The Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum is dedicated to the history of flight in divided Germany. A special feature of the museum is that it is situated in an original building from the former reception center for refugees and emigrants from the GDR. This creates a direct connection between the memorial museum and the history it addresses. This connection is reinforced by the adjacent building, which serves as temporary housing for refugees.
More than anywhere else this site embodies both the past and present situation of migration. From 1949 to 1990, during the existence of two separate German states, some four million people left the GDR for the Federal Republic. The Marienfelde reception center was the first point of contact in the West for 1.35 million of them. This is where they were housed and questioned by the Western allies. People arriving here had to go through a reception procedure in order to receive a residence permit for the Federal Republic and West Berlin. Today, people from more than ten different countries who fled their homes due to violence, persecution, war and poverty live on the grounds of the former reception center.
The history of Marienfelde shows how West German society dealt with immigration issues, how it defined political-legal criteria for reception and debated who qualified as a “real” political refugee. Questions about who is entitled to come here, who can claim assistance and become part of the “us” is currently being discussed intensely again. Which people are being served in Marienfelde also reflects political and social developments and upheavals. For example, the crisis in the GDR in 1953, which erupted into a popular uprising on June 17, led to a sharp increase in the number of refugees coming to the West. This begs the question: What leads people to flee or relocate? What political measures and social circumstances drove people to leave the GDR? And what did they expect from the Federal Republic? What kind of society did people want to live in, what opportunities for development and participation did they hoped for, where did they feel they belonged and were safe – these are questions that still matter today.
The exhibitions and educational resources at Marienfelde are an invitation to engage with these issues. Visitors can learn about people’s personal stories up close and be touched by their experiences of leaving home, overcoming borders and arriving in a new country.
The Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum is also interested in presenting narratives and opening its spaces to the stories of people whose biographies are connected to this site but which have not yet been told here. This includes the history of so-called ethnic German repatriates and people of Jewish faith from the Soviet Union, especially in the late 1980s. But there are also stories from decades earlier that have yet to be addressed. A closer examination reveals the diversity of the origin stories of people from the GDR: some people had already experienced flight and expulsion before, others, such as the Sinti, were never considered within the German-German migration history. Furthermore, Marienfelde did not only serve refugees and people who had left the GDR. Anyone who had lived in a communist-ruled country for more than three months had to report to the Western Allies. This included asylum seekers from African or Arab countries who studied in the former Eastern Bloc.
Telling stories of migration at the site also allows for broader perspectives beyond the biographical level. Beginning with the political, legal and social reactions to flight and migration, attention is drawn to other histories of movement in East and West: West Germany took in Vietnamese “boat people” from 1978 until well into the 1980s. The GDR also signed the Contract Workers Agreement with Vietnam at that time. Whereas the “boat people” received an unlimited residence permit for the Federal Republic, the contract workers’ right of residence expired with the end of the GDR in 1990.
How were these different migration histories in East and West embedded in global-political contexts and rivalries of the Cold War? Who and what is remembered and forgotten today? By questioning and broadening previous narratives, the memorial museum aims to help shape multi-perspective and multi-directional spaces of memory and contribute to pluralistic remembrance cultures in a diverse society.
The memorial museum owes its existence to civic commitment: Soon after the reception procedure was discontinued in 1990, employees of the former reception center decided to secure the material objects that had been left behind. Under the auspices of the Berlin Senate’s Social Affairs Department, a small exhibition opened in one of the former housing blocks in August 1993. That same year the people involved in this project joined forces with former refugees, a few historians and other interested individuals to found the association “Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde.” The association took over sponsorship of the exhibition on a voluntary basis and began documenting the history of the German-German refugee movement.
In 1998, the German Bundestag’s parliamentary commission “Study Commission for Overcoming the Consequences of the SED Dictatorship in the Process of German Unity” designated the memorial a historical site of national importance. This distinction, accompanied by a steadily growing public interest and political support at federal, state and district levels, motivated the association to expand and professionalize the exhibition. The "New Exhibition" project began in 2003 and was completed in 2005 with the exhibition “Flight in Divided Germany.”
After joining the Berlin Wall Foundation in 2009, the long-standing sponsor association re-established itself as the “Förderverein Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde e.V.”