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Russia Mellowing on 1953 East German Revolt

June 17, 1994

BERLIN (AP) _ Forty-one years after East Germans rose against oppression, Moscow has started to pardon people jailed or executed for daring to oppose communist power.

Two ″rehabilitation″ decrees have reached former East Germans. The German government is inquiring whether this means that Moscow has started a general rehabilitation process, or if ″it is only a few single cases,″ a Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week.

News of the pardons came on the eve of commemorations of the uprising of June 17, 1953. The revolt began a day earlier in East Berlin when workers began protesting a 10 percent increase in production norms. The revolt mushroomed on June 17. By the time order had been restored, at least 109 people had been killed in East Germany, and about 1,500 sentenced to prison.

Soviet tanks joined East German forces in putting down the revolt.

However, the death toll includes 41 Soviet soldiers executed for refusing to fire on the German workers.

Since German unification and the collapse of Soviet communism, Germany has pressed Moscow to set the record straight. In 1992, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin said in a joint communique that the Russian general prosecutors’ office would deal with applications for ″moral rehabilitation.″

But until this week, no one had been notified of any progress.

One who received a decree was Walter Scheler, 70, who was imprisoned for seven years under Soviet law for joining the revolt in Jena, 120 miles southwest of Berlin.

The other decree went to relatives of Alfred Diener, shot after a summary trial in Jena. A street recently was named for him there.

The June 17 uprising and its brutal suppression are a landmark in German history. Streets in many cities are named Strasse des 17 Juni. Some Germans think it should be Germany’s national day, like July 4 in the United States.

Kohl marked the anniversary by issuing a statement today which warned against dangers from the extreme left as well as the right.

He said some Germans today try to minimize the faults of East German communism, and others do the same for the Nazi era.

″Radicalism of the left and of the right is a shame for our country,″ he said, and the June 17 anniversary must be a warning for all Germans, ″Never again dictatorship.″

Prosecutors in Berlin announced charges Thursday against 10 former East German army officers, accusing them of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in connection with incidents at the Berlin Wall.

The June 17 revolt was one of a series in communist bloc countries, including 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and repeated risings in Poland.

Russia’s slow response on rehabilitation is an irritant in Russo-German relations. Germany also wants Moscow to redeem its pledge to return art treasures taken from Germany after World War II. On Wednesday, however, Bremen’s culture director, Helga Truepel said the outlook was poor.

″It must be possible for democratic Russia and united Germany to come to an understanding over the fate of so many works of art,″ Truepel said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said in response to a question that unlike returning art treasures, the rehabilitation decrees cost Russia nothing. But Germany was pleased nonetheless, he said.

By custom he forbade use of his name.

Scheler’s decree was dated Nov. 15. There was no explanation for the delay in making it public.

Peter Bengs, who is active in a group that published a history of the June 17 uprising, welcomed the decree but said his group was more interested in pardons for the executed Soviet soldiers.

Every year his group lays a wreath at a cross in west Berlin dedicated to the slain Soviets. It tried to get former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to pardon the soldiers, without result.

Bengs said that since 1987, Russian representatives have been invited to attend the wreath-laying, ″but no one comes.″

″We’ve offered the hand of reconciliation but got no response. The Russians want to be in the Allied military parades in Berlin but they aren’t ready to change their ideas.″

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