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

Reasons for Leaving

Direct political persecution, the wish to reunite families, unfulfilled consumer wishes – there were many reasons people left East Germany. Seldom was any one reason decisive; in many cases, the decision to escape or leave matured over the course of many years.

Although the motivations to flee were specific in each individual case, the decision to go was in most instances connected to East Germany’s political and economic system.

The repressive and dictatorial rule of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), affected – if to varying degrees – all East German citizens.

Government Policy

Some reasons to leave pertained only to particular occupations or societal groups, whereas others were more general, depending more on the current political situation in East Germany.

The connection between measures adopted by the SED government and the migration of people to the West is discernable over the years. Until the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the following events led to dramatic increases in the number of refugees fleeing the East:

  • 1952: Evacuation of the populace from the exclusion zone near the inner-German border, resolution of the 2nd Party Conference concerning the “methodical development of socialism”, compulsory recruitment for the people’s police
  • 1953: Growing collectivisation of agriculture, persecution of the youth organisation of the Protestant Church (Junge Gemeinde) and the Protestant and Catholic Churches more generally, raising of production quotas, crushing of the workers’ uprising on 17 June 1953
  • 1955: Inclusion of East Germany in the Warsaw Pact
  • 1956: Recruitment to the newly-founded National People’s Army, strong condemnation of the uprisings in Poland and Hungary
  • 1957: Intensification of religious persecution, high school students are forbidden to travel to the West, new restrictions on travel within the Allied zones of occupation, that is to say, to the West

Ideological Micro-Management

Even among those not directly affected by persecution, many East Germans felt cooped up, with the state and party domineering over their lives. Everywhere they sought to arrange their lives, they hit brick walls – whether it was in restrictions placed on their choice of career or profession, or that they were unable to secure access to many types of media, literature or music. The most palpable restriction was on travel. Many grew tired of the day-to-day propaganda and the contrast between socialist claims and socialist reality.

The Allure of the West

An important factor in deciding whether to leave East Germany was certainly the existence of West Germany, particularly the Federal Republic’s economic and social appeal.

In contrast to the citizens of the other East Bloc nations, West Germany stood for an “alternative homeland” – escaping or leaving East Germany did not entail coming to terms with a new culture. Nor did it involve a loss of state protection.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber