In the summer of 1961, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) makes the decision to erect a wall in the city of Berlin that would separate the East from the West. A statement issued by the Council of Ministers of the German Democratic Republic informs the GDR citizens of the decision. In the statement, the council lists several reasons for the construction of the wall. Most of the reasons point to the West as a militaristic threat to the GDR and a threat to the Eastern bloc nations in general,
The preservation of peace calls for putting a stop to the activities of West German revanchists and militarists and opening the path for the securing of peace and the rebirth of Germany as a peace-loving, anti-imperialist, neutral state through the conclusion of a German peace treaty. (GDR Council of Ministers, 1)
The GDR officials claimed that they were building the wall in order to protect the people in the East from the aggressive and militaristic West. It was hardly the case. As Corey Ross states in his article, ‘East Germans and the Berlin Wall’
The fact that kampfgruppen stood with their backs to the Brandenburg Gate and weapons pointing eastward led to immediate comparisons with a jail or concentration camp, and conspicuously belied the official explanation that the border closure was aimed at an impending invasion by the ‘capitalist imperialists’.” (Ross 33)
The decision to seal the border was in response to the massive emigration that had been taking place essentially ever since the allied powers had split the country into two separate zones of occupation. In the immediate years of post war, Soviet leaders and East German officials had looked at emigration from the East to the West as beneficial. They felt that it would “help with supplying the population and to impose socialist transformation on an unwilling society” (Wettig). However, in time, they had realized the economic and idealistic difficulties that emigration was creating. Consequently, in 1952, they decided to close the border between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. This closure did not include the border in the quadripartite city of Berlin. In the years leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall, this border was used by millions of East Germans as an entry point to the West. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1961, approximately 2.7 million GDR citizens had committed republikflucht, or flight from the republic, (Ross, 30) many of whom were young and highly skilled. The flight of young and highly skilled citizens presented the GDR with many problems, both economically as well as politically. The solution that they came up with was the erection of the Berlin Wall and the closure of the Berlin Border on 13th August, 1961. The Berlin Wall stood for nearly thirty years and became a prominent symbol for the separation of Germany as well the Cold War (Taylor, 2012).
Up to this point, it is clear that it was of great importance to the GDR government to stop the flow of its citizens from the East to the West. Many steps were taken in order to slow or to stop the migration. However, the issue that was not clear to me before I did my research and what I have become compelled to investigate is why were so citizens leaving the GDR in such great numbers? I will review and analyze the effects that the ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, and the effects that certain policies had on the people of the GDR as well as the lack of effects other policies had in improving living conditions in the Federal Republic of Germany. I will use this information to answer the question of what exactly were the conditions in the German Democratic Republic that prompted millions of East Germans, many leaving everything that they had behind: the towns and cities that they grew up in, their homes, their belongings, their friends and colleagues, and in some cases their families, to pick up and head for the Federal Republic of Germany.
In this essay, my aim is to take into account a variety of sources such as statements from government officials, reports from government agencies, scholarly articles and essays, newspaper articles and stories on census figures from that time in the GDR, as well as information from our text in order to answer the question I alluded to earlier. I will take an in depth look into each of the factors I find and consider to be the most important. These factors include challenges in production, the difficulties that they created in business and everyday life in the GDR, government policies that led to the production issues as well as the policies that were intended to remedy these issues that simply did not work. I will also explore the reasons behind the failure of these policies. I will identify the ideological and economic factors that led to the creation of many of these would be emigrants. On the other side of the border, I will critically look into the factors that attracted these individuals such as the lure of the West and the programs set up to help them succeed in the FRG. And lastly I will briefly mention some of the miscellaneous factors that convinced some citizens to vacate the GDR, such as personal issues, trouble with the law, a spirit of adventure, and family ties.
Difficulties in the production processes and the lack pf production played a vital role in the emigration of millions of East Germans from the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany. The lack of production in the GDR in the 1950s and early 1960s was clearly an issue, and some would even call it a crisis. Production of consumer goods lagged behind in almost all areas of daily life. There were several factors behind this lack of production.
