restricted access Volkserhebung gegen den SED-Staat: Eine Bestandsaufnahme zum 17. Juni 1953 (review)
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Reviewed by
Roger Engelmann and Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, eds., Volkserhebung gegen den SED-Staat: Eine Bestandsaufnahme zum 17. Juni 1953. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. 478 pp. 32.90€.

This work is the proceedings (some of the contributions verbatim) of a conference held in 2003 by the Federal Commissioner for the State Security (Stasi) Files, the BStU, on the 50th anniversary of the uprising in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on 17 June 1953. Rather than an in-depth examination of the uprising, the editors, Roger Engelmann and Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, both researchers in the Education and Research Branch of the BStU and prolific authors, provide an overview of current research on the uprising. This book follows closely on the heels of the majestic book coauthored by Kowalczuk with Bernd Eisenfeld and Erhart Neubert, Die verdrängte Revolution: Der Platz des 17. Juni 1953 in der deutschen Geschichte (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2004), which strongly argues for the categorization of June 1953 as a revolutionary movement that should stand beside the other great revolutions in European history.

The book is divided into five sections: (1) the uprising, (2) the international context, (3) the instruments of repression during the crisis, (4) social and regional aspects, and (5) the uprising in collective memory. The first section provides a useful overview of current debates about the uprising (Was it a revolution or uprising? Was it a workers’ protest or popular protest?) as well as drawing attention to often overlooked aspects of 1953. Karl Wilhelm Fricke’s plea that the background to the uprising take into account the brutal Soviet occupation and the falsified election of 1946 is long overdue. Similarly, Torsten Diedrich reminds readers that the apparently excessive number of Soviet troops employed on 17 June was a result of Soviet fears that Western Allied troops would become involved. The second section discusses the effect of the uprising in the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Although there is little new here on the Soviet response, the chapters on Poland and Czechoslovakia demonstrate the grave concern in those countries of a spillover from their neighbor. Just as Armin Mitter, Stefan Wolle, and Kowalczuk argued in an earlier book, Der Tag “X”: Die “Innere Staatsgründung” der DDR als Ergebnis der Krise, 1952/54 (Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 1995), that historians should see the 17 June uprising in a broader temporal context spanning 1952–1954, so, too, do these contributions remind scholars that the uprising had spatial ramifications throughout the Soviet bloc.

Kowalczuk’s brilliant chapter in the third section on the GDR’s system of justice [End Page 124] prior to and after the uprising deals indirectly with a key debate about GDR history. He argues that the legal system was exploited to repress the population and that, in turn, the population had little confidence in the system. Although scholars have challenged the contention by Mitter and Wolle in Untergang auf Raten (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1993) that the GDR was characterized by a latent civil war throughout its existence, Kowalczuk’s contribution in this volume suggests that the events of 17 June fundamentally eroded popular confidence in the law and thus instilled a permanent mistrust toward the authorities. One of the centerpieces of this volume is Tobias Wunschik’s chapter on the storming of prisons in June 1953, a sorely neglected topic considering that demonstrations took place at more than 70 prisons or holding sites in and around 17 June. For Wunschik, this “storming of the Bastille” adds a key “revolutionary” element to the uprising. Roger Engelmann’s chapter on the expansion of the repressive apparatus after 1953 argues that the uprising was but one of the events—albeit a very important one—in the history of the GDR that led to the regime’s obsession with internal security.

The fourth section highlights some of the reasons for regional variations in the uprising. Christoph Kleßmann suggests that the uprising was more intense in regions that had a long-standing tradition of working-class activism. Arnd Bauerkämper and Burghard Ciesla point out that the countryside also saw its fair share of revolutionary activity in 1953, highlighted by a mass exodus from the agricultural...