Heym, Five Days in June
book essay by
Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Elizabeth Clark (back to top)
I’m a third year History major at UCSB. While American history is where my interest lies most, I’m finding that European history is beginning to draw my attention as well. I came into this class with very limited knowledge of German history, with the exception of Hitler’s Third Reich and World War II, which I’ve learned about from previous classes, films, and my grandfather. I chose Stefan Heym’s novel partly due to Professor Marcuse’s recommendation and partly due to my own fascination and intrigue with the larger significance of historical events—in this case, the June 1953 uprising in East Berlin.
Stefan Heym’s Five Days in June is an hour-by-hour detailing of the events that transpired the days leading up to and including June 17th, 1953. Heym focuses on the VEB Merkur industrial plant in particular, mostly following Comrade Martin Witte—a labor leader and committed socialist, whose anti-norm position places him at odds with top party officials. From Soviet offices to the streets of East Berlin, Heym writes a fictionalized, yet very believable account of how tension mounted to mass demonstrations, only to be dissolved by Soviet tanks. Heym portrays the city-wide strike as more an expression of discontent within the socialist state rather than opposition to the regime. Frustrated at their own party and state, workers want merely to reform the system, not replace it with something else. Instead of blaming the historical uprising on anti-communist or Western infiltration, as many Eastern interpretations do, Heym attempts to blame the uprising on state and party inefficiency and disorganization. The novel itself was initially banned in East Germany, suggesting just how unconventional and dangerous Heym’s rewriting of history was. Thus, not only does Heym’s perspective as an Easterner make his historical interpretation of June 1953 scholarly valuable, but his blaming of the GDR leadership makes this novel all the more fascinating.
Essay (back to top)
The 1953 Uprising in East Germany:
Stefan Heym’s Five Days in June is a wonderfully crafted, fictional yet historical account of the 1953 general labor strike in Soviet-occupied East Germany (specifically at the VEB Merkur industrial plant). Published in 1974, its hour-by-hour detailing of historic events resurrected some crucial questions that historians still disagree on today. Retrospectively, some historians have interpreted what transpired on June 17th, 1953 to have a larger, more political meaning: that East Germans were opposing not just norm raises, or calling for free elections, but resisting the socialist regime altogether. Others believe, and I would argue Heym included, that those who did strike were genuinely hoping to reform the workers’ party and state. As an Easterner himself, Stefan Heym brings a noteworthy perspective to the forefront, helping to answer simple questions like "how did East Germans, as opposed to West Germans, interpret the uprising?" In an attempt to rewrite the official Eastern version of what took place June 17th, Stefan Heym portrays the 1953 uprising as a crucially missed opportunity in the East’s progression as a socialist state. Instead of blaming anti-communist or Western infiltration, Heym seems to point a finger at the GDR leadership. This unconventional and even dangerous interpretation makes Five Days in June all the more fascinating.
The response to the publishing of Stefan Heym’s Five Days in June is especially noteworthy. The book itself was banned in East Germany when it was published in 1974. It was arguably an attempt to reinterpret the official version of the events leading up to and including what took place on June 17th. Instead of blaming anti-communist infiltration or even the West, as many Eastern interpretations do, Heym’s novel rather admits or pushes the East to admit to responsibility. Before the Prologue, Heym even quotes from the Constitution of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany as if to justify his purpose:
It is the duty of the member of the party . . . to develop self-criticism and criticism from the ranks, to uncover without fear or favor shortcomings in the activities of the party and to eliminate them . . . (p. 5).
The central character of the novel, Comrade Martin Witte, shares a remarkably similar position—as a trade unionist at VEB Merkur, Witte’s anti-norm position puts him at odds with the SED party he professes allegiance to. By paralleling Witte with himself, and by portraying Witte as a renegade-to-hero type, Heym attempts to justify his eyebrow-raising interpretation of the 1953 general labor strike.
