East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime

Hundreds of thousands of people migrated to the West after the partition of Germany into the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

Summary of Event

World War II may be seen as an amalgamation of many different conflicts. In Europe, in addition to being an ideological battle against fascism and a fight by a coalition of powers to stop Adolf Hitler’s aggression, the war represented the continuation of a centuries-old struggle between Germany and Russia for mastery of central Europe. Thus, when the war ended in Germany’s defeat, the Soviet Union not only desired expanded influence in that region but also found the way cleared to achieve such influence. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet ruler, wanted to ensure that the terms of the peace would keep Germany prostrate so that its resources could be used to rebuild the Soviet state. Cold War;Germany
Refugees;East Germans
Immigration;West Germany
[kw]East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime (1949-1961)
[kw]Communist Regime, East Germans Flee to West to Escape (1949-1961)
Cold War;Germany
Refugees;East Germans
Immigration;West Germany
[g]Europe;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[g]West Germany;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[g]East Germany;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[g]Germany;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[c]Cold War;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1949-1961: East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime[02820]
Adenauer, Konrad
Ulbricht, Walter
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;Cold War
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;Iron Curtain
Attlee, Clement
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;Cold War

Stalin’s Western allies, the United States, Great Britain, and France, had less clear goals. Some Western leaders saw communism as constituting as great a danger as had fascism. They had joined Stalin only through military expediency, seeing Hitler as the more immediate threat. Others hoped that the wartime alliance would result in continued Soviet cooperation with the Western powers’ agendas after the peace.

Some in the West also agreed with Stalin that Germany should be reduced to impotency. They believed, perhaps unfairly, that the country had been responsible for both of the twentieth century’s world wars and should therefore be severely punished. Henry Morgenthau Morgenthau, Henry, Jr. , Jr., a presidential adviser and secretary of the treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] , suggested in 1943 that Germany be “pastoralized,” so it could never make war again. France, which like the Soviet Union had suffered brutal occupation by the Nazis, particularly desired that potential future German aggression be curbed.

In the years following World War II, as Moscow imposed its own order on Eastern Europe through less than democratic means, Western skepticism grew concerning Stalin’s commitment to European peace and independence. A civil war between communists and monarchists in Greece and the appearance of strong communist movements in France and Italy also contributed to the breakdown of the East-West Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] coalition.

Geopolitical issues overrode even these ideological concerns. Neither Germany nor France remained strong enough to counterbalance the Soviet Union on the European continent. As early as October, 1944, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Stalin had agreed that there should be a formula for dividing Eastern Europe. In February, 1945, at Yalta in the Soviet Union, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt developed further plans that placed Eastern Europe in the Soviet sphere and Western Europe in the Anglo-American sphere.

Roosevelt died in April, 1945, a month before the war in Europe ended. After the German surrender, Churchill and Stalin met with the new U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, at Potsdam Potsdam Conference (1945)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings , outside Berlin. There, they decided the fate of Germany. In the midst of the conference, British voters unseated Churchill’s Conservative Party. Labour Party leader Clement Attlee became prime minister and replaced the venerable Churchill at Potsdam. The change did not greatly affect the negotiations in progress.

The Potsdam agreement called for the division of Germany Germany;postwar occupation into four zones—one American, one British, one French, and one Soviet. It treated Berlin separately but also divided it into four parts, even though it was situated geographically inside the Soviet zone. Furthermore, the treaty allowed the Soviets to take reparations, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reparations
Germany;reparations including machinery and produce, from their zone and from the others as compensation for the damage done to the Soviet Union under German occupation. France and other European countries occupied by the Nazis received similar, but lesser, compensations. The Soviets, in fact, removed industrial material from Germany as soon as they could, even before the agreements were in place.

The Soviet zone, the largest in area, encompassed about 40 percent of German territory, including most of eastern Prussia to the Weser River, Saxony, and Thuringia. In addition, the Germans surrendered their prewar territory east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers directly to the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Both of the latter were soon to fall under the complete domination of Moscow. Furthermore, all German conquests after 1938 were restored. The French zone, 10 percent of German territory, fell along the Rhine valley. The British zone, 20 percent, lay in the north. The United States’ zone, 30 percent, was located in the southwest.

Stalin interpreted the meaning of democracy in a manner vastly different from that understood by the Western leaders. Moscow instituted systems of government in Eastern Europe that were controlled by communist parties Communist parties, Eastern European through one-candidate elections. Opponents of the Moscow system were forced into silence or exile. The authorities even imprisoned or executed some. The West put pressure on native communists, sometimes extralegally, reducing their influence. The communist parties, however, were rarely completely outlawed. Moreover, Washington’s Marshall Plan brought rapid economic recovery to Western Europe, further reducing the communists’ appeal in both Eastern and Western Europe. The two camps rapidly went their separate ways. In 1946, Winston Churchill declared that an Iron Curtain had fallen across Europe. By 1948, the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the West had broken down completely. The Cold War Cold War;advent had begun.

