Academy President Klaus Staeck experienced June 17, 1953 in the industrial town of Bitterfeld as a schoolboy. A visit to his old home.
Academy President Klaus Staeck in front of the Bitterfeld town hall, the seat of the strike committee sixty years ago. Photo: Rolf Zollner
As the ICE rolls out of the station, Klaus Staeck looks behind the train in amazement. "Are we really the only ones who got off?" One of the snack machines is smashed, tank cars are parked on sidings. "Bitterfeld" shows the sign, the clouds promise rain, wind rustles the hair. The welcome is not homey. How could it be? June 17, 1953 drove Klaus Staeck away from Bitterfeld. June 17 brings him back again.
Klaus Staeck, graphic artist, lawyer, social democrat, for conservatives a "hate poster graphic artist," until 1989 a West German authority, today president of the Berlin Academy of the Arts – Klaus Staeck, 75 years old, begins the tour of his former life. College portfolio in hand, leather jacket, red scarf, his gait seems determined. Staeck is not a procrastinator. Or is he hesitating?
He admits that this trip has been on his mind for days. Staeck already talked a lot on the train, family history, the chimneys, the white tablecloths inside, the ash heaps outside. His grandmother predicts that Klaus will become something special one day. – Something special? What is that?, asks Klaus. A criminal is also something special, isn’t he? No, not that. Staeck walks, talks, tells stories as if he wanted to replace the missing people here.
The year before: In July 1952, the SED decided to build socialism on the Soviet model. Companies were nationalized, but more and more skilled workers evaded the ideological pressure and left the country. To compensate for the exodus, the SED raised labor standards by 10.3 percent in May 1953 – more work for the same pay.
The days before: In the days before, workers at major construction sites in East Berlin went on strike, calling for a general strike the next day.
June 17, 1953: More and more people joined the Berlin construction workers. They demanded the resignation of the government, free elections and the unity of Germany. Well over half a million people participated throughout the GDR, in the industrial centers but also in many villages. At noon, Soviet tanks intervened in Berlin and other cities. With the cooperation of the People’s Police, the uprising was put down. Many insurgents received prison sentences.
The years that followed: The 17. June was declared "German Unity Day" in 1953 and was a public holiday in the Federal Republic. In 1990, it was abolished in favor of October 3. For the SED, June 17 was a "fascist coup" instigated by "imperialist secret services" and "provocateurs.
Staeck crosses Lindenstrabe, stops in front of a gray, two-story building. At number 32, the Stasi had its district service office. Staeck was a high school student when the GDR, the "first workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil," began to totter in June 1953. His mother runs an arts and crafts store and, according to SED ideology, is a member of a dying class; he has two brothers and his father is in the West. The Staecks are a family torn apart.
Rumors of the torture cellar
On the afternoon of June 17, 1953, 15-year-old Klaus, a lanky guy, stands in front of the demolished Stasi headquarters. Rumors of a torture cellar make the rounds, of prisoners who have to stand in water. When Staeck arrives, the house is already locked again, the uprising has largely collapsed.
The morning began on a hopeful note. There were the striking workers from the chemical plants on the other side of the tracks streaming into the city. Past the Comenius School, a yellow clinker brick building, soaped by soot that no one needs anymore. It has been empty since 2010.
"This is where I went to elementary school." Staeck peers over the gate. Behind the schoolyard rises a wide-span road bridge. "That’s the superstructure," Staeck says. A railroad overpass, as if over a redoubt, thousands and thousands of workers march past here on June 17, 1953. Teacher Wilhelm Fiebelkorn stands in the schoolyard.
"The people came out of the graphite factory in their overalls, hooked underneath," Staeck recounts. The 36-year-old Fiebelkorn struggles with himself for a moment. "Do we join in?" he asks his surrounding colleagues. They hesitate. Teacher Fiebelkorn runs off. "I’m one of you, too!" he shouts.
"Bitterfeld is my home"
Today, cars come over the bridge like projectiles, no pedestrians far and wide. Staeck doesn’t want to go any further, stands at an advertising pillar on which an erotic fair is soliciting visitors. Staeck organizes the memories. "Back there was the brewery." There are nicer corners, even in Bitterfeld. That’s when Staeck says, "Bitterfeld is my home," reflects briefly and adds, "Heidelberg is my second home." It is actually too early for such a confession, so soon after arrival, but with Klaus Staeck, in his college folder a roll of cookies, the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung and a bottle of apple spritzer, heart and head have already come together.
Staeck tells of the horse slaughterer, the ornamental fish trade, first love. The high school comes into view. It was not nice, says Staeck. The boy had a stigma, he was not a working-class child, wrong class affiliation, the therapy: Staeck has to do double duty.