The first factor that I will take a look at is government spending. The GDR had placed a heavy emphasis on industrial production and often neglected the production of most everyday necessities. These policies led to an unsettling of many people. Mary Fulbrook illustrates this point,
The East German concentration on heavy industrial production rather than on consumer goods, and the extraordinary difficulties experienced in transforming and centralizing the economy, led to difficulties in the supply and quality of basic necessities such as food and clothing. People simply did not like the standard of living in the GDR in the 1950s, particularly in comparison with the ever-improving conditions in West Germany. (Fulbrook 163)
Another issue leading to production troubles was the nature of several government programs put into place in the 1950s. In July of 1952, they announced the goal of agricultural collectivization in the form of Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften, LPGs. While the program had limited success in 1952, it also led to strife among the farmers. Shortly after raising production quotas, the government took a softer stance on the initiative due to the issue of emigration and concerns over an uprising. However, later in 1959, they reinforced the initiative and forced it into effect. Many independent farmers were antagonized by this measure and many of these left for the FRG. This underlines one of the primary issues that the GDR government kept running into with the open border. If members of the GDR community did not agree with a government policy or procedure, they could just pick up what they have and head to the West.
The raised production initiative measure was not enforced by many rural functionaries in GDR. This led to business as usual at the village level. Many of those that eventually agreed to the policy did so out of fear of reprisals and did not adhere to the regulations laid out by the initiative. These difficulties eventually led to the lack of production in food materials which in turn led to more people migrating West.
Production on the factory floors was lacking as well and caused most East Germans to question themselves ‘why they would stay in the GDR’? The SED did their best to raise the production levels in the factories. Things were difficult in this area as well due to factors, again relating to the uprising of 1953. The government had tried to officially raise production goals, but it met with stiff resistance. They feared that attempts to do so again would result in similar circumstances and this would lead to more of their citizens leaving for the FRG. The government tried on several occasions to raise the level of productivity in many creative ways, but most of these attempts failed or produced poor results. The problems that they faced in this area included a lack of incentive to work harder for the same pay as well as a lack of skilled workers. The latter issue continued to get worse as more and more people were leaving the GDR. This led to more factory managers doing whatever they could in order to keep the employees that they had and avoid conflicts. Overall, this undermined the attempts to increase productivity.
Accompanying these production issues were also the problems of planning ahead in order to meet the needs of people. The plans typically took into account what they thought that the public would need in business and in the personal lives. Problems arose when needs were not met. Especially troubling was when shortages occurred pertaining to items needed in order to meet the production of other goods. This set off a chain reaction that deprived people of several essential items. The planning process also created a need for fixed prices that rarely matched an appropriate supply and demand total.
Prices were fixed, in order to aid planning, and did not represent any true measure of supply and demand. The time lag of plans meant that they were generally out-of-date before they were implemented; and the one-year focus of plan-fulfillment meant that managers would either produce ‘soft’ plans that were easily ‘overfilled’ or, if difficulties were experienced in fulfilling a plan, use up stock and not replace capital equipment in order to achieve the appropriate balance at the end of the year. (Fulbrook 163-64)
Further complicating these plans was the fact that the plans did not match those in neighboring countries of the Eastern bloc. In 1959, the SED announced a seven year plan ending the then current five year plan. This was done in order to realign their production with production in the Soviet Union. At this point, optimism was high in the GDR due to an upswing in the economy coinciding with a brief period of difficulty in the economy of the FRG. The SED set a goal that consumption in the GDR would surpass that of the FRG by the end of 1961. However, the optimism was short lived as it proved to be out of reach by the second half of 1959 and this led to more frustrations in the people of GDR. The seven year plan was eventually abandoned.
Lastly, of the issues relating to production problems leading to the mass emigration, I would like to mention the emigrations themselves. The flight of people to the West created many problems for most aspects of production in East Germany. The most obvious of these was the lack of a sufficient workforce. There simply were not enough skilled workers to go around. As mentioned earlier, lack of enough skilled workers led to problems enforcing policies designed to increase productivity. Managers just could not take the necessary steps to increase productivity without increasing pay. The workers in the factories knew this and used it to their advantage.
Under these conditions, as I have mentioned in the past several paragraphs, the production process people are living below what the people of East Germany witnessed their countrymen enjoying in the West. This led to unrest among the people and many of them came to the conclusion that life in the Federal Republic of Germany is a better option. The living conditions as well as the relative ease with which they could cross into the West led many of them to relocate.
