic twist, the Stalin Alley, where the workers started the uprising in 1953, was later renamed to “Karl Marx Alley.” This accords with the flawed excuse of the left that the problem with real socialism is that it was implemented by the wrong people. Marx’s system is right, but the people (like Stalin) are wrong. I bet that countless leftists honestly believe that if only they were put in charge of everyone, they would create a socialist paradise, and mold the people to their set of beliefs.

At the same time, the renaming of Stalin Alley to Karl Marx Alley illustrates the incredible rhetorical trick that the socialists manage to pull off. Past examples of socialism in reality, aka the Soviet Union? That wasn’t really socialism. Current examples of socialism aka Venezuela? That too is not socialism. Instead, they say that prosperous Denmark is socialist, even though Danes themselves adamantly deny it.

But that’s socialism for you: an idea so good, it requires constant force and lies to prop it up.

  • Zilvinas Silenas is the former president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).