Photo. Visitors at the opening of the exhibition, 'Drawings by Refugee Children,' August 29, 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin - Willy Kiel

Arrival in the West

Notwithstanding the sense of relief at having succeeded in escaping East Germany, starting over again in the West was associated with many difficulties. Finding work and a place to live, settling in new surroundings were not the refugee’s only concerns. The former citizens of the GDR had to make their way in a different social system, a system in which politics, economics and everyday life unfolded according to unfamiliar rules.

The integration of the newcomers was a challenge for West German society as well. Particularly in the immediate post-war era, the stream of refugees presented federal and state authorities with enormous challenges. Municipal and local authorities were overwhelmed with responsibilities – only gradually were measures designed to promote the integration of refugees developed and implemented.

Laws und Integration Assistance

According to West Germany’s Basic Constitutional Law, immigrants from East Germany were German citizens. In principle, they were in legal terms on equal footing with West Germans. According to a 1953 federal law covering displaced persons and refugees (Bundesvertriebenen- und Flüchtlingsgesetz), individuals coming from the East were entitled in the West to social insurance benefits they had accrued while living in East Germany, including claims to retirement, health and unemployment insurance benefits. Two other burden-sharing laws, passed in 1952 and 1955 respectively, further extended benefits to East German immigrants. Further allowances for the acquisition of furniture, household effects, clothing and low-interest loans for the construction of private homes were intended to make easier their new lives in the West.

While federal law defined the benefits entitled to immigrants, state and local authorities in West Germany were charged with the verification and processing of claims; they also bore responsibility for the approval of funds.

In addition, numerous charitable and relief organisations undertook efforts to promote the integration of the new immigrants from the East.

Professional and Vocational Integration

A focus of integration policy at the time was professional and vocational integration, including labour market measures to promote vocational training, career counselling and employment placement services. For many, starting over in the West German labour market was not easy. To obtain recognition of professional education and training undertaken in the East, immigrants had to overcome many legal formalities; considerable effort went into the verification and review of credentials of various kinds as well as diplomas.

In spite of these difficulties – to which prejudices and fears of competition on the part of the West German colleagues must be counted – most East German immigrants to the West were able to establish themselves professionally in a relatively short period of time. Former East Germans were highly motivated to establish new lives in the West. Many were prepared to accept work beneath their level of formal training or education, or to undertake retraining or continuing education to conform to the requirements of the West German labour market.

Social Integration

In contrast to professional and vocational integration, social integration often proceeded with less success. They were many reasons this was so. The uncertainty of the newcomers was matched by arrogance and ignorance on the part of many West Germans. From the perspective of many former East Germans, almost no one in the West was familiar with conditions in East Germany; few West Germans were interested in the fate of the new arrivals from the East.

Incomprehension among Germans in the East and West grew after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This lack of understanding marked the experience of former East Germans in West Germany, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. Federal and state government responded with new initiatives: sociologists, psychologists and social workers developed new counselling models, attempting to make allowance for the problems of integration developing at the time against the backdrop of growing alienation and differences between the two social systems, East and West.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber