The Memorial for the Uprising of June 17, 1953

At the intersection of Wilhelm- and Leipziger Straße there is the  “Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953” (Square of the Uprising of 1953) at the forecourt of the huge building that used to be Hermann Goring’s Ministry on Aviation during the Third Reich and is now the German Department of Finance. What was that uprising about and why is there a memorial here?

 

Economic difficulties in East Germany

While West Germany received money from the “European Recovery Program”, a.k.a. Marshall Plan, an American initiative to help rebuild the European countries after World War II, the East Germans had to pay reparations to the Soviet Union. This and other economic difficulties, e.g. the brain drain to the West, led to measures such as higher consumer prices, higher taxes and the rising of the so-called work norms (in short more work for the same salary) to come into effect June 30th.

June 16th, the workers of a prestige construction project at the Stalinallee (today Karl-Marx-Allee) went on strike and marched down the Stalinallee. The next morning, June 17th, around 40, 000 protesters gathered in East Berlin and marched to the Eastern part of Potsdamer Platz, to the Brandenburg Gate and to the governing quarter at the Wilhelmstraße. The former Ministry on Aviation then housed the “House of the Ministries”, ministries or departments of different industrial branches as it is the case in a Socialist economy.

 

A three-days uprising in the whole country

The Uprising of June 17 was an uprising not only in East Berlin, but also in many towns and cities in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). And it lasted until June 19th. Even though the government decided to withdraw the raising of the work norms, people continued to strike and march. It was an uprising against the regime, not against a single aspect of its politics.

The Soviet forces and the East German police suppressed the uprising. As the Soviet troops in the GDR had been on a manoeuver anyway, they could easily direct their tanks and trucks into the cities. The most iconic picture of the day shows East Berlin youths throwing stones at a Soviet tank.

The blood toll was high: Over 500 people killed in the uprising, 116 of which functionaries of the leading party, 106 executed under martial law or condemned to death later, over 1,800 injured and more than 5,100 people arrested.  West Germany honored the uprising and the victims by making June 17th the national holiday until unification in 1990. The broad avenue in the (former West Berlin) park Tiergarten is called “Straße des 17. Juni”.

 

The memorial

Berlin 17 June 1973 Let’s go back to the “Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953”. You’ll see two pieces of art at and near the building. At the wall, behind pillars is the huge mural “Aufbau der Republik” (build-up of the Republic) made of Meissen porcelain tiles (a very precious material) from 1952. It is a typical piece of “Socialist Realism” with optimistic, happy working class people with a uniform smile and a marching pose. And there is the memorial for the uprising.

Since June 2000 the memorial is located on the forecourt of the building in view of the mural. It is made of glass and shows an enlarged and rasterized black-and-white photo of the marching strikers on their way to the House of the Ministries. It is in many ways a contrast to the idealized people on the colorful mural. At the pillars, you find more information on the uprising of 1953 and its consequences for German history.

 +++Learn more about the 1953 uprising on our Classic Berlin tour!+++