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 2: Ways to the West

The thematic area “Ways to the West” describes the conditions, routes and forms of flight and emigration during several phases of East German history and the history of the inner-German border from 1949 to 1989.

In the GDR there was no freedom of movement; no one was allowed to leave East Germany without permission. Notwithstanding the prohibition on foreign travel, attempts to leave the country persisted, leading the communist party (SED) regime to respond with surveillance, acts of repression and violence. Migration from East to West can be divided into three chronological phases. Each of these three phases is symbolized by a piece of luggage in the centre of the room. A suitcase bears witness to flight prior to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. A purse represents escape after 1961. A cardboard box for a migrant’s household and personal effects refers to the official path to departure by means of an exit permit.

Individual escape stories illustrate the significance and consequences of East German legislation. These stories also attest to how the tightening of border controls affected those who fled. After the cordoning off of the inner-German border in 1952, attempts to escape between 1952 and 1961 focused on Berlin. Until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it remained possible to travel to the western sectors of the-then divided city. After 1961, refugees arrived in the West almost exclusively as Sperrbrecher (East German refugees crossing the border without formal permission) or with the assistance of professional escape helpers from the West. The GDR’s signing of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation’s (CSCE) Helsinki Final Act in 1975 in the Finnish capital ultimately encouraged large numbers of East Germans to leave their country. Calling into question the legitimacy of the East German state, this mass exodus significantly contributed to the demise of the GDR.

Objects and documents from the private collections of refugees supply evidence of the ways these individuals surmounted the border between East and West. In interviews they report clearly on the preparations they made to escape or leave by legal means, the process of emigration itself and the feelings they experienced during their escape or departure.

The exhibit area also describes the large number of failed escapes, as well as special forms of migration, such as expatriation and the system known as Freikauf, in which the West German government purchased exit visas for political prisoners.