The East German Uprising of June 17, 1953, and
Its Effects on the USSR and Other Nations of Eastern Europe

undergraduate proseminar research paper
by Jim Dankiewicz

UCSB History 133P, 1999
rof. Marcuse
(see also my Feb. 2006 lecture notes on the 1953 uprising)

The events of June 17, 1953, in the former German Democratic Republic have been recounted numerous times, and in various forms. Certainly the spontaneous demonstrations by thousands of German workers created a memorable day, but the movement ended as quickly as it began. As a result, the direct effects of these demonstrations were minimal. What cannot be underestimated are the indirect, long-term effects of the demonstrations. The strike subtly but dramatically affected the GDR government, though not in the way the demonstrators might have hoped. In foreign affairs, the aftershocks echoed through interrelations among Warsaw Pact members for years to come, and relations with the United States and West Germany were altered in several small but important ways. Overall, the uprising of 1953 subtly but permanently altered the direction of Eastern European history, because it affected the futures of every Soviet Bloc nation and set the stage for later events which otherwise might not have occurred.

To examine the effects of the uprising, it is necessary to briefly look at exactly what happened. Arnulf Baring argues, "The events that led up to the uprising of June 17, 1953, began a year before," when Walter Ulbricht, essentially the dictator of the GDR, announced a declaration of intent to establish socialism in the East German zone. If this starting point is accepted, it also means accepting the interpretation that socialist directives alone were responsible for the uprisings. However, there is no evidence available to indicate that the June 17 strike was against socialism in general. The main focus of the strike was against higher work quotas for those with working-class jobs: factory workers, construction workers, miners, and others. The SED had instituted higher work quotas for a very good reason. The East German economy was not well, much of their industry was antiquated, and public works were inadequate. The SED stated:

Because the requirements of socialist development and the needs of the people have to be satisfied it is essential that work should be concentrated, far more than it has been in the past, on the construction of new concerns, the modernization and improvement of existing concerns, and the building of new dwellings and cultural institutions, and that a considerable part of the profit resulting from the [nation's] work must be employed for the realization of these great tasks.

The accumulated resources needed for these purposes can only be built up as a result of higher productivity over a long period combined with lower production costs. One important means of achieving this is provided by the development and introduction of technically based work quotas.

While the intentions of the SED may have been good, the method of implementation was a big factor in causing the uprisings. "The workers who would be affected by the new quotas had seen the government make concessions to other sectors of the economy, especially agriculture and private industry." They felt that they too deserved some consideration, and were not prepared to increase their workload for the same pay they had received before. When the government proved unwilling to even discuss the issue, the East Berlin construction workers began a one day strike on June 16, which in part triggered the larger general strike the following day. Had the government listened to the workers, heard their grievances, and explained the motive behind raising quotas, it is possible trouble could have been avoided. Indeed, in the two weeks following the uprising the government initiated just such a dialogue. However, it was too late to save the higher quotas, which the SED repealed shortly after the uprising.

While the SED leaders either knew or suspected the truth behind the uprising, it was not good politics to admit publicly they had been wrong. They needed a scapegoat, and they found one in the West. RIAS radio broadcast news reports all over East Germany about the construction workers' strike, which is how many East German workers learned of it. Also there were certainly Western agents throughout the GDR, just as there were certainly Eastern agents throughout the FRG. There may be no documented evidence, but it is common sense. Therefore the accusation of Western activity is not entirely unjustified. Even Baring, who stresses the lengths to which the West went to remain uninvolved, admits that, "By and large the events of June 17 were triggered by western radio bulletins." Nevertheless, it is safe to agree with President Eisenhower when he said, "No provocateur of any nationality can persuade human beings to stand up in front of rumbling tanks with sticks and stones." In other words, whether or not the West provided assistance and encouragement, the East Germans rose up on their own. Of course, the Soviet and East German governments publicly declared the West was entirely responsible for the uprisings. Deputy Minister President Otto Nuschke echoed all communists when he said, "It is not the population that is calling for [deposing the government] but a section of the demonstrators, many of whom are West Berliners." How much truth there was in such statements is hard to judge. Nuschke, in the same interview, also stated that Soviet tanks, "Did not use their guns, they were also demonstrating." While the communist fear of Western involvement was obviously exaggerated, perhaps due to what has been called the effect of, "Textbook communist jargon," where, "The language which these people have learnt to speak encloses them in a world of communist dogma which they cannot relinquish," it was also a necessary face-saving gesture.

