The events of June 16th and 17th, 1953 have been forever etched into German consciousness and serve as context for the continued European expectation for an ongoing American commitment to its security and prosperity. As a veteran of the Cold War, growing up in West Berlin before emigrating to the United States I acutely recall celebrating every year on June 17th, the original “Day of German Unity,” or as I also knew it “Allied Forces Day,” in commemoration of the East German uprising in 1953. I remember standing alongside the parade route, waving a little American flag, while watching contingents of all three allied detachments marching to music through the streets of Berlin. We did so out of solidarity with the East Berliners who lived behind the Iron Curtain, and to show our gratitude for the presence of the allied soldiers as defenders against a Socialist totalitarianism.
To understand the events of June 1953 it is important to acknowledge the differences between East and West that had emerged following the official founding of the two German states in 1949. West Berlin, which was part of the Federal Republic, benefitted from the American-led post-war recovery of Western Europe. Financed through the generosity of the Marshall Plan and protected by the armed forces of US Army Berlin Brigade and its British and French allies, West Berliners were building democratic institutions, established free market enterprises, and engaged in open discourse.
In contrast, East Berliners, under the rule of the Socialist government of the GDR, continued to live with food and power shortages, forced labor in the USSR and East German uranium mines. They strained under ever-increasing police state surveillance and lacked a free press. The East German government controlled the generation of all intellectual content, as well as physical access routes, yet they could not control the air waves. Thus, Western radio and later television would serve to provide insight into life in the West for many East Berliners, and those living close enough to receive transmission from West Berlin stations.
In response to the severance of all communication during the Berlin Blockade in 1948/49, American allied forces facilitated the establishment of a new radio station named RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) in West Berlin with its target audience located in East Berlin. Its German DJ’s and newscasters offered daily broadcasts of independent news and a wide range of music, comedy, and cultural expressions to the entire Berlin audience, representing the diversity in taste and viewpoints endemic of an open society. One of RIAS’ most popular programs was called the “Insulaner” (the Islanders). It was a mix of political satire and comedy, criticizing and poking fun at the West Berliner government, the Allied powers, and the East Berliner Socialist Party, alike. For East Berliners, such a program was truly inspiring. In a state where a casual complaint about a long line for soap powder could bring a person to the negative attention of the Secret State Security Police (STASI), such open irreverence against not only German but also Allied authorities was revolutionary. From its inception until its final broadcast in 1992, RIAS served as a beacon of freedom, which played a key role in the events of June 1953.
Faced with a deteriorating economy and the continued exodus of East German professionals through the intra-city border loophole in Berlin, the East German leadership was hard pressed to find solutions in the spring of 1953. Pressured to following the lead of the Soviet collectivization and to meet reparation demands, the government decided occupation forces, the East German government decided to collectivize all remaining privately owned farms and to increase the mandatory factory output quota by over 10%. With an economy in freefall and a growing disillusionment regarding the failed promises of an egalitarian Socialist society, East German workers had reached their breaking point. Their resolve for action was buoyed by the message of freedom delivered through RIAS and strengthened by the lived reality of West Berliners who had achieved prosperity and security through the presence of the Western Allied troops. When the new quotas were announced, workers across East Berlin and East Germany, who had already been working past exhaustion for poverty wages, spontaneously decided to lay down their tools on June 16th, 1953, and take to the streets. They demanded that the East German government resign, that quotas would be abolished, and free elections would be held.
Yet, the next day, on June 17th, without warning, the Soviet Army tanks rolled in the streets of Berlin, shooting unarmed civilians and together with East German policy, rounding up thousands of political prisoners in the days and weeks to come. At least 125 East Germans died on June 17th, with many more being wounded, some of whom would succumb to their injuries later in captivity. Those who could, fled to the West.
The United States and West Germany responded in unison, condemning the violence as a sign of Socialism having failed. The Eisenhower administration proceeded to renew its offer for humanitarian aid and reaffirmed its commitment to defending West Berlin and West Germany by strengthening NATO.
While the revolt was not successful at the time, it nonetheless had a lasting effect on Berliners on both sides as well as American policy towards Germany and Europe. The importance of America’s presence in West Berlin and the role of RIAS cannot be overlooked as a deciding factor leading to the revolt. Just as RIAS served as the voice of hope and freedom, so did the troops stationed in West Berlin, whose sacrifice was honored each year on June 17th by those whom they served. Further evidence for the importance of the American commitment to Berlin in resistance to Socialist aggression was also regularly expressed by East Berliners often directly to Americans. For instance, whenever American soldiers visited East Berlin on day passes, they would often encounter children and adults who asked to touch their Berlin Brigade insignia. Upon inquiry, East Berliners would respond:” It’s like touching Freedom.” The significance of these gestures can only be appreciated by someone who has experienced the overwhelming sense of pressure that exists in a surveillance state run by secret police and fueled by distorted political ideology. In such a state, symbols gain outsized importance, such as the feeling of hope that is represented by young American G. I’s uniform or the presence of American flag waving over the U.S. Mission.
Many Americans today no longer remember a time where American soldiers and the American flag were widely seen as signs of liberation and arbiters of freedom. The prosperity of many contemporary Europe and Asian countries can be traced directly to the unwavering support of American investment. In light of President Biden’s recent visit to Europe and his upcoming meeting with Russia’s President Putin, such a remembrance of our foreign policy successes seems to be timely and long overdue. Remembering the memory of Allied Forces Day on June 17th, should serve to acknowledge the continued necessity of American leadership in Europe through commitment, unity, and strength.
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President Joseph Biden. https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/
Allied Forces Day Parade 1988. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoLdXy29db0
RIAS Berlin Commission http://riasberlin.org