COM 01/2016

The German-German Border Regime

Siraprapa Chalermphao, Office Manager, German- Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance, Faculty of Law, Thammasat University


Twenty-five years ago the formerly divided German states which have been the bigger West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), a capitalist NATO – member German on the one side and East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a socialist Warsaw Pact member, on the other, were unified by the German people again.

This was result of historical developments starting from the USSR whose leader Michael Gorbatchov had begun to reform the Soviet system with his Perestroika and Glasnost policies. They emitted strong impulses of change and especially encouraged reformist movements in all socialist countries around the world. The East German government however resisted for the first time to follow its big brother in Moscow and his call for change.[1] East German state and party leader Erich Honecker stated instead in 1988 that East Germany would pursue a socialism in the “colors of the GDR” remaining true to the old regime.[2] By this, the GDR leadership greatly underestimated the power of the sea change that had started in Russia and quickly leading to a growing civil protest movement and a  revolt in  the party  grass  roots.[3] At the same a time a mass exodus of GDR citizens to other Eastern European countries started. Only in Prague hundreds of GDR citizens camped in October 1989 on the grounds of the West German Embassy until thousands of East German tourists to the socialist brother state Hungary escaped via Austria to Germany in fall 1989. The GDR leadership tried now to prevent the collapse of the old system by concessions especially by talking about ending the severe travel restrictions the system had become famous for.[4] Accompanied by a series of internal scandals showing the corruption of the party, mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people who raised the cry “We are the people!” and an increasing stream of East Germans leaving the country, the final collapse became inevitable.[5] It became visible with the unexpected announcement by GDR authorities that the Wall was open in Berlin to East Germans who wanted to go to the Western part of the city on the 9th of November 1989. This was the beginning of the Wall’s fall and the symbol for the end of the whole GDR regime. This short article tries to explore the nature of the border regime the Wall represented which also symbolized the GDR as such and finally also its breakdown.

This border regime which divided the two parts of Germany was indeed a comparably unique phenomenon as one of the most impressive expressions of the World’s separation during the Cold War. Other massive or even rough border regimes and are known from various countries – examples are the US-Mexican and the Israel- Palestine border or the border between the two Korean states but the ‘Wall’ separating the two German states was much more a symbol of the whole country’s  and  even the World’s division than other strongly separating borders ever were. For this, and in the context of a series of events organized by the CPG on the German unification, a brief outlook shall be given.

The German-German Border: nature and impact

As indicated above, the German-German Border, the border between West Germany and East Germany, the American-friendly and the Soviet-friendly German state, was more than a normal border. Built in 1961 it has not only been one of the world’s most heavily fortified frontiers, but had also an immense symbolic meaning. Technically this border regime was defined by a continuous line of high metal fences and walls, rounds and rounds of barbed wire, various sensor and alarm mechanisms, anti-vehicle ditches, manned watchtowers, automatic booby traps and minefields.[6] It was patrolled by 50,000 armed guards, who served under an order to kill those who tried to overcome the fences and walls, minefields and traps.[7] Many did so, and many died indeed.[8] For most of the others who did not try, travelling to the Western part of the country became “a forbidden dream”.[9] So the “the wall” – as it was simply called – became the physical manifestation of the so called “Iron Curtain” which divided the Western and the Eastern, the US- and the USSR-led bloc of the world during the Cold War.

In the eyes of many people in the Western World the Iron Curtain running through Europe marked not only the boundary between the two hostile ideological systems but was the very expression of the tyranny associated with the communist world, while the East considered it as the expression of its state sovereignty and the attempt to build and protect a socialist society by this “anti-fascist wall” against what East Germany’s government considered as Western materialism and imperialistic infiltration which was responded by a huge wave of migration of its citizen to East Germany.[10]

The Legal Wall

How did this extremely harsh and politically very differently perceived border regime look like and what was its impact?

Constructed mainly with the purpose to stop the large-scale emigration of East German citizens to the ‘West’ the border has to be understood against the background of the legal prohibition for East Germans to leave their country without official permission.