The strikers in the 250+ cities where demonstrations occurred had little to no contact with each other, yet they all followed a remarkably similar pattern. Groups of factory workers gathered in the changing rooms and on the floor to discuss the June 16 demonstrations in East Berlin, and whether they should also take action. In many cases these small groups grew until the entire factory had assembled. In some factories, they simply went back to work, but in others a department would decide to strike, the other departments would join, the entire factory would go on strike, and then surrounding factories would also join the strike. In the morning, strike activity was organized and well controlled. During this initial stage there was virtually no looting and no rioting. Beginning around noon however, many in the general public had joined in and the strike leaders were no longer able to keep control. Arson, looting, and lynching became widespread, and it was at this point the Soviets mobilized to restore order. Late in the afternoon, most of the larger towns held meetings with speeches and rallying cries. After the meetings broke up, everyone went home and went back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. The rising had come to a standstill before it really got off the ground.

Despite its short duration, the fallout of the uprising within East Germany was tremendous. In the days following, the SED party studied what caused the uprising, how to prevent future uprisings, and what changes were necessary to the philosophy of the party. This led to three major long-term changes. First as previously mentioned the increased work quotas, which had been unofficially rescinded during the East Berlin strike of June 16, were officially repealed. Second, the need for a scapegoat led the government to blame western agents for causing the uprising. In the preceding months, there had been discussion about opening dialogue with the West regarding a permanent settlement of the German situation and the possibility of reunification. In choosing to blame the West for the uprising, the SED severely damaged this movement. Finally, there was a shakeup in the power structure of the SED itself, and Walter Ulbricht emerged as the man clearly in charge.

After Stalin's death, there was hope among Western leaders for a permanent settlement and peace in Europe. Central to both sides was the divided Germany. Nobody intended a divided Germany to be a permanent settlement, but following the 1948 blockade it looked as if the division would remain. However, in April 1953, Eisenhower gave a major foreign policy speech which put out feelers for a possible détente. This was followed on May 11 by Winston Churchill's speech to the British House of Commons requesting a summit conference between the four great powers, "To resolve all matters of dispute between East and West." This certainly would have included Germany, which raised a host of troubling issues. In fact, on March 10, 1952, the Soviet Union had offered to discuss a plan for German reunification and rearmament, but the United States had flatly rejected it. This time it was the West making overtures, and the Soviets and Germans seemed quite willing to discuss the issue.

Following the uprising, this spirit of cooperation regarding Germany fizzled quickly. As will be examined later, part of this had to do with the shifting power structure within the Soviet leadership, but the statements made by East Germany in the weeks after the uprising were also sufficient to derail any progress on the reunification issue. The official SED statement accused "Western warmongers" of trying to incite war and sabotage the GDR's efforts to improve itself.

"In its capacity as the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist party the Politburo made its findings known in an official announcement, drew attention to the errors committed in the past year and recommended to the government a number of measures designed to correct those errors…And at that very moment the western agencies decided to mount their D-day in order to frustrate this initiative for improving living conditions in the German Democratic Republic."

The response this generated in the West was predictable. The Allied Commanders in West Berlin wrote to their East Berlin counterpart, "You and the rest of the world are well aware of the true causes of the disorders which have recently occurred in East Berlin, and it is…unnecessary to tell you that the three powers in West Berlin had no responsibility whatever for instigating them." Eisenhower, in his July 23 letter to Chancellor Adenauer, declared that the actions of the East German leaders showed, "The political bankruptcy of the SED," while the Secretary of State declared the uprising, "Demonstrates that the people…want to run their own affairs and not be run from Moscow." These terse statements were in marked contrast to the calls for open dialogue which had been made not two months earlier. In this atmosphere of accusations and denials, it is hardly surprising that, "The East-West dialogue over Germany reverted to its post-Berlin blockade pattern."

