Berlin Wall and Migration

Conrad Schumann
Crossing to West Berlin on the third day of construction


The east-west divide of 1945-1989


The Berlin Wall was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War, and of the “iron curtain” which divided Germany and Europe, for a long generation following the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War. Over a quarter century after its demise now, it is historically among the most dramatic examples of the costs and risks of immigration restriction.


Strictly speaking, and in customary parlance, “immigration restriction” means constraining movement into an area, not movement out, but in actual practice restrictions on exit often have effects similar to restrictions on entry. Either can suffice to curtail trans-jurisdictional relocation. The freedom to leave a country (a human right enshrined in Article 13 of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights) has limited efficacy unless it is combined with an ability to enter some other country, and vice versa.


Berlin, like Germany itself, was divided into occupation zones at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The Berlin Wall was erected in the early 1960s by the rulers of the state of East Germany (also known also by its German acronym, DDR, or sometimes its English translation, GDR) in order to prevent people from crossing out of what had been the Soviet zone of the city, and into the British, French and American zones. Such an insurmountable barrier, however, might have been equally effective at stopping that sort of movement had it been constructed by western zone administrators in order to prevent crossings in. Although not generally expected at the time, the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November of 1989, led less than eleven months later to the disappearance of East Germany as a state.


The words of East Germany’s national anthem envisaged a united German fatherland, “rising out of ruins” of the Second World War. With logical consistency, the anthem was retired in 1990 when its country was peacefully absorbed by its larger and more prosperous western counterpart, thereby establishing that united Germany. The rebuilding out of ruins was facilitated by unruined skills of a labor force marked by east-to-west migration.


   Winston Churchill, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946



East-to-west migration


Between 1944 and 1950, something like a million ethnic Germans died in westward expulsions and flight from Soviet Union-held territories, east of East Germany, but over ten million survived this relocation. (Figures here are rough estimates based on numbers and accounts which vary considerably across various sources). Some of these German refugees were Germans who had been recently settled in eastern territories under Nazi occupation, and some were repatriating released war prisoners, but more were ethnic Germans who families had been living in those eastern territories for generations. About two thirds of these expellees ended up in what became, in 1949, West Germany (BRD in the German acronym). Most of the rest went to what became East Germany (the DDR was established a few months after the BRD), but about a quarter of those later moved from East Germany to West Germany. This second stage movement of expellees from Soviet occupied eastern Europe accounted for close to a third of all post-1945 internal-German east-west migration.


The 1944-50 flight of German refugees was the largest and most violent component of a longer term westward migration of Germans. Centuries of prior German migration eastward was eclipsed in the nineteenth century, first by growing westbound overseas emigration of Germans (mainly to North America), and later by migration of Germans and Poles from the agricultural East to rapidly industrializing western German regions, notably the Rhineland and Ruhr.  [Morawska, Trebilcock]


The Second World War’s economic toll after 1944, on the area which later became the DDR, was exacerbated by active de-industrialization and enormous reparations taking the form of “the Russians, seizing as much German industrial equipment as they could.” [Turner, p. 13]. Reparations and population transfers had been authorized under the 1945 Potsdam agreement of the Allies, though in a different manner and extent than they were carried out, but cooperation between the western powers (Britain, France and the US) and the Soviet Union increasingly broke down after 1945. The east-west economic gap within Germany widened further after the western zones merged to form the state of West Germany (BRD), whose economy developed, with some help from the newly created Deutsche Mark and the Marshall Plan, later becoming known as a Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).


The rate of migration from East Germany to West Germany, during the years when it was readily feasible -1949-61 and since 1989- has amounted to an annual average of roughly 1% of the east German population. This is a significant rate of exodus, but hardly record-breaking in international historical terms. A rate several times higher than that applied to 19th and early 20th century European regions of high migration to North America. Fast growing states of the western USA have in recent years absorbed annual migration from other states amounting to 4-5% of their population. But, the economic, social and political significance of this internal German westward migration exceeds that suggested by its long term quantitative magnitude, for several reasons:


Firstly, Germany’s overall population is not much larger now (2014) than in the 1930s.

a) The loss of population in the Second World War was about offset by the postwar influx of German refugees from Germany’s lost eastern territories. (In this sense, Hitler’s drive for Lebensraum was achieved in reverse: an approximately similar sized population now lives in a smaller, not larger, territorial German state.)

b) Since 1945, the natural growth (births less deaths) of the German population has been negative; immigration has thus roughly counteracted what would otherwise have been a declining overall population. [Germany’s population in 2013 is about 14% above that of 1950. In comparison: Great Britain is 26%, France 50%, Russia 40% but since 1992 -3%, USA, 108%. However, nearly all of that population increase occurred in West Germany during the periods of Gastarbeiter (guest-worker) and Aussiedler (ethnic German) inflows during the late 1950-60s and 1989-92, respectively. Figures from official national statistics].


