On Monday, April 8, German social activist Freya Klier showed her film We Want to Be Free! East Germans Rise Up, 1953 at Images Cinema.
After World War II, Soviet forces remained in East Germany and only slowly transferred power to the Soviet-backed Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Soviet forces continued to help the party suppress dissent in East Germany throughout the Soviet period. The German Democratic Republic officially became a sovereign state in 1955.
Despite the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in the GDR in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the SED insisted on carrying through the process of Sovietizing the German economy, as well as raising taxes, prices, and work quotas. Beginning with a construction workers’ strike in East Berlin on the evening of June 16th, 1953, a revolt in reaction to these changes spread quickly across East Germany. People crowded into Berlin for the protests on the 17th, overwhelming a surprised police force in East Berlin and reaching a height of 25,000 in the morning. A group of 100 protestors even took over the seat of SED power.
By then, however, the SED had called in the help of Soviet forces. In a bloody rout, the Soviets drove tanks into the center of the city and fired on the crowds. The number of victims is still unknown, but estimates range from 50 to 150 killed and more than 1500 wounded. In subsequent talks, the workers demanded the resignation of the SED government. Their requests had no effect and in fact only extended the duration of martial law in the GDR.
The documentary, however, focused on the revolts outside of Berlin and especially in Klier’s hometown of Leipzig. In particular, the film follows the involvement of Paul, a fifteen-year-old who was shot by Soviet forces and disappeared. The film also looks at a young boy who, caught up in the excitement of the crowd in Leipzig, was shot in the stomach. He survived, but continued to struggle with his injuries for the rest of his life, dying of a stroke not long after Klier interviewed him for the documentary.
Although in West Germany 17 June became a national holiday, discussion about the revolts in the GDR was suppressed in the uprising’s aftermath, and they were largely forgotten or ascribed to Western agitators. Only recently have families even been able to research the histories of loved ones who died in the conflict, and often can discover nothing.
Klier is a German political activist who was briefly imprisoned by the East German government in the late 1980s. She now works as a documentary filmmaker and also pays monthly visits to high schools across East Germany to spread awareness about racism in the former GDR.
June 2013 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the protests, and the film was released in Germany this May.