The reason for sabotaging reunification plans was never blatantly explained, but it should be obvious the SED had little to gain and much to lose from reunification. "No one could have any illusions even then as to how the German Communists would fare in free elections." The SED leaders faced the option of sacrificing ideology and personal power for the sake of a reunited Germany. In blaming the West for the uprising they chose to preserve the status quo. Although there were other times before 1990 when the subject of reunification came up, the opportunity was never greater than it was in 1953. The German division, which was partly perpetuated by the aftermath of the uprising, would play a key part in East-West relations for another thirty-seven years.

The uprising drastically affected the upper levels of the SED. Walter Ulbricht, although nominally the head of the GDR, had in the days leading to the uprising found his position quite shaky. The USSR after Stalin's death had ordered the new line in East Germany, which reversed all the collectivization that had taken place since the previous July. It also removed the foundation on which Ulbricht had built his power. "Ulbricht was compromised most of all, since he, as General Secretary and leading proponent of the 'hard' line, was considered the originator of the discarded policy." However, Ulbricht chose to defy both the Kremlin and his enemies by continuing the hard line as long as possible. He claimed the poor East German economy-which most of the Politburo agreed was being caused by the attempted socialist reforms-was the product of, "Sabotage, arson, and theft of documents." He also faced a threat from supporters of Franz Dahlem, a longtime opponent of Ulbricht who had been expelled on a flimsy pretext from the Central Committee and Politburo in May. There was a real danger they would join with other opponents of Ulbricht and vote to remove him as General Secretary. Two SED leaders in particular rivaled Ulbricht for power: Minister of State Security Wilhelm Zaisser, and Rudolf Herrnstadt, Editor-in-Chief of Das Neue Deutschland, the official communist newspaper of East Germany. Both favored the new line, and both had close ties to leaders in the Kremlin, especially Lavrenti Beria, who had been Stalin's right-hand man. "The majority of the Politburo sympathized with Zaisser and Herrnstadt," according to Erich Honecker, one of only two members who supported Ulbricht openly.

How and why Ulbricht survived this situation is a combination of luck and skilled political survival. The demonstrations of the East Berlin construction workers on June 16 came at a time when the Politburo was already in a meeting, and an aide reported to them that there were workers outside demanding the new quotas be revoked. Several hours later they agreed to take this very course of action, and later that evening Ulbricht publicly endorsed the new line for the first time. "The Party is abandoning an admittedly mistaken road and taking the right one," he said. In doing so he certainly aided his chances, because the leaders in Moscow had repeatedly demonstrated they did not like insubordination, which Ulbricht was showing in his prior refusal to support the new line. What sealed his victory over Zaisser and Herrnstadt more than anything else, however, was Beria's removal from power in Moscow shortly after the uprising. This situation will be examined later, but with his removal, Zaisser and Herrnstadt lost their main supporter in the Kremlin, and the remaining Soviet leaders chose to support Ulbricht. They had good reasons for doing this. As Carola Stern explains:

The workers' revolt did not overthrow Ulbricht-it saved him. His ouster was one of the workers' major demands, but after initial wavering the Kremlin decided that to surrender to this demand would involve great loss of face and might be interpreted as a concession made from weakness, leading in turn to new disturbances with even more far-reaching demands. The Soviet leaders imposed certain conditions together with their decision, of course: Ulbricht was to engage in "self-criticism" of his previous conduct and he was to support the New Course wholeheartedly. Ulbricht was in no position to continue his resistance to the New Course after what had happened in the preceding weeks. He had learned only too well-from the revolt and from the fate of Beria-what was at stake.

Baring agrees with that assessment:

Ulbricht did not survive in spite of the weakness revealed by his government on June 17. He survived because of that weakness, because Moscow could not afford to take the risk of having him replaced. Instead of bringing about his downfall the protesting workers and conspiratorial SED functionaries unwittingly contrived to prevent it.

