Art of the East German Uprising

As Stalin grew ever more paranoid and unpredictable in the final months of his life, the ailing dictator demanded that Walter Ulbricht’s Communist government in the German Democratic Republic consolidate its control over the country by intensifying the process of Sovietization. In the summer of 1952, land confiscations, tax hikes, and a public pay freeze with a 10% increase in labour quotas were introduced, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy and a surge in political arrests.

Max Lingner, ‘Building of the Republic’ (‘Aufbau der Republik’), 1950–53. Photo: OTFW, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0. Click to view full image.

Sovietization also extended into the arts. On 3 January 1953, a 60-foot mosaic mural in classic Socialist Realist style was unveiled on the exterior wall of the House of Ministries in East Berlin, the seat of the GDR government. In an ironic twist, the mural replaced a Nazi-era frieze celebrating the eastward march of Wehrmacht soldiers. Having failed in their mission, the troops were replaced with depictions of the Communist working class, complete with Young Pioneers and the German People’s Police. Constructed from hundreds of Meissen porcelain tiles, the mural remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The artist behind this monumental work was Max Lingner, a painter and illustrator who in 1950 was a co-founder of the East Berlin Academy of Arts. Lingner was selected for the project in November 1950, after being one of six artists invited to compete for the commission. However, having spent the previous two decades living in France – where he had been a member of the Résistance – Lingner found himself under suspicion for possible bourgeois tendencies. The artist was compelled to revise his design on several occasions, in response to criticism from the authorities that his figures looked too “French” and that he had not accurately represented a tractor!

By the time it was completed, the vision of joyous East German workers sharply contrasted with the reality of life in the increasingly isolated state. A steady stream of East Germans had emigrated since the GDR was founded three years earlier, with an annual departure of around 180,000 citizens. The widespread alarm at increased Sovietization dramatically increased those numbers, and in the first half of 1953 alone, more than 226,000 East Germans fled to the West. Many of those who remained hoped that life would improve following Stalin’s death in March; and indeed, the new leaders in the Kremlin recommended that Ulbricht should curtail his plans, to stem the exodus. But by then, the people had had enough.

Workers protest in front of Max Lingner’s mural at the House of Ministries, Berlin, 17 June 1953.

On 16 June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin launched strike action, which quickly spread across the country. Calls for lower work quotas grew into protests demanding the resignation of the government. The next day, ten of thousands marched on the House of Ministries. There, in front of Lingner’s painting of a march under the banner of “Sozialismus”, real-life East German workers held up banners proclaiming “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”

socialism-leipziger-strasse-muralUlbricht turned to the Kremlin for help and on 17 June, Soviet tanks and some 20,000 soldiers marched into East Berlin, opening fire on the crowd. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 55 known victims to over 600, including those executed in the aftermath. In addition, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested, followed by lengthy sentences in penal camps. Taking back control of the country, the Communist party blamed the rebellion on the West and suggested that it had been covertly orchestrated by the CIA.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, the event was seen very differently.  From 1954 until reunification, 17 June was commemorated in the Federal Republic of Germany as the “Day of German Unity”. A week after the uprising, some 125,000 West Germans attended a funeral for the eight victims who had died in West Berlin hospitals, and on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre a monument was unveiled in their cemetery in the Wedding district of Berlin. Carved by sculptor Karl Wenke, the statue shows a man encased in stone, desperately trying to break free.

In contrast, it would take until 2000 for a formal memorial to be installed in what was East Germany. Berlin artist Wolfgang Rüppel’s powerful photographic reproduction under laminated glass, sunk into the square in front of what is now the Federal Ministry of Finance, is at first hidden from view. But from the right vantage point, the seemingly random etched dots converge to once again reveal the faces of the demonstrators. Set directly in front of Lingner’s mural, the two artworks provide a jarring juxtaposition, offsetting the promise of Communism with its harsh reality.

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