Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17, 1953 Berlin, June 17 2009 Teheran

Fifty-six years ago today, workers in East Berlin made history. East Berlin in 1953 was a grim place. The city landscape was still battered from the war that had ended eight years before. Consumer goods were in short supply. Electricity was rationed. Houses often went dark at night.

In addition to general austerity, the government was implementing a transition to communism as it was being practiced in the USSR. Private farms were being nationalised. Regulations aimed at the dwindling number of private enterprises were driving them out of business and into the arms of the communist government. The Berlin Wall was eight years in the future. People could and did flee on foot by the thousands to West Germany.

Stalinist repression and post war austerity left the German people as short of patience as they were of basic amenities. Then the communist government announced that production quotas would be raised 10%. Anyone unable to make the new quotas would have their pay cut.

Construction workers who were given the news walked out in anger and disgust. The protests snowballed. The next day, 400,000 workers were in the streets. The original demands morphed into demands for fundamental change. Soviet troops and "Volkspolizei" were called in to quell what had become an uprising in which government buildings were sacked. Protests quickly spread to 500 other cities and villages. According to the West German government, almost 400 people were killed in the unrest, including some who were executed. Over 1800 people were injured. Around 1200 people were sentenced to imprisonment.

It is difficult to overstate the sacrifice and the courage of those who took to the street to protest communist enslavement. Although Stalin had died three months prior, Stalinism was very much alive. East Germany was not only under the communist boot, it was under Soviet military occupation.

It would be 37 more years before the extinguished hopes of East Germany's people burst yet again into the flame of freedom with the events of 1989 which culminated in German reunification. In 1989, enough soldiers and police decided that the blood of the people ran through their veins as well. On November 9 of that year, the hated Berlin Wall became a place of celebration. Instead of shooting, border guards joined in the merriment as surging crowds danced upon it and swept by it.

Today, Iran finds itself at a crossroads. The demonstrations have the same contagious quality. Although Mousawi, the defeated candidate was by no means a dissident, the manifest injustice of his defeat was the catalyst for mounting general discontent.

Germany 1953 and Iran in 2009 are geographically and chronologically far apart. But a common denominator joins them across time and space. In both countries, a brave and desperate people has stood up and said "Enough!"

I am awed by their self sacrifice and their courage. A people that has no experience with democracy has found an inner compass and fortitude. I who write and voice my opinions freely am humbled at their bravery. May G-d protect and watch over them. May G-d grant them success.

Below is a newsreel in German of the 1953 uprising. Even if you do not understand German, it still gives a feeling for the events of those days.
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