Uprising in Plzeň (1953)
|This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (February 2009)|
During May 31–June 2, 1953 workers in the city of Plzeň, Czechoslovakia revolted in violent protest against currency reform and the politics of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The estimated number of casualties is around 220 injured, no-one was killed.
After the communist party took over power in 1948 it started to concentrate production on heavy industry, especially in armament production. The agricultural sector was forcibly collectivised. But these policies led to shortages of customer goods, especially food, accompanied by inflation (28%). The government's reaction was to increase the prices of state-supplied goods at the start of 1953. This led to growing disaffection among people, and to short-lived strikes.
The next step to be implemented was a currency reform, which amounted to a devaluation of savings. All savings were devalued in the ratio of 50:1, all salaries in the ratio of 5:1 (small groups of people were exempted). All obligations of the state were abolished. Rationing of food at subsidized prices was stopped and work quotas increased. The reform was announced on May 31, 1953, at 22:00, after months of rumors and denials by state representatives.
Background in Plzeň
Plzeň is a city in western Bohemia with large concentration of heavy industry, the largest factory being the famous Škoda Works. In the previous years and decades, the city saw many strikes of workers demanding the improvement of their lives. Many of the strikes were led by Communist party itself.
As long as the Party's reforms after 1948 favoured the workers in heavy industry, there was no reason to expect troubles. But in 1953 the factory management of Škoda Works deliberately paid off the wages for May one week earlier - thus reducing their values by 80% after the currency reform was announced.
Uprising in Plzeň
News of the reform spread quickly among night shift workers in a plant of the Škoda Works in Plzeň, who then went on strike. The next day, in the morning, they decided to march to the city centre. Around noon the people attacked the city hall, and started to build barricades in the streets, and destroyed symbols of the communist party. Posters and slogans asking for the end of single party rule appeared. Some of the local communists and uniformed policemen had joined or were forced to join the rebellion, and 2,000 students had joined too. Nearby Bory Prison was attacked with intention of releasing the prisoners, but the attack failed.
No central leadership of the uprising was established; its actions were chaotic and uncoordinated.
The government sent two police battalions (8,000 men) and an army unit (2,500 men, 80 tanks) to suppress the rebellion. During street fights about 220 rebels were injured. During the afternoon, June 2, the last insurgents barricaded themselves in factories and gave up. Over 2,000 people were taken prisoner immediately and martial law was imposed. The leaders of the uprising were promptly tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, one of whom was later executed. Communists and militiamen who had participated in the revolt were treated especially harshly.
Strikes had started in 19 large industrial plants in Bohemia and Moravia, in industrial cities such as Kladno and Ostrava. These strikes didn't turn violent and ended within a week. An estimated 360,000 workers had gone on strike; up to 250,000 of them had demonstrated in the streets.
The leaders of the Communist party decided to present the event as having been provoked by agents of imperialism and this remained the official explanation until 1989. The party was ordered to purge members suspected of "social-democratism" or of low levels of loyalty. The army stated that any future uprising would be suppressed immediately.
On June 8 the measures instituted on May 31 were recalled, except for the currency reform; also prices were reduced somewhat.
No further violent uprising occurred in Czechoslovakia until the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. The Velvet Revolution (1989) that ended the power of the communist party was mostly bloodless. Detailed knowledge of the 1953 events in Plzeň was and still is relatively low among the Czech public. The shaken trust in the stability of the currency lasted for decades.
- Description of the event within the context of the early post-Stalin succession struggle (scroll to "The Plzen Rebellion" chapter)
- Description of the event by Czech emigré historian (in German, in the Die Zeit daily) and shortened translation in Czech