Journal Article

The Limits of Control: The ‘Public Discourse’ about the Uprising of 17 June 1953 in Novels and Films in the German Democratic Republic

Richard Millington

in German History

Volume 31, issue 1, pages 42-60
Published in print March 2013 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online February 2013 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/gerhis/ghs122
The Limits of Control: The ‘Public Discourse’ about the Uprising of 17 June 1953 in Novels and Films in the German Democratic Republic

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This article examines the extent to which the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) could plan and control society in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) by comparing official policy with what actually happened on the ground. It analyses this in respect of literary and cinematic portrayals of the uprising of 17 June 1953 that were permitted to appear in the GDR. The SED sought to shape its citizens’ perceptions of this uprising against the regime, proclaiming it to be a ‘fascist-counterrevolutionary putsch’ instigated by the West. The Party also tightly controlled information about the unrest to which its citizens had access. It feared that memories and awareness of the events might inspire further unrest. Yet analysis of the content of these literary and cinematic portrayals of 17 June 1953 finds that it was inconsistent with official policy. Although authors and filmmakers all ultimately portrayed the uprising as a ‘fascist putsch’, they often did not make explicitly clear that all those involved in the demonstrations were exclusively ‘fascists’ or Western agents. Several even depicted citizens striking with just cause on 17 June 1953. However, the SED did apparently succeed in shaping citizens’ perceptions of what they could publicly say about the uprising, to the extent that citizens perceived that the entire subject (including the Party’s version of events) was officially taboo. Thus, though the Party did not enjoy complete control of society, it did succeed in indirectly influencing citizens to ‘control’ themselves publicly.

Keywords: East Germany; 17 June 1953; censorship; taboo; ordinary citizens; dictatorship

Journal Article.  10840 words. 

Subjects: European History

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