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

The Refugee Center

On 14 April 1953, West German President Theodor Heuss dedicated the Marienfelde Refugee Center. Located at Marienfelder Allee 66/80 in West Berlin, the new facility was open to East German refugees and emigrants. The camp was born of necessity: thousands of people were leaving East Germany for the West each month. West Berlin carried the largest share of this refugee movement – after East Germany began to seal off its borders in May 1952, the flow of refugees shifted to Berlin. In this divided city, the border between the sectors of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies remained passable.

Accommodating and integrating refugees was a significant social and economic challenge to West Germany in the years immediately after the Second World War. The emergency refugee center at Marienfelde was set up to provide newcomers with adequate accommodations and provisions. Additionally, the new facility was to bring together – in one location – all of the agencies and organizations involved in the emergency reception procedure (link). By uniting all of the refugees, agencies, and charitable organizations previously strewn across West Berlin, it was hoped that the process would be accelerated and that the burden to the city would be reduced.

Other than this administrative and logistic function, the refugee center became an emotionally-charged venue in the context of the Cold War. Particularly in the years up to 1961, the center enjoyed a high degree of symbolic importance as a “gateway to freedom”. Political leaders from West Germany and West Berlin came to Marienfelde to demonstrate their solidarity with the refugees fleeing East Germany. The East German state, on the other hand, proceeded to portray Marienfelde as a “lure of the West” in propaganda and as an “enemy object” within their intelligence services. Here was a particular danger for East Germany’s internal security: the number of refugees and the stories they told offered a look into real life and politics in East Germany, exposing the weaknesses of that country’s system.

With declining numbers of refugees arriving after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the policy of détente in the 1970s, the refugee center faded into the background of public consciousness. On July 1, 1990 – the day of German Economic and Monetary Union – Marienfelde’s role as an intake center for refugees and repatriates from East Germany finally ended.

Learn more about the history of the Marienfelde Refugee Center, the center’s organization, and the everyday life of its occupants…

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Waiting refugees in the Marienfelde Refugee Centre, April 1960, © Landesarchiv Berlin

© Landesarchiv Berlin