Ulbricht continued to hold power in East Germany until he retired in 1971. From July of 1953 until his retirement he ruled virtually unopposed and with the full support of Moscow. When he retired, the leadership passed to his longtime supporter, Erich Honecker, who led East Germany until the revolution of 1989 began. Thus we see how the uprising solidified the power structure in the GDR for decades to come.

The effects of the East German uprisings of June 17 were not limited to East Germany alone, nor even to Germany as a whole. The fallout hit everywhere in Europe, from London to Moscow. The Soviet Union was in fact affected much more by the demonstrations than it appeared on the surface, and the trickle down effect would touch every nation in the Warsaw Pact. Some were more directly affected than others, and some would soon be dealing with revolutionary movements of their own. Of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, and Poland, the aftershocks from the Soviet Union did not hit all of them, but none escaped unaffected.

To judge fairly the effects of the June uprising elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it is first necessary to determine exactly how much it affected the Soviet Union. At this time the USSR was the nerve center of the region, essentially running the governments of all seven satellites. If the GDR situation had left Russia entirely unaffected, it would have had little to no lasting impact on these other nations either. However, Russian policy was affected by the uprisings to a much greater degree than is often assumed.

From Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, until Khrushchev clearly emerged as the number one man in mid-1954, Soviet politics were in a state of flux. Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha remembered attending a meeting with the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party a week or two before the trouble started, and observed that there was, "No unity…Malenkov and Beria were predominant, Molotov hardly spoke, Mikoyan…spouted venom, while what Bulganin said was bullshit." The signs of the power struggle were evident then, but the German uprising and the aftermath shifted the balance of power in the Kremlin and eliminated one of these men in the race to be Stalin's successor.

The dismissal, trial, and execution of Lavrenti Beria stands as a watershed moment in post-Stalin Russia, and the uprisings in the GDR went a long way towards sealing his fate. The details of the arrest and subsequent events will probably never be fully known, but scholars seem to agree that Beria's mistake was in advocating "rapprochement with the West." In the weeks after Stalin died the Soviet Union was becoming concerned by the attitude the West displayed. With the new Eisenhower administration indicating it might take measures that went beyond mere containment of Communism, the remaining Soviet leadership was looking for assets it could use in negotiations to stave off this potential threat. East Germany was a logical choice. A month after his arrest, the SED party claimed to have reviewed a Russian memorandum which showed Beria had carried "his desire for compromise to such lengths that his policies might have led to the abolition of East German socialism." While Baring doubted the validity of these charges when he reported them in 1965, it was confirmed in 1991 that at least Beria, if not Molotov and Malenkov as well, had been "ready to virtually concede East Germany to the West." Khrushchev would recount years later:

More than once I had confided to Malenkov and Bulganin that I regarded Beria as an adventurist in foreign policy…The enemies of socialism and of the international Communist movement saw what Beria was up to, and would have made good use of it for their own purposes if Beria had not been unmasked and removed.

From the perspective of Beria's faction the uprising was then a double disaster. It hardened the lines between East and West at a time when dialogue on German reunification had been gaining acceptance among all involved parties. Apparently, the Soviet Union decided East Germany was not worth sacrificing after all. While Ulbricht had been openly defying the new line, the USSR could rationalize that they were gambling away a defiant satellite. After the uprising and Ulbricht's contrition however, East Germany needed to be an example to the socialist world. The USSR could not afford to sacrifice a country which had shown a willingness to correct its mistakes and maintain its standing in the socialist camp. There was also a justifiable fear that sacrificing Communism in Germany would alienate other allies in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Former Polish Deputy Premier Jakub Berman remembered his party's opinion of reunification: "America immediately placed her bets on Germany and made efforts to unite it, and if she had succeeded, a victorious Germany would have been created…ten times worse than it is now." Along with Russia's reevaluation East Germany chose to do everything in its power to cut off the possibility of reunification, as shown earlier. With the end of that path, it also marked the closure of the path Beria was riding to power, namely patching the break with the West by using East Germany as the bargaining chip. It is hardly surprising Beria's enemies in the Kremlin would take advantage so quickly once he lost his foothold. Thus one day in East Germany and the subsequent events permanently altered the makeup of the Kremlin.

