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

Ways to the West

In East Germany (GDR) there was no freedom of movement; no one was allowed to leave East Germany without permission. Notwithstanding the prohibition on foreign travel, millions of people attempted to escape conditions in East Germany by fleeing to West Germany. How were people able to overcome East Germany’s borders? What measures did the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party adopt in response to stop migration to the West?

Escape Across the Inner-German Border

Until 1952 many escapes took place across the unfenced “green border”. In order to block this route, the Socialist Unity Party leadership set up military installations along the entire 1,400 kilometre long border to West Germany.

All along the border manned border posts were set up, with no-go areas, barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. Border police were charged with the responsibility to prevent escapes and, if necessary, to shoot refugees.

Escape via Berlin

After the cordoning off of the inner-German border in 1952, escape routes shifted to Berlin, where the borders between the Allied and Soviet sectors of the city remained passable until the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. This route, too, was becoming increasingly hazardous during the 1950s, especially after the Socialist Unity Party began to criminalize “flight from the East German republic”. A 1954 East German law made punishable preparations, attempts or offers of support to anyone fleeing the country. Subsequently tightened in December 1957, the law enabled the East German judicial system to systematically persecute any attempt to leave the country. Tight controls on East Germany’s motorways and streets, waterways and rail border stations resulted. In long-distance and commuter railway trains, travellers were constantly subjected to spot checks and inspections.

Escape After the Building of the Berlin Wall in 1961

With the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, escape via Berlin was blocked for good. Like the inner-German border, the Berlin Wall was military fortified and guarded; border guards shot at refugees. A number of spectacular escapes took place during the first days and weeks after the Wall’s construction. Individuals risked their lives jumping from the windows of buildings facing the West, while others tunneled their way to West underground. Notwithstanding these dramatic escapes, the number of refugees crossing the border fell drastically. Escape now required elaborate preparation, as well as enormous risks. People sought new escape routes to the West, such as via the Baltic Sea or via Eastern European countries. Through painstaking work carried out in secrecy, small aircraft were assembled, automobiles fitted out to hide escapees and passports falsified. In this context, private and professional escape agents (Fluchthelfer) began to play an important role.

Exit by Legal Means

In light of the risks and strains associated with escape, from the mid-1970s onward more and more people attempted to leave the GDR by legal means.

Applying to state authorities for release from East German citizenship, many undertook a long course of action with uncertain results. The approval process was arbitrary and never transparent. No legal claim existed to exit the country. According to a 1983 law, only retirees, invalids or those with first-degree relatives in the West were permitted to submit an application to leave East Germany for the West. In the eyes of East German bureaucrats, all other applicants were in violation of the law. In most cases, submitting an application to leave East Germany brought with a series of reprisals lasting many years.


A special form of state-approved departure was a system known as Freikauf, in which the West German government purchased exit visas for select East Germans, a secret form of barter between the governments of both German states, East and West. Through purchases of this sort, between 1963 and 1989 33,755 men and women were able to leave East German prisons for the West. In return, the East German government received deliveries of goods and foreign exchange with an aggregate value of 3,400,000 West German marks. While the East German state described all this as “special business”, West German authorities spoke of “special humanitarian efforts.”

First and foremost among the proposal lists drafted by the negotiators were the names of prisoners sentenced for attempts to flee the republic, those aiding others attempting to escape and those who had sought permission to leave the country by legal means.


Another special form of flight to the West was expatriation, or the nullification of East German citizenship. On the basis of a citizenship law passed on 20 February 1967, the Socialist Unity Party government could nullify citizenship “owing to a major breach of one’s duties to the state.”

A prominent example of this form is the case of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. After performing at a concert in the West German city of Cologne on 16 November 1976, Biermann was not permitted to return to East Germany. Biermann’s performance in West Germany had been approved by East German authorities.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber