17 June – Today in German History

1940

  • France asked Germany for terms of surrender in World War II. With Paris occupied and the German conquest of France reaching its conclusion, Marshal Henri Petain replaces Paul Reynaud as prime minister and announces his intention to sign an armistice with Germany. The next day, French General Charles de Gaulle, not very well known even to the French, made a broadcast to France from England, urging his countrymen to continue the fight against Germany.

A military hero during World War I, Petain was appointed vice-premier of France in May 1940 to boost morale in a country crumbling under the force of the German invasion. Instead, Petain arranged an armistice with Germany. The armistice, signed by the French on June 22, went into effect on June 25, and more than half of France was occupied by the Germans. In July, Petain took office as chief of state at Vichy, a city in unoccupied France. The Vichy government under Petain collaborated with Germany, and French citizens suffered on both sides of the divided nation. In 1942, Pierre Laval, an opportunistic French fascist and dutiful Nazi collaborator won the trust of Adolf Hitler, and the elderly Petain became merely a figurehead in the Vichy regime.

After the Normandy invasion in 1944, Petain and Laval were forced to flee to German protection in the east. Both were eventually captured, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to die. Laval was executed in 1945, but provincial French leader Charles de Gaulle commuted Petain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Petain died on the Ile d’Yeu off France in 1951.

  • British troops evacuated France in Operation Ariel.
  • The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Soviet T-34-85 in East Berlin, 17 June.

1953

  • The Soviet Union orders an entire armored division of its troops into East Berlin to crush a rebellion by East German workers and anti-government protesters. The Soviet assault set a precedent for later interventions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The riots in East Berlin began among construction workers, who took to the streets on June 16, 1953, to protest an increase in work schedules by the communist government of East Germany. By the next day, the crowd of disgruntled workers and other anti-government dissidents had grown to between 30,000 and 50,000. Leaders of the protest issued a call for a general strike, the resignation of the communist East German government, and free elections.

Soviet forces struck quickly and without warning. Troops, supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, crashed through the crowd of protesters. Some protesters tried to fight back, but most fled before the onslaught. Red Cross officials in West Berlin where many of the wounded protesters fled estimated the death toll at between 15 and 20, and the number of wounded at more than 100. The Soviet military commanders declared martial law, and by the evening of June 17, the protests had been shattered and relative calm was restored.

In Washington, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that the brutal Soviet action contradicted Russian propaganda that the people of East Germany were happy with their communist government. He noted that the smashing of the protests was “a good lesson on the meaning of communism.” America’s propaganda outlet in Europe, the Voice of America radio station, claimed, “The workers of East Berlin have already written a glorious page in postwar history. They have once and for all times exposed the fraudulent nature of communist regimes.” These criticisms had little effect on the Soviet control of East Germany, which remained a communist stronghold until the government fell in 1989.

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