In July 1952 the second party conference (less important than party congress) of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) took place in East Berlin. By Walter Ulbricht's catchwords, there was the "systematic implementation of Socialism" („planmäßiger Aufbau des Sozialismus“) taking place; it was decided that the process of Sovietization should be intensified and the importance of the state expanded.
This meant for example the division of the five Länder into 14 regions (Bezirke) plus East Berlin, most importantly, an assault on remaining middle strata of the GDR: peasants and small business/handicraft firm owners, who were to give up their independence by raised charges.
This decision was made on the background of the catastrophic economic situation in the country. In the course of the militarisation pushed by Soviet authorities, direct and indirect military expenditures rose and already made up around 11% of the national budget in 1952. Together with reparation payments, this totaled over 20% of the budget. The economic policies of the SED favoured development of heavy industry at the expense of food and consumer goods industries, all of which resulted in a severe crisis in supplying the public with goods. Electricity was turned off at the onset of darkness every evening (during peak period).
The dramatic increase of emigration (Republikflucht, brain drain) in the first half-year of 1953, already high since the establishment of the GDR, constituted a serious economic and social problem. Another factor that contributed to an already complicated political situation was the high number of political prisoners in the GDR. Repressions against the illegal organisation Young Congregation (Junge Gemeinde), wrongly perceived as the central youth organisation of the evangelical church, played a role here. Numerous trainee pastors were imprisoned (Johannes Hamel, Fritz Hoffmann). Ecclesiastic recreation centres were closed and taken over by the FDJ (e.g. Schloss Mansfeld, Huberhaus Wernigerode). High school students who belonged to church were often expelled by the school authorities, sometimes even shortly before school graduation.
Within this complicated background, the decision to raise the work norms (in short the principle 'more work for the same salary') was perceived as a provocation, which would conceivably lead to deterioration of the living standard. The Central Committee decided to address the economic difficulties with a package of changes, which included higher taxes and higher prices, and — most significantly — an increase of the work norms by 10%. These changes were to come into force by June 30, 1953: Ulbricht's 60th birthday. Issued as a suggestion, it became in effect a direction that was introduced in all the state-owned enterprises (so-called volkseigene Betriebe) and if the new quotas were not met then workers would have to face a reduction of salaries. The decision was taken on May 13-14, 1953, and the Council of Ministers approved it on May 28.
At the beginning of June, the Soviet government was alarmed at reports of unrest, and Ulbricht was summoned to Moscow. Georgy Malenkov warned him that if policy direction was not corrected immediately, there would be a catastrophe.
The original demands of the protesters, such as the reinstatement of the previous lower work quotas, turned into political demands. SED functionaries took to the streets and began arguing with small groups of protesters. Eventually, the workers demanded the resignation of the East German government. The government decided to use force to stop the uprising and turned to the Soviet Union for military support. In total, around 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers as well as 8,000 Kasernierte Volkspolizei members were committed.
In Berlin, major clashes occurred along Unter den Linden (between Brandenburger Tor and Marx-Engels-Platz), where Soviet troops and Volkspolizei opened fire, and around Potsdamer Platz, where several people were killed by the Volkspolizei. It is still unclear how many people died during the uprising, and by the death sentences which followed. The number of known victims is 55. Other estimates put the number of victims at at least 125. Earlier West German estimates of the number of people killed were considerably higher: According to the West German Ministry for Inter-German affairs in 1966, 383 people were killed in the uprising, including 116 "functionaries of the SED regime", 106 people were executed under martial law or later condemned to death, 1,838 injured, and 5,100 arrested, 1,200 of these later being sentenced to a total of 6,000 years in penal camps. It was also alleged that 17 or 18 Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot demonstrating workers, but these reports remain unconfirmed by post-1990 research.
The event is perhaps best remembered in the following poem by Bertolt Brecht:
Other prominent GDR authors who dealt with the uprising include Stefan Heym (Fünf Tage im Juni / "Five Days in June", Munich 1974) and Heiner Müller (Wolokolamsker Chaussee III: Das Duell / "Volokolamsk Highway III: The Duel", 1985/86). The uprising is also mentioned, albeit subtly, in the 1984 song "Summer in Berlin" by German synthpop band Alphaville.