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Flight & Division

The border at the Berlin Wall

© German Historical Museum

Flight and Migration in Divided Germany

In the decades of Germany's division from 1949 to 1989, the GDR lost a large amount of its population to the Federal Republic: at least four million people – nearly a sixth of the East German population, made the journey from East to West, often at great risk and under enormous pressure.

Leaving the GDR was difficult, but unlike today, the refugees’ entry into the Federal Republic was simple. After 1945, West Germany adhered to the idea of an all-German citizenship that included people from the GDR. In spite of this, refugees and emigrants were still required to go through a reception procedure, in which they had to prove that they had serious political reasons for leaving the GDR. In the 1950s, this practice strengthened the West German view that the people leaving the GDR were “voting with their feet” for a free democratic Federal Republic and against the GDR’s ruling party, the SED. The SED countered this with its own interpretation: that Western organizations were systematically “luring” GDR citizens away and engaging in “human trafficking.”

Waiting in front of the Refugee Center

People waiting in front of the Marienfelde Refugee Center © Evangelische Flüchtlingsseelsorge

The Construction of the Berlin Wall as a Turning Point

The construction of the Wall on August 13, 1961 formed a turning point in the history of this migration. The Wall closed off the last remaining route to the West across the sector borders in Berlin. By cutting off East-West contact and bringing the refugee movement largely to a standstill, it cemented and deepened the division of Germany.

The SED was unable to permanently stop the exodus from the GDR however. Even after 1961, East Germans continued to find ways to reach the Federal Republic of Germany; by the time the Wall fell in November 1989, some 787,000 people had reached the West. A small number of them had fled across the inner-German border, climbed over the Berlin Wall or crossed through other countries, such as from Bulgaria to Greece. Some people, who had been granted permission to visit the West, simply chose not to return. Another group consisted of political prisoners, whose release from GDR prisons was paid for by the Federal Republic through the delivery of goods. By far the largest group in terms of numbers was the approximately 570,0000 East Germans who persistently demanded permission to leave the country – although there was no legal basis for this and they suffered repeated repression as a consequence.

Construction of the border fortifications 1963

Expansion of the border fortifications in 1962 © Berlin Wall Foundation, Photo: Paul Kremer

Reactions of East and West to Flight and Refugees

The actions of the secret service agencies also demonstrate how the East-West migration process was part of the Cold War conflict. When people arrived from the East, Western agencies questioned them, hoping to obtain information about military and research facilities and learn about the supply situation on the other side of the “Iron Curtain.” The GDR state security treated reception facilities such as the one in Marienfelde as “enemy objects” and succeeded in infiltrating them with informants.

The experiences of the refugees and emigrants in the GDR and later in the Federal Republic were overshadowed by political disputes. The GDR leadership was unable to react reasonably to the migration, since this would have cast doubt on the socialist state system and its planned economy. In the 1970s, the West German government chose not to focus on the GDR population being denied freedom of movement. It instead pursued a new policy of rapprochement towards the GDR government. By the 1980s, when many West Germans had become accustomed to the division, people arriving in the West from the GDR were met with disinterest and indifference.

Wave of Emigration and Reunification 1989/90

The movement to leave the GDR played an important role in the collapse of the country in 1989/90. Since May 1989, thousands of people fled across the border from Hungary to Austria or occupied West German embassies in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw to demand their right to leave. Pressure on the SED increased. At the same time, in late summer and autumn, increasing numbers of people in the GDR joined demonstrations calling for democracy and the right to travel. The Wall fell in Berlin on November 9, 1989. When the GDR joined the Federal Republic on October 3, 1990, the division of Germany came to an official end after more than four decades.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Celebrating people on the wall at the Brandenburg Gate the day after the fall of the wall. 10 November 1989 © Berlin Wall Foundation, Photo: Michael-Reiner Ernst

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