There were several legal regulations in communist Germany  which  attempted  to prevent the illegal border crossing of East Germans with an increasing punishment over the years:[11]

– From 1951 to 1954 the law foresaw up to 3 months imprisonment for everyone who did not return his ID card (meaning registering himself) when leaving the country to the West,

– from 1952 to 1968 the law foresaw up to 3 years imprisonment for everyone who left the territory of the GDR without permission, and

– from 1968 up to 1989 the law foresaw 3 years for everyone who left the territory of the GDR without permission with the additional qualification of a ‘severe case’ punishable initially with up to 5 years imprisonment, which was even increased in 1979 with up to 8 years. Such “severe cases” included even those constellations in which people were trying to escape with “special intensity” or by using a hideout. In practice these were the quite ‘normal’ cases making a serious crime.

Relevant provision of the law was Art. 213 of the Penal Code of the GDR which regulated illegal border crossing.[12] The punishable illegal action was simply to leave the Soviet occupied zone or later, after the founding of East Germany as an independent state, the GDR respectively without having an official permission. This offense was unofficially called “escape from the Republic” and its perpetrators were considered as a kind of political deserters or traitors of the fatherland.[13]

The reason why the East German government decided to implement such harsh laws and even harsher border fortification was, as mentioned, to prevent a mass migration of workforce out of the territory of the GDR which was economically much less successful (even if it was the strongest economic power in Eastern Europe) than West Germany. Moreover, a mass migration would have unfolded a strongly detrimental symbolic message implying that the ideologically claimed superiority of socialist Germany was only a myth, that the regime which knew no free elections did not at all enjoyed the legitimacy it always and loudly claimed.

Cross-border Migration

Against the background of the law against escape from the Republic and the border protecting it, the migration of East German citizens to the West has to be distinguished. Four forms of migration have to be separated so far:

– temporary legal visits of GDR-citizens to the West,

– regular  (legal)  emigration  of  GDR- citizens to the West,

– illegal escape of GDR-citizens to the West, and

– GDR-citizens ‘released’ by the East German government to the West due to ransom money paid by the West German government for political prisoners of the GDR.

While West Germans enjoyed the freedom to travel to every country they wanted to according to the West German constitution, West Germans, according to the laws of the GDR, have been allowed to visit East Germany under strict conditions. As many families were affected by the Iron Curtain separating them these visits had mostly a family background. West Germans who used this opportunity were tightly restricted and controlled and further observed by the East German authorities. East German citizens on the other side had it far more difficult to be able to travel to West Germany to visit the country or, especially, their family.[14] While West German law allowed them to do so almost unrestrictedly, was it very difficult to obtain an official permission for a short visit of the West by the East German authorities which was needed to leave the country without committing a crime.

Basically such permissions to leave the country were only granted if this had been in the interests of the GDR with respect to economic, scientific, political or intelligence reasons or because of urgent family business such as marriage or serious illness or death of a close relative under tight conditions: Besides the fact that the approval was often granted arbitrarily, it was only given if there was no doubt of duly return because the rest of the applicant’s family had to stay in East Germany or the respective applicant was considered as politically absolutely reliable.[15] In average around 15-25 % of the applications for travel permission were successful over the years. This has to be seen against the background that many who wanted to go did not even ask for a visa because they knew that they would not get it or because they were afraid of even getting into the focus of the security forces with detrimental consequences.[16]

Those citizens who were granted permission were especially welcomed in West Germany according to governmental policies. One expression was a welcome payment by the German government of 100 German Mark for every visitor from East Germany to make it possible for them to enjoy their stay. Until the end of the German-German border regime more than 4 billion German Mark were paid as “welcome money”.

Much more difficult than to get permission for such a short visit to the West were the attempts to get approval to permanently emigrate to West Germany. They were often allowed only if the applicants were of no interest for the East German government because they were sick, criminals, addicts and so on. If these conditions were not given, applicants who asked for the permission to emigrate had very often severe problems after their application was refused. Often they lost their jobs, were excluded from universities and kept under heavy control and surveillance by the secret service, sometimes effectively leading to imprisonment as political prisoner.

A third way according to which East Germans could migrate  to  the  West  was to be ‘bought free’ by the West German government which unofficially paid money to the East German government to release political prisoners from East Germany, a process which often was mediated by the Christian  Churches.[17] Until  1989  around 34.1 persons could be ransomed in this way by sums between 40.000 to 100.000 DM each.[18]

The last and most famous way to leave the GDR, however, was to escape illegally which was a way often used yet one which was very dangerous and often a deadly for the one who tried it.

Those who did had to overcome one of the best  secured  borderlines  of  the  world  as described  in  the  beginning. With  a  5  km deep security strip, protected by sharp dogs, watchtowers, tripwires and electric signals as well as antipersonnel mines and with the mentioned shooting order given to all border guards  on  a  daily  basis,  the  escape  was extremely difficult. Most notorious was the shoot-to-kill  or  ‘shooting  order’ requiring the border guards to “ruthlessly” shoot any person who tried to overcome the border.[19] Erich Honecker, later the chief of state of East Germany, ordered in 1974, as Chairman of  the  GDR’s  National  Defence  Council: “Firearms are to be ruthlessly used in the event of attempts to break through the border, and  the  comrades  who  have  successfully used their firearms are to be commended.”[20] Despite this deadly determination East Germans again and again tried to overcome the “Wall” by a range of methods: through tunnels, with all sorts of air vehicles, in hideouts in cars, self-made submarines and so on.

Between 1949 and 1989, around 1200 Germans died at this border. Officially recognized by the general attorney in Berlin are 270 homicides and at least 420 assumed homicides by the border protection forces of socialist Germany.[21]

Interestingly, around 200 of the East German border guards died themselves at the border, some because of suicide and accidents, while others were shot in the wake of escape attempts making up for 25 cases among the 200.[22]

But not only those who were shot dead or wounded and their relatives and friends were victims but also all those who were imprisoned for attempting to escape across the border based on the above mentioned Art. 213.

All in all, more than 75,000 people – an average of more than seven people a day – were imprisoned this way serving an average of one to two years imprisonment under comparatively harsh conditions as political prisoners. Border guards who attempted to escape themselves were treated much more harshly.

Furthermore, many West Germans tried to help East Germans to escape socialist Germany and if they were caught they were often additionally punished to very harsh sentences because of espionage.

A special case were also the more famous citizens of the GDR who managed it to escape to West, often after they had been granted a visit to participate sport events or conferences in the West. Some of them were later killed by secret service commandos of socialist Germany to take revenge.

Most of the East Germans who took the risk to escape did so due to political reasons including those who refused to join political engagement or an engagement with the security services of the GDR, others for personal and family or economic reasons.

The migration because of escape caused indeed some damage to the GDR, including those caused by

– brain drain of work force,

– the symbolical damage in ideological respect                  inside the country and pertaining to the international perception of the GDR, and lastly by the risk that

– refugees would be used as a source of intelligence for the West German intelligence services.

All in all, from 1949 to 1990, about 3.8 million people left East Germany, the vast majority of them illegally, yet 480,000 legally with an official permission.[23]

Concluding Assessment

Both, the harsh border regime built by the strict laws against free movement over the borders and the seemingly invincible border fortification on the one hand and the continuous stream of refugees from East Germany which prominently contributed to the ideological warfare between the systems made the German Wall to become such a strong symbol.[24] The symbol however changed its meaning over time. First, the Wall served the West as the most prominent symbol for Soviet tyranny and, due to the steady flow of refugees despite all attempts to stop them, also as another proof for the inferiority of the Soviet system.

