60 construction workers building the Communist showpiece Stalin-Allee, the "first socialist avenue in Germany" in East Berlin went on strike on 16 June 1953, to demand a reduction in recent work-quota increases. They called for a general strike the next day. By dawn of June 17, 100,000 protesters had gathered with more arriving throughout the morning. More protests were held all over the GDR.
The initial pleas of the protesters for the reinstatement of the previous lower work quotas turned into political demands. SED functionaries took to the streets and began arguing with small groups of protesters. Eventually, the workers demanded the resignation of the East German government. The government turned to their Soviet brethren for military support.
At noon, the Volkspolizei (East Germany's "people's police") had trapped many of the demonstrators in an open square. When dozens of T-34 Soviet tanks appeared, the uprising started to lose its clout and although there were no major assaults on the military, a massacre followed. It is still unclear how many people died during the uprising and by the death sentences which followed. The official number of victims is 55. After the evaluation of documents accessible since reunification, the number of victims appears to be at least 125, whereas higher estimates put the number of dead at 267.
20,000 people were imprisoned as felons, three were beheaded later. Summarily executed were: Kurt Arndt, Eisleben; Ernst Markgraf, Stralsund; Heinz Brandt, Rostock; Walter Schädlich, Leipzig; Eberhard von Cancrin, Geithain; Axel Schäfer, Erfurt; Alfred Dartsch, Magdeburg; Günter Schwarzer, Gotha; Alfred Diener, Jena; Heinz Sonntag, Leipzig; Willy Göttling, Berlin; Hermann Stahl, Eisleben; Hartmann, Delitzsch; Herbert Strauch, Magdeburg; Peter Heider, Magdeburg; Hans Wojkowski, Stralsund; Vera Knoblauch, Rostock; Walter Krüger, Eisleben and three unknown Volkspolizisten.
Willy Göttling was from West Berlin. He was sentenced to death and shot because of the "brigand-like excesses against the ruling power and the people". His body was never released.
In memory of the 1953 East German rebellion, West Germany established June 17 as a national holiday.
Communist poet Bertolt Brecht in his inspired memorial "The Solution" stated in 1953:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had flyers doled out in the Stalinallee
Saying that the people
Had idly surrendered the trust of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled toil. In that case
Wouldn't it be easier for the government
To disband the people
And elect another?
Was justice ever done?
In 1990, the "Day of German Unity" was moved from June 17 to October 3, the date of the formal reunification, in a successful attempt to safely remove it from its ethical roots and the collective memory. Last Sunday, Die Linke, successor of the Communist party of the former GDR, came in fifth at the elections and will enter the European Parliament with 8 seats.