Unten den Linden is probably Berlin’s most famous street. It is a actually an old carriage road that begins where the old city castle used to stand and extends west in a straight line to the Prussian army training grounds that are now the Döberitzer Heide (where Christian and I went hiking last month). The street is so long that it changes names several times, becoming “Straße 17 Juni” on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate. The name commemorates the sad day fifty-nine years ago when the new East German government brutally suppressed an uprising against deteriorating living conditions in the young socialist state.
It was only eight years since the end of the war. Berlin was still a mess but much of the rubble had been cleared and rebuilding had begun. The first large scale building project was Karl Marx Alle, the Soviet-styled tree-lined strolling boulevard of tiled apartment buildings and modern glass-cube cafes. But the East German government was having problems producing enough consumer goods and housing for its population. Farms and businesses had been turned over to the state, but there were constant food and energy shortages. People were fleeing to the west at an alarming rate, creating a brain-drain that only worsened production problems. The government’s solution: to increase production quotas and lower wages.
When this news was announced on the 16th of June, construction workers on Karl Marx Alle immediately set down their tools and began to strike. They argued that the existing quotas were already unrealistic and the new demands impossible. The protest caught fire and by the next morning, 25,000 people gathered on Leipziger Street in front of the Ministry of Interior, a Nazi building where the GDR had set up headquarters. Their demand had grown beyond the recall of the new quotas to a resignation of the governing socialist party. The protest spread to other parts of the country and hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, calling out for freedom.
With the support of the Soviet Union, the GDR sent soldiers in and tanks fired into the crowds in Berlin. At least 55 people were killed (some estimates put it at twice that amount) and martial law was instituted. Official reports blamed reactionary fascists from the west as the cause of the uprising, an enemy that would also be cited as the reason for building the wall ten years later.
At memorial site on on Sunday, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Federal Minister Annette Schavan paid their respects to those who lost their lives on the 17th of June and drew parallels to the violence in Syria today. In another part of town, Neo-nazis gathered to hold their own 17th of June event and were meet with an opposition demonstration of over 400 people. The next day, I joined Mieke and Dennis in another demonstration against the rising rents in Berlin.