The conclusion that the living conditions in the German Democratic Republic were difficult was only part of the final decision process to relocate. In order for these people to leave everything that they had behind, they must have believed that life in the Federal Republic is better and that it would be the same for them. Below are some of the conditions and attractions that pulled them toward the FRG. First, they were able to purchase the things that they wanted or needed in the West. As I have mentioned throughout the paper, this was not the case in the East. The West relied on supply and demand for production and pricing. This led to the production of items that are in high demand or are needed. This also helped to set the prices based on the market for items. Unlike in the fixed rate economies, the West could set appropriately high prices if exceeding demands existed. If you needed or wanted an item, and you had the money you could buy it. Wages in the West for the same job exceeded those in the East. In addition, there were incentives to work harder. There was no reward for producing more than your coworkers in the East. It was expected that you produce as much as you could for the good of society. In the Western model, those that worked harder typically were rewarded with better compensation, promotion, and incentives. There were also many policies in place in the West that helped those relocating there to become established in the Federal Republic. These policies included
the 13th amendment to the Equalization of Burdens Law, which stipulates that all those who flee the republic will be eligible for the subsidies for household goods. Loans on favorable terms are granted to doctors, other members of the intelligentsia, craftsmen, tradesmen and others, so that people who flee the republic can ‘gain a foothold more quickly’”. (Central Committee Brigade, 2)
While there were many more glaring issues that led many to flee the GDR and head to the FRG, the reasons for departure were often varied and personal to each specific case. In some cases, they may have had family members that had previously fled the GDR and left themselves in order to reunite with family. This was also helpful to have someone already in place in the FRG in order to ease the transition. There were also those that fled to avoid punishment for transgressions they had committed. Since Republikflucht was itself a crime, many that had fled chose not to return due to fear of punishment. Some people also were leaving due to personal hardships such as divorce or moral transgressions. Some left simply out of a sense of adventure, a new and exciting journey that was merely different than the everyday mundane routine of daily life in the GDR. Some again were just leaving for the culture of the West such as movies, western dress, and music. Such enticements were enough to flee, particularly for the young and unattached emigrants. Some people that left for reasons of housing difficulties as well. Some believed that they would feel safer in the West due to rising conflicts. Most, if not all, of these reasons are listed in the report from the Central Committee Brigade on security issues.
In conclusion, the reasons that most East Germans left the German Democratic Republic for the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s are quite varied and unique to each person that made the decision to leave. While the risks and costs of making such a move were severe in some circumstances, perhaps in most circumstances, many of the reasons for leaving, in the eyes of those that departed, are strong enough to overcome the risks and costs. Ultimately, the standards of living in the GDR did not meet the standards expected by many of its citizens. With production problems that led to limited availability of goods and materials, it became increasingly difficult to obtain even basic necessities. Under these conditions, many people felt that they needed to explore other options. To some others, just the lure of something different was enough to contemplate making a change. This was especially tempting if they were facing personal difficulties at home. During this time period, there were also many government policies in place that met with great contention from people. These policies negatively affected large groups of people, and many of them decided just to leave the GDR. The option to leave for West Germany made this possible. Why would they stay and face these issues if they could just pick up and go somewhere where these policies could not affect them? There were also many policies put into place in the East that were aimed at easing the burden of some of the difficulties mentioned in this paper. The failure of these policies was also a determining factor in the emigration to the West. The issue of these factors and the fact that many policies in the West that allowed them to become established upon their arrival there led many not only to believe that life in the East was difficult, but also that life in the West would be much better. They witnessed those in the West enjoying a standard of living that they felt impossible in the east. This was the driving force behind the emigration from the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany. At the very simplest level, those who chose to leave just felt that life in the FRG was better than life in the GDR. This conclusion led millions to leave their homes, possessions, and even their families in some cases to enjoy better life in the West. For them, the benefits outweighed the costs.
Central Committee Brigade
Fulbrook, Mary. A concise history of Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
GDR Council of Ministers
Ross, Corey. "East Germans and the Berlin Wall: Popular Opinion and Social Change before and after the Border Closure of August 1961." Journal of Contemporary History 39.1 (2004): 25-43.
Wettig, Gerhard. "" Republikflucht": Flucht und Abwanderung aus der SBZ/DDR 1945 bis 1961 (review)." Journal of Cold War Studies 11.2 (2009): 130-131.