It can be reasonably argued that, other than the GDR itself, Hungary was the satellite nation most profoundly affected by the East German events of June 17. The resulting shakeups in the Hungarian government would bring wholesale changes to the country, and along the way set the stage for the next major crisis in the communist world.

A few days after the East Berlin uprising of June 17, the Soviet Politburo summoned a Hungarian delegation to Moscow. The Soviets specifically chose which Hungarian leaders would attend, and the composition was rather unusual. Several minor party officials were summoned, while one of the country's four principal leaders, Jozsef Revai, was not. The Russians greeted them curtly, and Beria even welcomed Mátyás Rákosi, the President, secretary-general, and "wise father" of Hungary, by asking him, "Well, now, are you still around? Are you still the head of the Hungarian government?" The whole point of the meeting was that Russian observers had reported to Moscow the political and economic situation in Hungary. The Soviets flatly told the Rákosi government their economy was on the verge of collapse; their industrialization had been too rapid, and the collectivization of agriculture had ruined that sector of the economy. They also criticized the Hungarians for "committing crimes against socialist law" by arbitrarily jailing people and handing out sentences that were too harsh. These criticisms were leveled despite the fact that all of them had been ordered by the Soviets, and the Hungarians had merely been obeying orders. The Politburo concluded the meeting by firing the ruling quartet of Rákosi, Revai, Mihaly Farkas, and Ernö Gerö, although Rákosi kept the title of General-Secretary (but not President), and Economic Minister Gerö was allowed to remain a party leader without an office. In place of Rákosi, the Soviets appointed Imre Nagy, then a minor party leader whose main qualification was having predicted that agricultural collectivization would end in disaster. It was of course Nagy whose attempted reforms of the Hungarian government in his second term of office during the 1956 uprising prompted Soviet military intervention in Hungary.

It was clear even at the time that the main reason the Soviets took action against the Rákosi government was the East German incident, and the threat of similar actions elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Meray states, "The Soviet leaders could not believe the official explanation that these [East German] events were set in motion by 'provocateurs in the pay of the imperialists'. They must have been fully aware of the fact that the discontent of the masses…was the result of their own policies." Adam Ulam sees it differently, arguing Rákosi had to resign because the Soviets "insisted on the local Stalins being brought down a notch and on at least the appearance of collective leadership."

While even Meray admits that was part of the equation, both the timing of the dismissals and the reasons given the Hungarian delegation indicate that the East German situation was a crucial force behind the Kremlin's decision. Two of the three demands the Soviet leaders made, relaxing the pace of industrialization and easing up on political prisoners, were practically the same demands that the striking East German workers had made not one week earlier. In effect the Soviets were admitting the mistakes the East German leaders had admitted making in late May, and hoped by making the needed changes in Hungary and elsewhere they could stave off a repeat of June 17. In this they were only partly successful, as the Hungarian events of 1956 will forever remind us.

Czechoslovakia was also greatly affected by the June 17 uprising, though ironically the effects were only felt years later. Hoxha, Polish leader Edward Ochab, and Romania's Nicolae Ceauçescu had nothing but good things to say about both the country and the people in charge of it. The standard of living in Czechoslovakia was second only to the GDR among all Warsaw Pact nations. However, remember that it was partly because of the June uprising that the USSR decided to relax its control over the satellite countries and begin the period of de-Stalinization. As late as 1967 however, the old Stalinist hard-liner Antonin Novotný was still in power, and reminders of the pre-1953 status quo were still evident in Czechoslovakia, including a large statue of Stalin in Prague. Even for the re-Stalinization era of Brezhnev, "It was not in their interest to preserve the rule of the discredited satrap." So the ghosts of 1953 forced the resignation of Novotný. His replacement was Alexander Dubcek, a man who, like Nagy, believed in "Socialism with a human face." Also like Nagy, his vague promises for reform fired the imagination of the general population and led his nation down the road to tragedy.

