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The East German Uprising, 1953

On June 16, 1953, workers in East Berlin rose in protest against government demands to increase productivity. Within days, nearly a million East Germans joined the protests and began rioting across hundreds of East German cities and towns. In order to prolong the uprising and win support for the West, the United States established an aid program to feed East Germans. The program, which continued until October 1953, proved very popular with East Germans and highlighted the repression and privations of life under communism.

Russian Tank in front of the German Imperial Court of Justice, Leipzig, June 17, 1953. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

The uprising was a product of Soviet and East German reaction to West Germany’s formal alignment to the West. In May 1952, Western powers signed the General (Bonn) and European Defense Community (EDC) treaties. These treaties were, in essence, a rejection of Stalin’s March 1952 offer to agree to a unified Germany on the condition that it remained unarmed. In response to West Germany’s absorption and rearmament by the Western powers, the Soviets and the regime of East German General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to unequivocally transform East Germany into a Soviet satellite state.

At the heart of East Germany’s transformation, a process dubbed “Constructing Socialism” enacted forced collectivization of agriculture, a campaign against private trade and Industry, and the development of heavy industry. Collectivization produced severe food shortages, which began in the winter and spring of 1953. Forced remilitarization, the suppression of churches, and the persecution of opposition also added to the strain on the population. East Germans emigrated en masse to West Germany via West Berlin, protest movements flourished, and expressions of general dissatisfaction characterized public life.

In April 1953, after the death of Stalin, Soviet authorities sought to rein in Ulbricht’s regime, which advocated even more collectivization. Moscow persuaded Ulbricht to relax or discontinue parts of the “Constructing Socialism” movement in a new campaign called the “New Course.” Because many people perceived the “New Course” as a capitulation to the West, and also because the treatment of manufacturing workers remained harsh, the relaxation of “Constructing Socialism” transformed general discontent into open defiance. On June 16, a few hundred workers called for a general strike. The next day, demonstrations and rioting broke out throughout East Germany. The Soviet occupation forces declared martial law and used massive military force to suppress the rioting and support the East German regime.

In response, the United States under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower showed its support for the uprising by establishing a large scale food relief program for East Germans, which was officially announced on July 10 and commenced on July 27. Under this program, the United States pledged to distribute $15 million worth of food from 35 distribution centers established in West Berlin, to which East Germans had access through East Berlin. The so called “Eisenhower packages” contained lard, peas, flour, and pasteurized milk. The United States distributed over 5 million packages through these centers to over a million East Germans who were able to gain access to East Berlin. In response, the East German Government cut off rail and bus traffic to West Berlin, which further heightened tensions. The program put Ulbricht on the defensive and extended the atmosphere of crisis across East Germany.

In addition to achieving humanitarian objectives through this assistance program, the United States sought to destabilize East Germany and weaken Ulbricht’s regime. The Eisenhower administration also hoped to deter Soviet initiatives to start talks on German reunification. Washington believed that any movement toward unification on Soviet terms or even a lessening of the crisis would threaten the delicate process of Western European military integration and weaken an already tenuous French resolve to ratify the European Defense Community (EDC) treaty. The United States was also concerned that unification negations would undermine West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer because he had based his administration on alignment with the West. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles attempted to exploit the uprising in East Germany in order to undercut the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin “Peace and Unity” campaign, bolster support for West German rearmament and the EDC, and weaken the Soviets’ initiative toward German unification.

As the food aid continued, Western European governments grew apprehensive that Soviet military action against West Berlin was a real possibility. The campaign also experienced diminishing returns as the East German regime tightened control over the population and prevented people from receiving the aid. The campaign ended in early October.