June 17

This Day in History

Cold War

Jun 17, 1953:

Soviets crush antigovernment riots in East Berlin

The Soviet Union orders an entire armored division of its troops into East Berlin to crush a rebellion by East German workers and antigovernment protesters. The Soviet assault set a precedent for later interventions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The riots in East Berlin began among construction workers, who took to the streets on June 16, 1953, to protest an increase in work schedules by the communist government of East Germany. By the next day, the crowd of disgruntled workers and other antigovernment dissidents had grown to between 30,000 and 50,000. Leaders of the protest issued a call for a general strike, the resignation of the communist East German government, and free elections. Soviet forces struck quickly and without warning. Troops, supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, crashed through the crowd of protesters. Some protesters tried to fight back, but most fled before the onslaught. Red Cross officials in West Berlin (where many of the wounded protesters fled) estimated the death toll at between 15 and 20, and the number of wounded at more than 100. The Soviet military commanders declared martial law, and by the evening of June 17, the protests had been shattered and relative calm was restored.

In Washington, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that the brutal Soviet action contradicted Russian propaganda that the people of East Germany were happy with their communist government. He noted that the smashing of the protests was "a good lesson on the meaning of communism." America's propaganda outlet in Europe, the Voice of America radio station, claimed, "The workers of East Berlin have already written a glorious page in postwar history. They have once and for all times exposed the fraudulent nature of communist regimes." These criticisms had little effect on the Soviet control of East Germany, which remained a communist stronghold until the government fell in 1989.

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