Congratulations to SOCLAS German Studies postgraduate Richard Millington, who has just been awarded his PhD for the thesis Remembering 17 June 1953: Memories and Awareness of the Uprising of 17 June 1953 amongst Ordinary Citizens of Magdeburg.

Here, Richard tells us something about his research:

On 17 June 1953 a popular uprising against the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) took place in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It ended in a hail of Soviet machine gun bullets. The SED and its leader, Walter Ulbricht, remained in power. Ironically, the uprising enabled the Party to strengthen its grip on GDR society. Security forces were expanded and the Stasi, the state’s dreaded secret police, was tasked with preventing a repetition of the uprising. This led to the obsessive observation of GDR citizens in order to nip all forms of opposition in the bud.

Fearing that memories and awareness of the events held the potential to inspire further unrest, the SED sought to shape how contemporaries remembered the events and what later generations could learn about the day. Using oral history interviews, as well as archival research, in a detailed study of citizens of the city of Magdeburg I examined the extent to which the Party succeeded.

Investigating ‘collected’ memories and awareness of the uprising, that is, the content and construction of individual citizens’ memories or awareness of the events, as opposed to seeking to define a collective memory of the unrest, I asked: What did citizens remember/learn about the unrest? Did their memories or awareness of the uprising play any significant role in their relationship to the state? Were citizens inspired by the uprising to exercise further opposition toward the regime? Did the matter of 17 June 1953 cross citizens’ minds during the autumn revolution of 1989 and, if so, were they encouraged or deterred from participating in the demonstrations?

I argue that the SED failed to control the content of GDR citizens’ memories and awareness of 17 June 1953. Nevertheless, the content and construction of the Party’s official memory of the uprising led citizens to perceive that state control of what could be said about the subject was far more extensive than it actually was.

By interviewees’ own accounts they imposed a taboo upon their own memories of the event, despite the fact that the SED had not censored all reference to the date. Their perception of the subject as taboo in GDR society led them to adjust their behaviour accordingly. Thus although the regime did not enjoy total control over its citizens, the SED’s public exercise of power indirectly influenced citizens to limit, monitor and ‘control’ themselves to the extent desired by the Party.

Richard is currently preparing publications based on his research and applying for academic posts.