Secondly, eastern Germany has received a less than proportional share of non-German immigrants to Germany since 1950 [some of the Cubans and Vietnamese and others working in the DDR left after 1990; since 2000, the rate of immigration (immigration relative to population) in the German federal states corresponding to the DDR (east) has been half that of states comprising the pre-1990 BRD (west)]. Furthermore, until a few years ago, the natural rate of population decline since 1990 has been greater in the east (lower birth rates) than in the west. The net result is that the DDR region has 18% fewer inhabitants now than in 1989. [Update Sept. 2016: Recent reports show a very slight overall net migration from west to east in the last few years, although the flows to the east are concentrated on a few large cities, such as Leipzig, now wearing the "mantle" of "Germany's coolest city."

See Grossmann, et. al. p. 2 and East Germany's migration corner.]


Thirdly, this decline of population has not been uniformly distributed across the territory and society of Germany’s east. In many rural areas the drop has been greater than average (some larger cities such as Berlin have held their own in population). Furthermore, westwards departees in recent decades have been disproportionally made up of more-educated females. In some areas, the gender imbalance has become unusually large.


Fourthly, although part of the exodus since 1989 reflects demand pent-up during 1961-89 when emigration was severely restricted, east-west gaps in productivity, wage and unemployment that have propelled the westward relocation still remain today, despite having diminished since the 1990 unification.


Finally, Berlin, the nation’s capital since modern Germany’s founding in 1871 (and during 1949-89, capital of the DDR), has long been a focal point for east-west migration. In 1700, twenty percent of Berlin’s 50 thousand inhabitants were French Huguenots who had been invited to settle in the city, a generation after it had lost half of its population in the Thirty Years War. In 2013, 15% of Berlin’s three and half million residents were foreign nationals  (12% for Germany as a whole).


Berlin's wall: erected and removed because of migration

Berlin became an early hot spot of the Cold War during the Berlin blockade and airlift which followed the launch of the Deutsche Mark in 1948. Normal relations resumed in the city, but the division of the country was solidified by the establishment of the BRD and DDR as separate states in 1949. [Turner]


Nearly a tenth of the Soviet sector’s population moved to western sectors of occupied Germany between October, 1945 and June 1946. Thereafter controls were maintained on the border of the Soviet zone, although they were not strictly enforced; a further twentieth of East Germany’s population had relocated westwards by May 1952 when the regime created a 10 meter wide no-mans land strip along the DDR-BRD boundary, splitting farms, coal mines and houses. Notwithstanding East Germany’s Constitution of 1949 including a right to emigrate [Turner], this became therefore quite difficult to do so except by crossing in Berlin where there was no physical hindrance to movement between east and west. Over the next nine years, until 1961, another one-fifth of the DDR population moved west, most of it through Berlin.


By 1961, the West Germany economy was in a upswing [Emminger] but the DDR regime had become increasingly concerned at the long ongoing loss of skilled workers to the West. In May, a series of railway by-passes were completed, making it possible to seal off the east-west boundary inside Berlin without thereby disrupting general rail traffic in the DDR.


Construction of the Berlin Wall, encircling all of the West Berlin, started on August 13, 1961. Initially, the barrier consisted of a line of barbed wire fences and entanglements. A system of two parallel fences with separated by an open “death strip” was created by the next summer, and extensive deployment of reinforced concrete slabs, watchtowers, and bunkers followed in later years. The wall drastically reduced migration to West Germany from East Germany. During 1962 to 1988 the flow averaged one sixth what it had been during 1949-61. With the erection of the wall, Berlin quickly went from being the easiest place to make an unauthorized crossing between East and West Germany to being the most difficult.


During 1961-88, only about 100 thousand East Germans obtained official legal permission to move west, mostly after 1975 when it became possible, though still difficult, to invoke the freedom to emigrate called for under Helsinki agreement co-signed that year by East Germany. About a further 250 thousand were allowed to leave in conjunction with “ransom” payments made by West Germany during these years. Something like 200 thousand Eastern Germans also managed to move west clandestinely. Most went through other countries. Only about 5 thousand got into the west via West Berlin.


Agreeing to allow departures, in return for collecting hefty payments, gave East Germany highly-coveted western currency, but was problematic as a long term strategy. It did not redress the inability of the DDR economy to compete successfully with western consumer goods, a weakness which had generated a continuing need and desire for western cash [Zatlin, chapter 2]. Furthermore, this “ransoming” further exacerbated the DDR’s “brain drain,” both in the immediate sense of continuing to lose skilled workers to emigration, and longer term as friends and family members were encouraged to try to follow in their footsteps.


It is not easy to determine how five thousand or so East Germans got into West Berlin, during the years of the wall, although some plausible conjectures are possible. This site estimates that 10 thousand easterners attempted to reach West Berlin, e.g. one half them succeed, and one half failed. Some six hundred of the circa five thousand successful escapees were DDR border guards, and about one hundred of the circa five thousand failed attempts ended in death at the border. How did the other 88% successful departees make it, and what happened in the 98% of failed attempts that did not end with being shot at the border?