Of all the Soviet satellite countries, Romania was the least affected by the events of 1953. As one of the most heavily occupied Eastern European countries, and probably the one most directly governed by Moscow at the time, Romania's situation was not mutable enough to be affected by a one day strike in another country. It is likely that the Romanian government's reaction to the events of 1953 would have been similar to the official Romanian statement made regarding the 1956 Hungarian rebellion and subsequent trial of Nagy: "There is no greater crime against the workers than that committed by Nagy and his accomplices…at the time when the Hungarian people had to stand the great trial of a counter-revolutionary rebellion." Gheorghe Dej, particularly in the 1950s, was not noted for independent thought or leading his country in a free-thinking manner. "A chameleon," Enver Hoxha called him, always blowing with the prevailing winds from Moscow. This was a marked contrast to the individualistic Nicolae Ceauçescu, who replaced Dej upon the death of the latter in 1964. Ceauçescu wasted no time in declaring "the international policy of our country is based on…the principles of…non-interference in internal affairs." On these same grounds he did not hesitate to condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, asking, "Since when have the principles of socialist democracy, of socialist humanism, the perfecting of socialist relations…become a counter-revolutionary threat?" Such a statement would have been entirely uncharacteristic of Romania in 1953. Perhaps a case could be made that the relaxation of Stalinism in the wake of the GDR uprising and the subsequent loosening of the USSR's grip paved the way for Ceauçescu, but at present there is no clear evidence to support this. So it must be assumed that while postwar Romanian history was clearly affected by outside forces, the GDR uprising was not a major factor, if at all.

Albania's case was unique. It is difficult to decide exactly how much of an effect the events of June 17 had on this tiny Stalinist country, because in one sense it had no effect at all, but in another the effect was very great. In his memoirs, longtime Albanian leader Enver Hoxha makes very few references to East Germany, and none at all to the June uprisings. As the most fiercely Stalinist leader of Eastern Europe, one who in succession broke with the Yugoslavians, the Russians, and the Chinese rather than tolerate what he called 'revisionist' thinking, this is an interesting omission. He seemed to have little respect for the East German leaders other than Wilhelm Pieck, saying of Ulbricht, "He was a haughty, stiff-necked German, not only with small parties like ours, but also with the others…However, while he received great aid…he was never ready to help others." On the other hand, he admits in the same passage that the Germans never showed him any hostility until he broke with the Soviet camp. Certainly there was no danger of a worker uprising similar to Germany's, because Hoxha ruled Albania as firmly as the Soviets-and later Ceauçescu-ruled Romania, and he would not have tolerated the first hint of trouble. The fact that he was urging suppression of the Hungarian agitators at least four months before that situation exploded in 1956 should be proof enough of this. Ultimately the uprising affected Albania only in two ways. The uprising shifted the attitude of the Soviet Union, a shift which Hoxha staunchly opposed and was a primary reason behind his pulling Albania from the Warsaw Pact in 1961. The second effect, later reinforced by the Hungarian rebellion, was to make him even more committed to Stalinist practices. Thus the attitude of Hoxha's Albania did not change, but it did entrench itself, which had a significant long term effect on that nation's history as well as politics within the communist camp.

There is not much to say about Bulgaria. As the most loyal nation in the Eastern sphere to the Soviets, Vulko Chervenkov and later Todor Zhivkov carried out Moscow's instructions faithfully and unquestioningly, acting in nearly every respect like a mini-Russia. About the only way the June uprisings could perhaps have affected Bulgaria was in determining who would be its figurehead. It is well known that Zhivkov was made head of Bulgaria in 1961 primarily because he was an old friend of Khrushchev, and Khrushchev's path to power was made easier by Beria's downfall in the aftermath of the 1953 uprising. However, even if Khrushchev had not come to power, the end result for Bulgaria would have made little difference. Zhivkov ran Bulgaria for over two decades, yet history's assessment of his importance has not been favorable. Hoxha dismisses him as nothing more than, "A worthless person, a third-rate cadre, but one willing to do whatever Khrushchev, his ambassador, or the KGB would say." Ceauçescu does not once refer to Zhivkov in his writings, and Adam Ulam's otherwise comprehensive book on every major person and event of the cold war fails to mention a single Bulgarian leader's name, including Zhivkov. So in a sense, the greatest effect of the GDR uprising on Bulgaria was that it benefited Khrushchev, which in turn benefited Zhivkov. Otherwise, there was very little effect on Bulgaria, and even less on Bulgaria's position in the Communist world.

