The revolutionary potential of anti-Stalinist uprisings: Berlin 1953 and Budapest 1956

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

17 Pages, Grade: A



1. Introduction

2. Structural similarities of totalitarian regimes

3. The different revolutionary potential of the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956
a) Depth and extent of the crisis
b) Social composition and scale of the opposition to the old regime
c) Strength and cohesion of the old regime
d) International context
e) Exit options

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The uprising of the 16th and 17th June 1953 in East Germany marked the first massive escalation between communist rulers and oppressed masses in a troubled period in Central Eastern Europe culminating in the 1956 revolution in Hungary.[1] The developments had been triggered by the major political upheavals in the Soviet camp after the death of Stalin in March 1953 and the subsequent power struggles and policy reversals initiated by the new Soviet leadership. Inspite of the similarities of the political systems between the Soviet satellites and similar problems leading to these events their scope and course was very different.

In this paper I will compare the cases of the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, marking the beginning and the end of the series of anti-Stalinist revolts. I will try to explain why the latter could develop into a full-blown revolution while the former did not. My argument will follow a historical-structuralist account of the pre-crisis situation highlighting the factors contributing to the revolutionary potential of the Hungarian case and impeding the East German events to spread beyond the scope of a short-term uprising. Therefore, I will neither compare results or outcomes of the two events, nor will I discuss the reasons for their ultimate failure. I will rather concentrate on analysing basic features of both cases and compare them in their different impact. My analysis will look at the conditions constituting the crisis which lead to the insurrections, the social composition and size of the opposition, the power and cohesion of the old regime, the international context and the availability of exit options.

The mentioned features partly owe to Theda Skocpol’s framework for a structural analysis of revolutions which examines complex interactions of developments conditioning actors’ behaviour.[2] Especially the importance of state power and the international implications as part of Skocpol’s framework have to be emphasized in this respect. In addition, I will consider the underlying centrality of Stalinism, not primarily as an ideology, but as a basic principle of state organization and penetration of society with an international dimension.[3] Moreover, the availability of exit options is not conceptualized by Skocpol as she is only considering successful revolutions. The assessment of my categories will lead me to some brief general considerations about theorizing anti-communist revolutions in the conclusion.

2. Structural similarities of totalitarian regimes

The major starting point for comparing the communist Central and East European regimes is typically their common political system reflecting the common totalitarian ideology and its claim to transform all kinds of social and economic relations.[4] By the early 1950s both Hungary and the GDR had been increasingly integrated into the communist bloc and its systems were more and more synchronized with the Soviet model. The elimination of opposition parties and independent societal groups such as trade unions or churches culminating in one-party dictatorship, the build-up of a massive security apparatus, the use of terror against real and perceived opponents, the restriction of basic rights, coercive measures aiming at collectivizing agriculture, or the expropriation and nationalization of enterprises etc. are well-known facts describing the drive to build up Stalinist systems in the two countries.

With the death of Stalin in March 1953 not only the USSR but the whole Soviet bloc was without a leader able to fill in the political and ideological gap. Stalinist policies were selectively reversed with the introduction of the ‘New Course’, starting in East Germany in April 1953 to be followed by Hungary and the other communist countries shortly afterwards. The policies of the New Course in 1953 and de-Stalinisation since 1956 uncovered the destructive character of Stalinist policies and exposed the old leaderships to severe criticism. Together with a deteriorating economic situation this triggered a crisis of communist legitimacy culminating in the

events of June 1953 in the GDR and October/November 1956 in Hungary.

3. The different revolutionary potential of the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956

Although both countries can be characterized by their common totalitarian system as briefly outlined above, on the eve of June 1953 and October/November 1956 we can observe deep changes in the wake of de-Stalinisation with first cautious steps in 1953 and even more significantly in 1956.

In the following I will outline the major differences between the two cases which turned the one case into a large-scale revolution while the other remained a short-term uprising of much lesser scope. I intend to show that the reasons for these qualitative differences are based in a different degree of revolutionary potential in the two countries. My definition of revolutionary potential refers to structural preconditions for a successful revolution. The term revolution will be used in characterizing the events in Hungary, the only genuine revolution in Central Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989, which led to a temporary overthrow of communist state power and the initiation of a reversal of the Soviet model with its social, political and economic consequences. Revolt or uprising characterizes a mass movement aspiring at some point to achieve this kind of revolutionary change but failing to do so as in the case of East Germany in June 1953.