In the absence of hard data, or at least easy-to-locate hard data, a few logical inferences can at least be noted.


Firstly, for a short period after the barbed wire barriers first started being installed in August 1961, escapes were considerably less difficult than they later became: by jumping over the wires, out of windows in buildings right along the boundary, etc. Probably a disproportionate fraction of the roughly 5 thousand escapes occurred within the first few days and weeks. Although the success rate then was undoubtedly higher than later on, a disproportionate number of the roughly 5 thousand failures (half of 10 thousand attempts) probably also occurred in those early days.


Secondly, although much attention has focused on dramatic and ingenious methods of escaping –especially adapted cars ramming barricades, underground tunnels, escapes by air or waterway, or via underground sewers, etc.- these seem unlikely to account for more than relatively small percentage of the escapes after the hundreds or thousands that occurred in the early weeks. The difficulty of pulling off such elaborate ruses makes repeated heavy use of them sustained over many years seem unlikely. By the same logic, if only a smallish minority of attempted escapes involved such physically complicated and difficult techniques, then failures to succeed using those sorts of physical circumvention would also account for only a minority of apprehensions.


It therefore seems likely that most attempted escapes, successful or unsuccessful, were conducted not by physically circumventing the wall, but by using ruses, bribes, deception, etc. to cross through normal checkpoints, as in the example described by Leslie Colitt. Over the course of the wall’s eighteen years, periodic attempts of this sort occurred: more successes especially (but also more failures) during the earlier years, but probably adding up over the full eighteen years to the most of the circa 4,400 non-guard successful escapes and circa 5,000 failed attempts.


The Ost-Politik and détente of the 1970s and ‘80s eased east-west tensions, and allowed more interactions across the two halves of Germany, but the Berlin Wall remained in place and an unpopular source of embarrassment for the DDR regime. In the late 1980s atmosphere of Glasnost and Perestroika under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, East Germany attempted further moderate liberalization even as the growing economic gap versus West Germany constrained the scope for doing so.


In November of 1989, the DDR government decided to try to appease growing popular dissent by means of a limited opening of its frontiers with the BRD. This attempt failed spectacularly. Within weeks the wall, and even the iron curtain across Europe itself, was effectively abandoned, and governments toppled across the Warsaw Pact countries. The state of East Germany disappeared and was absorbed by West Germany within less than a year (Die Wende).


Historians have pointed out that the accidental lifting of the iron curtain in 1989-90 did not occur in a political vacuum. A peacefully-presented western vision of greater freedom and economic well-being helped stoke easterners' desires for change. Their leaders consciously gambled on limited liberalization, which then further encouraged popular agitation for change, particularly -but not only- in East Germany. The hoped-for outcome, however, was reform not collapse. General objectives were altered -some abruptly, some gradually- as the momentum of "facts on the ground" was recognized, opportunities seized, and reactions adjusted. The slippery slope from liberalization to drastic regime change was greased by a host of lubricants, from long term interaction within the Eastern bloc, and between East and West, to short term buck-passing ambiguity of Eastern leaders and officials, radical interpretations of such ambiguity, and border guards deciding on the spot to hold fire.


The Wall, for nearly three decades a nearly invincible means of literally stopping migration dead in its tracks, proved suddenly vulnerable to pressures it was built to withstand, once policies of withstanding such pressures began themselves to wobble. The most iconic migration barrier of the modern age was created in response to the costs and risks of mass emigration for a unpopular and economically challenged state. It fell victim, within a single generation, to costs, risks and migration pressures which it could not ultimately suppress or even contain indefinitely in the absence of backing by stronger foreign powers.





Otmar Emminger, “The D-Mark in the Conflict between Internal and External Equilibrium,” Essays in International Finance, Department of Economics, Princeton University, 1977.


Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln and Matthias Schüdeln, "Who stays, who goes, who returns?: East--West migration within Germany since reunification," 2009.


V. Grossmann, A. Schaefer, T. Steger, and B. Fuchs, “Reversal of Migration Flows: A Fresh Look at the German Reunification,” CER-ETH Working Paper 16/259, September 2016.


Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.


Ewa T. Morawska, “Labor Migrations of Poles in the Atlantic World Economy, 1880-1914.” In European Migrants: Global and Local Perspectives, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Leslie Page Moch, pp. 170-208. Northeastern University Press, 1996.


Nikola Sander, "Internal Migration in Germany, 1995-2010: New Insights into East-West Migration and Re-urbanisation," 2014.


Clive Trebilcock, The Industrialization of the Continental Powers, 1780-1914. Longman, 1981.


Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., Germany from Partition to Reunification. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992


Jonathan R. Zatlin, The Currency of Socialism: Money and Political Culture in East Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


                               This page last updated 30-June-2018