Poland also presents difficulties in trying to assess how much it was affected by the East German uprising. The leaders of the Polish Communist party recognized the potential dangers of the June uprising, and the immediate aftermath certainly had a negative effect on the Polish economy. Former First Secretary Edward Ochab explains:

We had no guarantees [the imperialists] would not leap down our throats at any moment…the ones who organized the 1953 putsch in the GDR, for example. That's why, for all our poverty, we had to spend considerable amounts on national defense. We tried to explain to our allies that our situation at home was dangerous, but we did not always, or fully, succeed in cutting military spending. That was why even wage increases were not always sufficient.

Former Deputy Premier Berman confirms Ochab's statement on national defense, estimating "around 15 per cent" of the national revenue went to arms. However, Poland still had to deal with strike problems similar to what East Germany faced. "In its passion for rapid industrialization-second only to that for power for the Communists-the Polish regime…placed heavy burdens on the working class: [including] the constant raising of work norms." There were a number of major strikes in Poland through the decades of Communist rule. A strike at Poznan in 1956 left several protesters dead when the Polish military forcibly broke it. Interestingly, unlike the SED after the 1953 uprising Ochab refused to blame the Poznan strike on the West as Moscow wished him to do. "I told them there was no proof, and that I could not make a claim of that kind at the Central Committee Plenum." This illustrates one of the great dilemmas of the Polish leadership. They knew Communism was generally unpopular in their country, and they needed the USSR's backing to remain in power. As Jakub Berman said, "The Soviet delegation will always get its own way…Maybe they did not lord it over us as blatantly as they did elsewhere because we were more familiar with their little tricks, but we still preferred not to shoulder all the blame…" However, if they followed Moscow in everything the Polish people would see the government as weak and reject it. So the party leaders were walking a fine line. Despite the lessons learned from the GDR incident, they sometimes miscalculated. After the Poznan incident, there were further strikes in 1970, 1976, and 1980. The remarkable similarity of these strikes to the East German uprising has been noted elsewhere. Ulam writes, "December 1970, and in a much more massive way August 1980, witnessed revolutions in the classical Marxist sense…the only comparable action in recent time, and on a much smaller scale, had been the uprising of the East German workers in June 1953."

The most important effect of the GDR uprising on Poland was a recession of the Polish economy, which led to tensions in the Eastern Bloc over Poland's contribution to the other Bloc nations. Hoxha recalled a Warsaw Pact economic meeting in 1956 when Ochab refused to accept a further raising of quotas in the Polish coal industry unless the other countries invested in Poland, and the meeting subsequently became quite heated. Ochab himself agreed that this was what happened. Nevertheless, this same economic dichotomy, partly reinforced by the East German uprising, would persist in one form or another until the end of the regime in 1989.

One strike on a day in June of 1953 proved to be a milestone in Eastern European history. Including West Germany, it had an indelible impact on no less than nine European countries. From Moscow to Tirana, countries were shaken and left to wonder what would happen next. For some, such as Hungary and the USSR itself, the effects of the uprising became apparent very quickly. For others, such as Czechoslovakia, the legacy of the uprising would not manifest until many years later. For each in turn, however, the ghosts of 1953 returned to haunt them. The strike of 1953 certainly changed the course of European history, and its memory was a factor in many Soviet policy decisions over the years, as well as an inspiration for many strikers and protest movements in all the Warsaw Pact nations. Yet for all that, maybe the greatest legacy of that one day in 1953 was the timelessness of its message. After thirty-six years of waiting, the ghosts were finally laid to rest in 1989. That was the year the original strikers' demands of "free elections…free government…and a freely negotiated peace with [West Germany]" were recognized by the SED. Once that process began, the rest of Eastern Europe followed suit. In winning reduced work quotas but otherwise losing their case honorably, the strikers ultimately won a battle that went beyond anything they expected on June 17, 1953, both for themselves and the rest of Europe.

paper by Jim Dankiewicz, 1999, prepared for web by Harold Marcuse, last updated 2/9/06
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