A yellow clinker brick building, a twin of the Comenius School, but alive, bright yellow and licked. Klaus Staeck looks over the fence. "Where the beautiful raised bed is, that’s where the flag roll calls used to be." But what are the parasols doing here? "Hello, do you know what’s in here?" Staeck approaches a pair of retirees. He, wearing an elegant fedora, holds her hand; she wears a smile on her face.
"This was the Diesterweg School," the man says. "Now there’s a nursing home in there." – "A nursing home? I used to go to school here." Nod of the head. "So, are you happy with your life?" the gentleman asks cautiously. "Yes, I’ve turned into something special," Staeck replies. The old man examines the visitor from bottom to top. "Yes, you’ve become something," he confirms, yet he doesn’t know who he’s looking at. "So, have a nice day!" They move on, holding each other’s hands.
On June 17, Staeck is in class when workers gather a hundred, two hundred meters from here. There are 30,000, maybe 50,000 people. Loudspeaker noise, scraps of words drift over. "Someone suddenly said, ‘There’s a strike outside!’ " The teacher jumps to the door and pushes the handle firmly up. Out of fear? Conviction? "Oh, you don’t know at moments like that," Staeck says. The students tear open the windows and leap out of the mezzanine, Staeck in the middle. They cross a wall to the Binnengartenwiese next door.
A telegram to East Berlin
A tractor trailer is the stage. At the top, teacher Wilhelm Fiebelkorn reads out a telegram to the GDR government: "The working people of the Bitterfeld district demand", then ten points follow, including the immediate resignation of the government, free elections, admission of parties and the release of all political prisoners. The demands are adopted by acclamation.
"Here this was a real workers’ revolt," Staeck affirms. Two men stand out. Wilhelm Fiebelkorn and 47-year-old electrician Paul Othma, not propagandists, not whippersnappers, ordinary people, like everyone in the square. "If they do that, surely there can be nothing wrong with it?" is how Staeck describes the atmosphere.
The Binnengartenwiese, today half park, half meadow, is swept as if empty. An erratic block stands at the edge, bedded on gravel, bronze plate on top: "To the participants, persecuted and victims of the uprising of June 17, 1953. Almost like a gravestone. Or like a lectern. Klaus Staeck has stepped behind the stone and is supporting his hands. "June 17!" He looks across the square. "That day defined my life."
It could be the beautiful end of a journey, a man comes running as if looking for trouble. He stops just before Staeck and barks out, "They were cowards, they rioted and then ran off to the West!" These crazy people tugged at his pioneer scarf so hard that he almost suffocated.
His mouth quivers, his lips are bluish, the cloth bag swings. "Feichlings did that!" he insists. He seems to have waited a long time for someone like Staeck. "They weren’t heroes!" For 33 years, he says, he worked at the Ferrohutte, where no one else wanted to go. In the end, convicts were his colleagues. Staeck takes up the subject, tries to calm down. Then the man barks again: "They were cowards! The ones who stayed here have shown courage!
The Russians shouted: Fascist! Fascist!
When the June 17 rally ended, Staeck watched from a friend’s balcony what was happening outside the prison. "I will never forget that you can rock a truck so that it falls over, including the crew." The political prisoners are released.
Meanwhile, the strike committee has chased away the mayor and occupied City Hall. Fiebelkorn is spokesman, Othma first chairman of the committee. But a state of emergency has already been declared in Berlin, and Soviet troops are moving out. Klaus Staeck walks through the city with friends, past his mother’s store. Today, there is a gap in the building. "Here at the corner we saw the first Russians." Armored vehicles turn off in the direction of the town hall, Staeck, a high school student, scraps together his Russian. "We tried to tell them that they were simple workers. But they kept shouting, "Fascist! Fascist!"
Klaus Staeck wants to go home, past the SED district leadership, which is being demolished. "That’s when the Stalin head fell out of the window." Then there was shooting. "I don’t know if it was sharp or not. I ran for my life for the first time in my life." It sounds like war.
Not far from the Stasi headquarters today is the Mykonos restaurant. Staeck goes inside, the waiter brings ouzo. Two index cards lie on the table, notes for the day. He checks to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, reads the last entry aloud: "5 p.m., all over."
Staeck’s class gathers in the schoolyard the next morning. "What are you doing?" women ask as they pass by. "We’re on strike!" – "You can’t go on strike," comes the reply, "we housewives can’t go on strike either." 36 years later, the next uprising begins. Bitterfeld and its workers will no longer be a focal point.
Wilhelm Fiebelkorn is able to flee to West Berlin, Paul Othma is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Klaus Staeck leaves the GDR in 1956.