Photo. An art class for refugee children of the Curvy Street Center in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, May 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin

Thematic Area 1: Reasons for Leaving

The thematic area “Reasons for Leaving” explains the diverse reasons that led Germans to flee East Germany (GDR). Here the personal motives which led individuals to leave are related to political, societal and economic developments in the GDR.

At the centre of this presentation are four personal stories. Four individuals describe their reasons to flee in video and audio interviews. Each left East Germany at a different time, and for a different set of reasons. Described here is the woman farmer unable to pay heavy taxes imposed on private landowners; the teenager who defied the pressures to conform he faced at school; the student who called for solidarity with the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; and the father of a family who did not want to expose his children to a militaristic education in kindergarten and at school. Their accounts reveal a broad spectrum of reasons to leave, supplemented by additional materials presented in this area of the exhibition.

Four additional accounts shed light on a little-known aspect of the inner-German migration: the movement of Germans from West to East. Between 1950 and 1968, approximately 600,000 people relocated from West to East Germany – the lion’s share of these individuals were so-called repatriates. In addition to their motives, portrayed here are the reactions and immigration practice of the East German regime.

Another section of this thematic area describes the impact of the refugee movement on politics, economics and society in both post-war German states. Statistics, images and a gallery of well-known people illustrate the extent to which the mass exodus led the GDR to suffer losses of trained labourers, cultural values and political prestige. It also makes clear how West Germany profited from East Germany’s losses. The East German leadership reacted to this exodus by attempting to dispel “illusions” about the “Golden West” among those seeking to flee. Examples from East German media reflect images of conditions in West Germany as portrayed by GDR propaganda. According to this propaganda, East Germans seeking to leave the country could expect in the West little better than miserable refugee quarters, unemployment and exploitation.