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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising: GDR Reality Check

Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising: GDR Reality Check

The Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising in Berlin skilfully hijacks an East German fresco on the building of socialism to bring the GDR face to face with its contradictions. A model of double reading, it plays on contrasts and perspectives.

The Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising is Well Worth a Visit. It's Also a Personal Favorite.

The proclamation of the GDR in October 1949 took place in the former Aviation Ministry of Hitler's Reich, one of the few buildings in the city center to have survived the bombings. It will now house the House of Ministries. The new state intends to break with its National Socialist past and calls for the construction of a fraternal society where mankind will live in equality and material abundance: socialism. To celebrate this new beginning, the artist Max Lingner created a huge mosaic under the porch of the House of Ministries, covering an old fresco glorifying the Wehrmacht.

East German propaganda did not deceive the population, which could no longer stand the daily restrictions and political and trade union repression. Many continued to flee to West Germany. Stalin's death in March 1953 raised hopes of a possible liberalization of the regime or, at the very least, some relaxation. On the contrary, the ruling SED party provoked general discontent by increasing the pace of work without any increase in wages.

On June 17, 1953, a nationwide revolt broke out. In Berlin, workers' processions marched to the House of Ministries and booed the government from its windows. In response, the East German leadership called in the Red Army, which suppressed the movement. Tens of thousands of arrests continued over the following weeks. The event left a lasting mark on inter-German relations and collective memory, so much so that the FRG made June 17 its national holiday until reunification. Max Lingner's fresco has been preserved, but a second one was added in 2000.

La Construction de la République, par Max Lingner à Berlin.

The Story of Two Opposing Murals

The Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising is located on a busy and noisy thoroughfare, not far from Potsdamer Platz. Outdoor conditions are often uncomfortable. The former GDR House of Ministries now houses the Ministry of Finance of the Federal Republic of Germany. Yet it's the neo-classical National Socialist style that really catches the eye. Almost 90 years after its inauguration, the imposing building still impresses.

A fresco under glass reproduces on the floor the panoramic photo of the demonstrators on June 17, 1953. The black-and-white image is neither commented on nor dated: nothing indicates the context or the event. However, a few meters to the side of the picture are information panels. If you look up, you can make out Max Lingner's colorful fresco in the background under the porch. There is no commentary on this one either, leaving the scenes to interpretation.

Building the Republic embodies the spirit of renewal. The building of socialism mobilizes the whole of society: the association of the working and peasant social classes with intellectuals; the supervision of joyful, militant youth; construction, metallurgy and agricultural work; the glorification of the Stalinist family and pacifism. The new world is on the move, it's on the march. The world is also beautiful and joyful, young and strong. It is the promise of a brighter tomorrow. An unfulfilled promise, as the fresco of the June 17, 1953 demonstrators below suggests.

Wolfgang Rüppel's fresco in memory of the June 17, 1953 demonstrators.

The Power of Contrast

Max Lingner's fresco dates back to the early 1950s and traces the genesis of the East German state. His style is socialist realism, the idealization of reality. In other words, it's propaganda. The events of June 1953 scathingly contradicted the grandiloquent project of the GDR's leaders. Ideology is overtaken by reality. The discrepancy between the two frescoes is all the more evident.

The Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising preserves the vestiges of the past and amends them in subtle ways. The simple addition of a second fresco allows us to grasp the contradictions of the GDR and the absurd desire of the leaders of the time to rule in place of the people. What's more, the absence of commentary not only allows us to interpret the political facts, but also to appreciate the historical and aesthetic value of Max Lingner's fresco, which, despite what some may think, nevertheless belongs to Germany's cultural heritage.

This suggestive work is a memorial feat of the highest quality. It does not seek to change the original work, but offers a contrasting perception of events. By way of comparison, other East German memorials, such as the Forum Marx-Engels in Mitte, were profoundly and insidiously altered after German reunification.

The former GDR House of Ministries, now the Federal Ministry of Finance in Berlin.


  • A vestige of East German propaganda

  • The contrast between color and black and white

  • Dual interpretation of the site


  • Very limited information

  • Difficult visiting conditions

  • Limited visiting time


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