Historically speaking, Heym’s novel seems to be fairly accurate. Heym’s use of historical documents—radio reports and excerpts from speeches, newspaper editorials, military orders and official documents—give his historical interpretation an aura of authenticity. The lack of available reviews, in English especially, has led me to wonder whether any of his characters are indeed based on historical figures. More important than hoping to stumble upon Heym’s method of research or professed commitment to historical accuracy, however, are the questions that his novel attempts to answer.
Was the 1953 uprising in East Germany much more than
a general strike?
Evidence from Stefan Heym’s novel seems to suggest that this ideological interpretation is without a doubt a Western creation or even an over-symbolization of the events. Rather than wanting to get rid of the system altogether, and in the case of Western interpretation replacing it with a capitalist democracy, East Germans merely wanted to reform the system. At one point, Kallman—a disgruntled worker—tries to convince other workers from Hall Nine to join the strike, explaining, "No one here is against the Government, Brother Teterow, or against the party. But the men simply can’t understand why they should except this raw deal, this norm raise, and shouldn’t be permitted to enquire why and wherefore . . ." (p. 157). Dronke, another worker, expresses his thoughts: "I’m a member of the party, and I know why I’m in the party, but I lost thirty-four pfennigs an hour, and that’s money" (p. 70); and yet another worker: ". . . we don’t want to make trouble, we only want somebody to listen to us" (p. 82). Workers merely wanted to have their voice heard, for after all, the GDR claimed it was a workers’ state, and the SED a workers’ party.
There is a possibility that one might think just the opposite, that the workers were not just resisting the socialist regime but calling for something completely new—an extension of the Western zones’ capitalism perhaps. At one point in the novel, Heym includes part of an official statement made by the RIAS—Radio in the American Sector. Speaking of the work stoppages in East Berlin, it reads "Yesterday it became no longer a mere question of norms. A protest against an arbitrary cut in wages turned into a protest against the entire regime, joined with the demand for free elections and the resignation of the Zone’s government" (p. 265). One must realize however, that this particular interpretation of events comes from a Western radio station, broadcasting in the American zone. If anything this broadcast, and more importantly Heym’s inclusion of it within his book, further proves that even at the time, the West tried to export their interpretation and symbolization of the 1953 strikes to the East. Without a doubt, many Westerners probably thought the uprisings signified a great opposition to socialism. Even so, there is no mention among Heym’s characters of wanting anything but socialism, thus suggesting that the Western and Eastern interpretations of the labor uprising were indeed quite different.
Stefan Heym makes a clear initiative to include several workers who, in contrast to the majority of workers, believe in the norms and the message behind them. Responding to Kallman’s persistence, Teterow takes a stand: "The new norms can be met . . . do I have a better machine than you? Better material? I simply put my heart into it . . . the norm raise—that was no mistake" (p. 155). Teterow is verbally attacked for his response, and no one comes to his rescue. Heym ends the chapter with a brief yet effective mention of another worker. In an attempt to explain to Dronke who exactly profits from the plant’s production, Teterow questions a quiet worker, apparently pushing him too far: "The worker picked up a huge wrench and raised it threateningly. ‘Scram will you! I’ve got a sick wife at home and three kids, and I’ve got to meet that new norm, is that clear?’" (p. 159). Even here, Teterow’s allegiance to the state is contrasted sharply to simple self-preservation. Thus, whether they agreed, felt they had to agree, or disagreed with the norm raises, every worker in Heym’s novel believes in socialism; no worker badmouths the socialist system or voices interest in leaving for the West.
How did the East Germans see the uprisings?
