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50 years after uprising, a trek down June 17 Street

Berlin, June 15 (Reuters): Germany marks the 50th anniversary on Tuesday of the 1953 uprising in former East Germany, an event widely accepted as the first major people’s revolt in communist eastern Europe.

A workers’ dispute over increased production targets turned into a mass uprising against the East German state, drawing more than a million people onto the streets until Soviet troops and tanks crushed the resistance, leaving around 100 dead.

Many historians view the events as a precursor to later and better-known uprisings — the 1956 Hungary revolution, the 1968 Prague Spring and Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1980-81.

June 17, 1953, has for years raised radically different emotions and deepened divisions between West and East Germany. The heated exchanges that ensued halted a slight thawing of the Cold War that had followed Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953 and ended the prospect of Germany reuniting for a further 37 years. In the East, communist leaders denounced demonstrators as fascists, arresting 10,000 and sending about 1,500 to prison.

For West Germany, the day became a national holiday in memory of the victims of totalitarianism and a platform to denounce the east while calling for German unity which only actually occurred in 1990.

Indeed, the street that led through Berlin’s central Tiergarten park to the Brandenburg Gate that divided east and west was renamed “June 17 Street” in defiance of the communist state towards which it ran.

Left-leaning groups in the West were in an awkward position and only recently recognised the day as one of national unity. An objective view has been hard to come by, but a consensus that it was more than just a labour dispute has grown, aided by the opening of documents since reunification in 1990.

“The uprising did start with workers demanding the higher work norms rescinded, but from June 16, you see demands for free elections, for resignation of leaders and for reunification,” said Christian Ostermann, director of the Cold War International History Project.

Hans-Hermann Hertle, a researcher at the Potsdam Centre for Contemporary History, said evidence in the last decade had shown many protesters were young people and women and that the scale of demonstrations was much greater than originally thought. “It was said around 270 towns and villages were involved, but the number of locations has since shot up to more than 700...It really was a people’s uprising,” Hertle said.

By comparison with later revolts behind the Iron Curtain, the German uprising was brief and leaderless, yet the events had a huge impact and surprised many in the West. “The perception of Germans was not of heroic resisters. Here were workers and young people rising to the occasion and it earned them respect,” said Ostermann.

The idea that the uprising was stirred by western agents has also endured. East German leaders were quick to point the finger at outsiders, rather than accept any responsibility.

Historians acknowledge that the West was not a passive bystander. It was, for example, official US policy to stimulate resistance behind the Iron Curtain.

However, records suggest officials at the US’ Central Intelligence Agency were as surprised as their East German counterparts when the protests began.

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