The analysis of the revolutionary potential includes these preconditions in particular: a) the depth and extent of the crisis, b) the social composition and scale of the opposition against the old regime, c) the strength and cohesion of the old regime, d) the international context, and e) the availability of attractive exit-options to avoid large-scale confrontation for both sides. The impact of these categories on the revolutionary potential will be assessed and weighted showing why Hungary had a higher revolutionary potential in 1956 than the GDR in 1953.

a) Depth and extent of the crisis

As outlined above Stalinism had far-reaching socio-economic consequences for all countries under Soviet hegemony after World War II. Yet, due to the different degree of pre-war modernisation the imposition of the Soviet system with had a different impact in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Whereas in East Germany the communist leaders revived and reorganized existing industrial structures besides some new projects (after an initial phase of Soviet dismantling), Hungary’s half-industrialized economy experienced deeper restructuring and started the construction of a huge heavy industry from scratch relying solely on Soviet guidance and deliveries. This entailed much larger social change, too, e.g with hundreds of thousands new peasants-turned-workers. Whereas the war had caused more social upheaval, displacement and uprooting in Germany than in Hungary, the post-war period saw the deeper social changes and more new imbalances in Hungary.[5]

Due to the unclear status of Germany as a whole Soviet ‘modernization’ had started later and more cautiously in East Germany than elsewhere in the bloc. The ‘systematic construction of socialism’ ( systematischer Aufbau des Sozialismus) according to the Soviet model was proclaimed as an official aim only in the July 1952 party conference of the SED. This entailed the drive to the build-up of heavy industry, drastically increased plan targets, more coercive mechanisms towards the peasantry to join collectives, increased pressure against small-and medium size private enterprises, and repression against church members.[6] These measures led to a rising discontent among the population. Yet, until June 1953, these policies were not yet completely effective and incorporated into a systematic programme which would have lead to a much deeper crisis at that time. Moreover, the initiation of the ‘New Course’ by the new Soviet leadership had suspended most of these measures (except for the increased plan targets resulting in higher work norms) in early June 1953 after less than a year.[7] In fact, it could be argued that the introduction of the New Course had somehow defused the socio-economic crisis for larger parts of the population, if only temporary. The bulk of repressive Stalinist policies in the GDR was actually only to be put in place after the June 1953 events.[8]

In early June 1953 price increases were reversed, small businesses were allowed to continue to operate, pressure on the peasantry was reduced and joining the collectives was explicitly declared to be on a voluntary basis only. Moreover, repression against non-conformist youth and the churches was reduced, too. These measures did not rise the low popularity of the Ulbricht regime but they temporarily reduced current grievances. The only major social group left without improvements in the New Course were the workers, as the steep increase in the work norms due to the higher plan targets was maintained and defended by the leadership. Although the population was already highly alienated from the leadership, the imposition of the New Course temporarily eased the situation for certain groups of society while it further alienated the workers from the regime.


[1] Mass strikes and/or attacks on communist functionaries took place in Plovdiv (Bulgaria), Plzen (Czechoslovakia), Budapest, Ozd and Diósgyőr (Hungary) among others starting from May 1953. (R J Crampton (1997), Eastern in the 20th century, 2nd edition, London: Routledge, p. 277; C F Ostermann (ed.) (2001), Uprising in East Germany, 1953, Budapest: CEU Press, pp. 16-17.)

[2] T Skocpol (1994), Social Revolutions in the Modern World, CUP, pp. 99-119.

[3] In her rejoinder to the criticism to William Sewells criticism of her approach Skocpol concedes the role of ideology, which can also be conceived as part of structural conditions. (W H Sewell (1994), ‘Ideologies and Social Revolutions: Reflections on the French Case, in: T Skocpol, Social Revolutions in the Modern World, CUP, pp. 169-198; T Skocpol (1994), ibid. , p. 200.)

[4] One of the classical pieces of totalitarianist scholarship is C Friedrich (1957), Totalitaere Diktatur, Stuttgart: Rowohlt.

[5] Z Brzezinski (1967), The Soviet Bloc - Unity and Conflict, Camridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp 205-6.

[6] K W Fricke, ‘Der Arbeiteraufstand’, in: I Spittmann / K W Fricke (eds.) (1982), 17.Juni 1953 – Arbeiteraufstand in der DDR, Cologne: Deutschland-Archiv, pp 5-20.

[7] H Weber (1993), Die DDR – 1949-1990 , Munich: Oldenbourg, p 40.

[8] The policies of the New Course were reversed to a large extent on the 1954 party conference. (H Weber (1993), Die DDR – 1949-1990 , Munich: Oldenbourg, p 42.)

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The revolutionary potential of anti-Stalinist uprisings: Berlin 1953 and Budapest 1956
Central European University Budapest  (Departmemt of Political Science)
Political Change
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17.Juni, 1953, Arbeiteraufstand, Volksaufstand, Aufstand, 1956, Budapest, Ostberlin, Ungarn, Hungary, DDR, GDR, East Germany, Stalin, Stalinism, Stalinismus, Stalinallee, Ulbricht, Khrushchev, Chrusch
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Maximilian Spinner (Author), 2003, The revolutionary potential of anti-Stalinist uprisings: Berlin 1953 and Budapest 1956, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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