In 1989 then, the Wall and the border regime it represented became the symbol for the breaking down of the whole East German system when the country ultimately failed to regain control of the masses of migrants leaving the country via the opened borders in the East, especially in Hungary. The inner-German Border, the “Wall”, remains a symbol for the tyranny of the socialist regime and the German people’s efforts to overcome it by peaceful means.

[1] See Gert-Joachim Glaessner, German Democracy. From Post World War II to the Present Day, New York: Berg, 2005 p. 137 f. For the relation between the USSR and the GDR see David Childs, The GDR: Moscow’s German Ally, London: Unwin Hyman, 1988, passim, especially pp. 308 ff. and 320 ff.

[2] See Childs, The GDR: Mosco’s German Ally, pp. 325 f.; Glaessner, German Democracy, p. 137 f. and more detailed on the historical course of events and backgrounds William F. Buckley, Jr., The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2004, passim; David Childs, The Fall of the GDR: Germany’s Road To Unity, London: Longman, 2001, passim.

[3] See Glaessner, German Democracy, p. 142.

[4] See Glaessner, German Democracy, p. 141. See also the documents on the GDR’s citizen’s exodus 1989 collected by Volker Gransow, Konrad Hugo Jarausch, Uniting Germany: Documents and Debates, 1944-1993, New York: Berghahn Books, 1994, p. 30 ff.

[5] See Glaessner, German Democracy, p. 147 ff.; Quint, The Imperfect Union: Constitutional Structures of German Unification, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 16.

[6] See detailed Gordon L. Rottman, The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961–89, New York: Osprey Publishing, 2008, p. 20 ff.; and for a short overview Heiko Burkhardt, /history/facts. htm; htm; wall/history/facts_03. htm; P. Dousset; A. Souquet; S. Lelarge, https://web.archive. org/web/20060913215115 mur.htm.

[7] See Rottman, The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961–89, p. 42.

[8] See some examples by A. James McAdams, Judging the Past in Unified Germany, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 23 ff.

[9] Quint, The Imperfect Union, p. 15.

[10] See for the diverging perceptions David  Clarke, Ute Wölfel (eds.), Remembering the German Democratic Republic: Divided Memory in a United Germany, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[11] See for the legal provisions in detail Thomas Vormbaum, Michael Bohlander (eds.), A Modern History of German Criminal Law, Heidelberg et al.: Springer, 2014, pp. 245 ff.; see also Heinrich Schrader, “Freedom of Movement  in the German Democratic Republic”, 19 I.C.J. Rev. 44, 1977, pp. 44-45.

[12] Another notorious provision was Art. 219 prohibiting the “unlawful establishment of connections” to the West. See Manfred Wilke, The Path to the Berlin Wall: Critical Stages in the History of Divided Germany, New York: Berghahn Books, 2014, p. 48.

[13] Schrader, “Freedom of Movement in the German Democratic Republic”, p. 44-45.

[14] See Quint, The Imperfect Union, p. 15.

[15] See Quint, The Imperfect Union, p. 15.

[16] Hans-Hermann Hertle, The Berlin Wall: Monument of the Cold War, Berlin: Ch. Links, 2007, p. 124.

[17] Buckley, The Fall of the Berlin Wall, p. 104; Hertle, The Berlin Wall, p. 117; Wilke, The Path to the Berlin Wall, p. 50.

[18] See Wilke, The Path to the Berlin Wall, p. 50.

[19] See Hertle, The Berlin Wall, pp. 100 ff.

[20] Quoted from Hertle, The Berlin Wall, pp. 100 ff.

[21] See the_Berlin_Wall.

[22] See  Frederick  Baker,  “The  Berlin  Wall”,  in  Paul Ganster, David E. Lorey (eds.), Borders and Border Politics in a Globalizing World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, p.  29,  and  https://en.

[23] See Hertle, The Berlin Wall, pp. 124.

[24] This is different from the inner-Korean border which totally seals the border between North- and South-Korea. However, for the symbolic meaning of the inner-Korean border see the movie Joint Security Area (2004) by Park Chan- wook.