Photo. Laying the Foundation Stone of the Marienfelde Refugee Center, July 30, 1952. The Senator for Social Affairs, Otto Bach, is placing the deed in the foundation stone.
© Landesarchiv Berlin

Refugee Movement

Neither German state, East or West, could ignore the mass movement of East Germans westward in the years prior to 1961. This inner-German refugee movement was a common factor in the development of the two Germanys – even if its political, economic and social ramifications were quite different in each German state. In the disputes over refugees and refugee policy, East and West remained intertwined, consistently making references to one another.

The Exodus in the East

The exodus caused East Germany (GDR) enormous losses. Accompanying the outflow of people were losses of skilled labourers, political prestige, and cultural values. Social networks – especially in the countryside – were destroyed.

East Germany was never willing to acknowledge the weaknesses of its own system as the cause of the refugee movement. In the view of East German authorities, the reasons for the exodus lay in West German enticements, agitation against the East in the West German media and the “illusions” entertained by some East Germans about life in the “golden West”. Criminalisation and agitation by the East German state aimed to stanch the flow of refugees, though it was not until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 that East German officials succeeded in halting the exodus, a measure that allowed them to stabilise East Germany’s political and economic system.

Immigration in the West

The Western occupying powers and West Germany attempted to control and regulate immigration. 1950 witnessed the introduction of an uniform reception procedure for refugees and emigrants from East Germany. This process remained essentially unchanged until the procedure’s annulment on 30 June 1990.

In contrast to the claims of Socialist Unity Party leadership, there was never a West German policy to incite GDR citizens to leave East Germany. Especially in the years following the Second World War, East German refugees were viewed as competitors for such scarce resources as housing, foodstuffs and jobs. As late 1951, almost two thirds of all refugee applications were rejected. After the mid-1950s, however, the percentage of those declined had fallen below 1%, as newcomers were integrated into the West German labour market without difficulties. These highly-skilled labourers and professionals made a significant contribution to West Germany’s economic reconstruction.

But even as the refugees increasingly proved to be more of an economic bonus than an additional burden, official West German policy remained to not further encourage East Germany’s depopulation. In the West, many feared that the refugee movement could in fact weaken demands for regime change in the East, thereby reducing the chance of German unification at some point in the future.

The End of Mass Immigration

Construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961 brought the mass exodus of East Germans to an abrupt end. Now only a few risked escape – and many of these individuals failed to reach the West.

It remains difficult to state the exact number of those who lost their lives trying to cross the inner-German borders. The number of persons killed – along the inner-German border between East and West Germany and the Berlin Wall surrounding West Berlin – through shootings, mines and automatic spring gun installations ranges from 270 (verified by the Berlin District Attorney’s Office) and 780 (the figure put forward by another group of researchers, the 13th of August Working Group).

For current information and biographical sketches of the Berlin Wall’s victims, click here).

Many of those who attempted to escape suffered serious injuries. Tens of thousands were discovered, arrested and locked away. On average, from the beginning of the 1960s until the end of the 1980s every second political prisoner in East Germany served a sentence for “illegal border crossing”.

The Wave of Refugees in 1989 and 1990

During the decades of German division, the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall were perfected – in the 1980s, however, the Wall and the border proved politically fragile, as internal and external factors increasingly reinforced one another. On the one hand, the GDR was in a state of economic decline. On the other hand, with the signing of the Vienna Agreement of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in January 1989, the East German regime saw itself obliged to ease restrictions on travel.

Also significant were international developments, particularly within the Soviet bloc. The Soviet state and party leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed the Warsaw Pact countries a growing measure of independence. Hungary and Poland were the first to introduce democratic reforms, as Eastern Europe’s Iron Curtain borders became increasingly porous.

Thousands of GDR citizens subsequently left the country, attempting to reach West Germany via Hungary or Czechoslovakia. 350,000 East Germans left in 1989; approximately 135,000 came in November 1989 alone, the month in which the Berlin Wall fell. Between January and June 1990, an additional 238, 000 individuals made their way to West Germany.

German Unification

The new exodus in 1989 and 1990 catalysed the developing protest movement in the GDR and the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989. The mass flight to the West also decisively accelerated the political process leading to German unity on 3 October 1990.

The first East German refugees were greeted in the West with considerable enthusiasm. This attitude changed with the fall of the Wall. Increasingly, the newcomers were accused of burdening West Germany’s welfare state. Demands were made to stop granting residence permits to East German citizens.

Despite changes in popular opinion, the West German federal government remained committed to its longstanding refugee policy, accepting additional refugees and ethnic German emigrants from the East. The population influx presented West German federal, state and local governments with major challenges. In response, political actors in the West stepped up efforts to allow East Germans to remain in the GDR through an improvement of political and economic conditions in the East. Two additional events – the 18 March 1990 elections to the East German Parliament (Volkskammer) and the economic and currency union between the two Gemanys on 30 June 1990 – paved an irreversible path to German unity.


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