As an East German himself, author Stefan Heym brings an interesting perspective to the forefront. Heym several times refers to the GDR’s acknowledgement of previously making mistakes, as if to infer that the norm raises are another one of these errors. He includes an article from Tagliche Rundschau, a daily newspaper published by the Soviet Army for the German population:
The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party openly and sincerely admit to the entire population of the German Democratic Republic that in the past they have committed mistakes . . . (p. 93)
And later from the Address of the Chairman of the Central Committee of the SED, Otto Grotewohl, on June 16th, 1953:
Our mistakes which we openly acknowledge are in no way the result of lack of understanding . . . these mistakes arose from our honest intention to speed up the development towards a quicker rise in the standard of living of the entire population. At this point the basic mistake occurred . . . (p. 232)
Both of these excerpts are from historical documents, and by including them in his novel, Heym surrounds his plot and supposed fictional characters with authenticity and legitimacy. Even Comrade Witte, at the conclusion of the novel, seems to call for Eastern acknowledgment of responsibility. Speaking to his secretary, he predicts,
There will be lots of talk in the near future about whose fault it was, and quite a few will yield to the temptation of seeking the fault outside themselves. I just wonder how many will have the guts to step up and say: I too, am to blame, Comrades . . . (p. 347).
Thus, not only through his inclusion of historical documents, but also through the characters’ discourse, Heym has done what few, if any, Eastern historians have done—attempted to solely blame the GDR leadership for the 1953 uprising.
In my opinion, the following conversation between two workers, Panowsky and Dronke, sums up the two different opinions Germans had after their government admitted to past and present mistakes. Panowsky shares, "I think it’s a great party that has the courage to admit its mistakes to the world. I think it was a most impressive act." Placing a hand on his comrade’s shoulder, Dronke replies "Me, my boy, I would be more impressed if not so many mistakes had been made" (p. 237). Because Heym wrote specifically from a labor leader’s perspective, Five Days in June mostly encompasses the workman’s view of the 1953 uprising. Thus, as readers, we see that many East Germans regard the uprisings not merely as a result of built up economic tension, but also as a long-overdue outcry to show just how far the workers’ party and government had diverged from the workers’ interests.
Was the East German uprising the deciding factor that ended any and all possibility of German unification?
Heym’s novel touches little on post-June 17th material. He does, however, include characters whose Western connections make them suspicious. As readers, we never really come to know the truth behind Anna’s husband’s sudden return to the East. Nevertheless, his repulsive demeanor contrasts sharply with Witte’s charming and heroic disposition. Heym also includes a hostile woman who challenges Anna at the Food Store, demanding five pounds of butter. Witte intervenes, saying:
Now let me tell you dear woman, what you’re planning to do with these five pounds of butter. You plan to put them into that shopping bag of yours alongside all the other things you’ve bought this side of the border for money exchanged at the black rate of five marks East against one West mark, and then shuttle over there and peddle your goods, making a handsome profit even if you sell below West prices, while people here who earn their money honestly are having to face empty shelves (p. 88).
Through Witte, Stefan Heym is challenging the Westerners who exploit the Eastern market to better their own economic situation. Even before the Wall was built, there seems to be a desire for separation or at least for Western detachment so the socialist "experiment" could begin to take root. Those who shared such desire for and pride in a separate socialist state welcomed the building of the wall in 1961. Thus, while Heym does not suggest that the 1953 strikes killed any last hope at German unification, he certainly hints at two distinctly different systems developing.
In conclusion, the 1953 uprising in Soviet-occupied East Germany has raised many questions, many of which continue to go unanswered or disagreed upon. What did it all mean? Was it a sudden release of built-up tension that meant nothing more than a simple desire for the working people’s party to reestablish its loyalty to the workers themselves? Or did the city-wide strikes have a larger, more political implication—that East Germans wanted freedom from an oppressive regime, freedom from socialism? Stefan Heym’s version of the June 1953 uprising is more than just an Eastern interpretation, and a unique one at that. Deeply committed to socialism, Heym saw no problem with his interpretation of the June 1953 events, blaming the strike on state and party inefficiency and disorganization. Many historians, including Mary Fulbrook, also view the 1953 uprising as more of an expression of discontent within a socialist state rather than opposition to the socialist regime. While lack of leadership and organizational breakdowns plagued the June 1953 uprising from the onset, such necessities were not just present but prominent in the later successes of 1989. As a historical novel, Five Days in June is a noteworthy rendition of what took place in the few days prior to and including June 17th, 1953. That it comes from an Eastern perspective, and a unique one at that, makes Five Days in June a truly impressive piece of literature.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: