Remembering the Uprising

Fritz Stern, introduction by Timothy Garton Ash, translated by Edna McCown

Timothy Garton Ash

On this year’s anniversary of the June 17, 1953, uprising in East Germany, Fritz Stern, the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, delivered the speech published here to a ceremonial session of the Bundestag in Bonn. The speech is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is remarkable in itself: a historian’s wise, original, and, not least, generous evocation of the rich, specifically German tradition of standing up for freedom. Here is a dimension of German history that is rarely recalled in foreign, political, or journalistic accounts, and perhaps also too rarely recalled in contemporary West German discussions of the relationship between the German past and the German future.1

Fritz Stern justly and eloquently places the June 1953 uprising against the Ulbricht regime in East Germany in the line of earlier, also frustrated, German demands for freedom—notably that expressed in the life and work of the nineteenth-century poet Ferdinand Freiligrath. But he also places it in the great line of postwar East Central European uprisings against Soviet-type regimes: the German uprising in 1953 is seen as a precursor of the Hungarian one in 1956, the Czechoslovak in 1968, the Polish in 1980. All these attempts were frustrated but none, he implies, was fruitless.

Yet the speech is also remarkable for the setting in which it was delivered, and for the reaction it provoked. The history of the occasion is as follows. At a time when the Ulbricht regime was thoroughly disoriented by Stalin’s death and the subsequent “new course” imposed on it from Moscow, while the populace was still suffering food shortages and severe economic hardships as a result of the earlier Stalinist economic policies, industrial and building workers were goaded into protest by the news that their production “norms” would be raised by a further 10 percent. The demonstrations that began on the Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin were echoed across East Germany. According to official estimates some 300,000 workers were involved before the revolt was finally crushed with the help of Soviet tanks. June 17 was the high point of the rising. A fortnight later, in Bonn, both the ruling conservative-liberal coalition and the opposition Social Democrats brought motions before the West German parliament proposing that June 17 should henceforth be a national holiday—“the German national holiday,” said the Social Democrats’ motion.

And so it became. The holiday was called “The Day of German Unity.” Every year there was a ceremonial speech in the West German parliament, which is still officially called “the German Bundestag.” The major parties took turns to invite the speaker. In recent years these ceremonies had perhaps become a little routine, although former Federal President Walter Scheel’s attempt last year to provide a universally acceptable interpretation of Deutschlandpolitik attracted some attention—if not universal acceptance.

Fritz Stern was invited by the Social Democrats. He is the first foreigner to have been asked to address the Bundestag on this solemn occasion. The word “foreigner” seems not entirely…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.