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June 17, 1953: An uprising Americans should remember

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 16, 2003

June 17, 2003 will mark the 50th anniversary of the workers' uprising in East Germany. The trigger was the interest expressed by the ruling party, the SED, in instituting higher work norms (i.e., more work at the same pay). Workers rebelled, demonstrations occurred not just in East Berlin, but other cities and towns throughout the country, catching officials on both the East and the West by surprise. Moscow eventually gave the order: Send in the troops. The unrest was crushed four days after it started.

East Germans in Berlin battle Soviet tanks armed only with cobblestones on June 17, 1953
East Germans armed only with cobblestones battle a Soviet tank in Berlin on June 17, 1953

That would only be the first attempt by Eastern Europeans to rebel against Communist domination. There were many other brave people within the Soviet Union itself who would refuse to give in to the evil and oppressive Communist regime.

By no means do I wish to diminish the evil of Nazism, having visited the Holocaust Memorial and viewed the absolute disregard for innocent human life demonstrated by the National Socialist state. What the National Socialist regime did to European Jewry was absolutely unconscionable and it is difficult to imagine that it could happen. Thanks to the Museum, Americans can never forget that the unthinkable actually did occur in Europe under National Socialist rule. Survivors of the Holocaust are regularly featured on television shows and in movies and documentaries.

Unfortunately, Communism gets a pass in today's society. Perhaps it is because during the Cold War the threat of nuclear warfare led our statesmen and the news media to try to seek common ground and to present the enemy in as humanly terms possible.

Several generations of Americans have come to know our enemies best from TV programs and movies such as "Hogan's Heroes" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming." Nazi and Communist soldiers are shown to be benign, sometimes even benevolent. Or else young Americans watch spy pictures in which both sides' agents are shown to be more alike than different, each relying on situational ethics to survive in an amoral world. Too many young Americans simply do not understand the true evil of these regimes and how they subverted the rule of law and respect for innocent
life.

From my own travels in the Former Soviet Empire, I have met many brave people who demonstrated great bravery by refusing to surrender their beliefs and faith to the State.

There were the courageous Lithuanians who were killed by the Soviets as they attempted to guard a transmitter. I was honored to attend their funeral as an official representative of the United States government. And just a few short months later, the Baltic States were free.

I also recall the wonderful 85 year old Greek Catholic priest in Romania who had spent over 40 years in prison and who had just been released when I served the Liturgy with him. He had such a wonderful, humble, upbeat, thankful attitude. The Communists could not simply keep people of true faith like this priest down.

We need to hear their stories too. They stood up for what was right against a truly Godless regime. Many times, they were people of faith or, at least, possessors of an innate sense of basic human decency.

But Hollywood and too many Americans ignore those who fought with bravery against the Soviet Union and its satellite dictatorships. It ignores the reckless disregard for human life exhibited by Stalin's purges and the collectivization policies that led to the Great Famine. Americans need to learn just how brutal Communist regimes could be in marshalling government force to make the world conform to their viewpoint, no matter how many innocent people would be trampled under in the process.

So right now, I am pleased to report of a reinvigorated effort to build a Victims of Communism Memorial that would fully explain to our country's citizens the moral bankruptcy of the Communist system. It would also highlight the bravery of those who fought this evil ideology and the brutal people who ran Communist governments.

The Memorial's plans call for a "Roll Call of Victims" listing those who suffered or were even killed by Communist regimes. And a "Hall of Infamy" would show a Soviet Gulag barracks and a torture room from the "Hanoi Hilton." No doubt the Memorial would remind Americans that millions still live under Communism in Cuba, China, and Vietnam.

The drive to establish the Memorial had been led by Lee Edwards, a distinguished political science professor on the faculty of Catholic University. He is now being succeeded by Jay Katzen, a former state delegate from Virginia. Katzen is a former Foreign Service Officer who brings energy and a can-do attitude to his new position. But this is an ambitious task, and one obstacle Katzen must overcome is the apathy exhibited by millions of Americans about Communism.

The Communist system that could kill 100 million people is a monstrous one, and those who fought it deserve our own country's thanks. Those who were persecuted and ended up its victims are, sadly, testament to the inhumanity of this regime. Victimology in its false guises is now in vogue in our country; this Memorial can demonstrate what it means to truly be a victim.

We need to profit from the modern-day example of commitment and faith amidst a seemingly hopeless situation that was demonstrated by heroes who have stood up to the regimes in Russia and the Soviet Bloc and China. In the end, the supporters of freedom prevailed against the forces of darkness in Russia and the Eastern Bloc and that is a lesson we can all benefit from in our own country.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Grief's weight by Steven Martinovich (June 11, 2001)
    Steve Martinovich reviews Catherine Merridale's Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, which tells the story of death in Communist Russia and how the survivors have dealt with their grief
  • How many did Communist regimes murder? by R.J. Rummel (May 1998)
    If you're celebrating May Day, read this and reconsider
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