The split between the former Allies had repercussions Germany;partition for Germany. Each occupier created a temporary administration modeled on its own goals and precepts of government. In 1949, the Western allies—Great Britain, the United States, and France—relinquished their authority as occupying powers and united their sections into the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), with a capital at Bonn. The first elections resulted in the anti-Nazi conservative Konrad Adenauer becoming chancellor. Berlin remained legally distinct, but its three Western sections were also united into a free city, West Berlin.

The Soviets followed suit. They declared East Germany the German Democratic Republic (GDR; German DDR), with East Berlin as its capital and Walter Ulbricht, a Communist leader loyal to Moscow, as its prime minister. Already in 1948, Moscow had tried to restrict access to the city, even though access was guaranteed by treaty. An airlift, sponsored chiefly by the United States, had caused the plan of blocking the roads to backfire. The Kremlin had lifted the blockade.

The memory of the blockade in combination with the designation of East and West Germany as different nations struck terror into the Germans in the east. While others in the Soviet Bloc had little chance of leaving their homelands, Germans who lived in Berlin, or who could get there, could make their way to West Berlin simply by taking a subway ride. Once in West Berlin, they could join relatives or simply move themselves into the Federal Republic. By the end of 1951, the total number of Germans who had left the East for the West exceeded 1.5 million.

The lure of the West, especially the benefits provided by the airlift and the Marshall Plan, provided East Germans with more than enough incentive to give up all of their possessions and take the chance of relocating. The bleak future that the German Democratic Republic promised to its residents also provided such an impulse. In addition, the new governments of other Eastern European nations expelled almost eight million more Germans whose families had lived in those countries for generations. Most of these refugees came from the German territories that had been received as compensation by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Their migrations further divided the two German states. Their division, perhaps more than any other condition, would come to symbolize the Cold War.


The establishment of two Germanies was in many ways convenient for both the West and the Soviet Union. It allowed the World War II settlement to continue even after the alliance broke down. The Germans did not like this settlement, however, and West Germany never recognized the two-Germany policy. It even took measures against the policy, such as the Hallstein Doctrine Hallstein Doctrine , named after Walter Hallstein Hallstein, Walter , a foreign office official. The Hallstein Doctrine stated that Bonn would not recognize any country that maintained diplomatic relations with the GDR. Exceptions were granted to the Soviet Union and some developing nations. Later, in the 1960’s, Bonn modified the doctrine in order to establish relations with Eastern Europe, but unification remained a goal for West Germany.

In contrast, the Communist Party Communist Party, East German leaders of the GDR supported the two-Germany policy, since it served both Moscow’s interests and their own. Only under this situation could they have an opportunity to govern, as it was clear that reunification would mean the end of communist power in Germany. The sovietization of East Germany, however, produced a great deal of hostility among the populace. In 1953, a mass uprising erupted.

Escape to the West through Berlin continued. Between 1949 and 1961, at least another 1.5 million East Germans migrated to the West. In the 1950’s, Western aid rebuilt Western Europe, including West Germany and West Berlin. In the meantime, the states of Eastern Europe suffered under the burden of having to help build up the devastated Soviet Union as well as their own countries. As West Berlin became a beacon of prosperity, more and more East Germans decided to forsake their homes and migrate to the West.

Stalin died in 1953. His successor, Nikita S. Khrushchev, soon began a program of de-Stalinization, reversing some of Stalin’s policies. Some liberalization took place in the East. The example of West Berlin and West Germany prospering in Europe spurred an economic revival in the east. Compared to other socialist countries, the GDR was a miracle in its own right, especially considering the facts that the Soviet Union continued to appropriate its goods and services as reparations and that it had not received the massive aid granted to West Germany. The exceptionally rapid development of the Federal Republic, however, increased the migrations to the West to a fever pitch.

While the Soviet Union and its allies could glory in technological accomplishments such as the first artificial satellite and piloted space flights, or in their huge military systems and intercontinental ballistic missiles (built and designed in large part by German engineers and scientists), the West continued to enjoy a consumer and societal miracle. West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Common Market. The Federal Republic had become a world economic power. There were no lines or shortages, as there were in the East. The loss of East German citizens to the West became too much for both the Germans and the Soviets, especially since those who left were often among the most highly trained and skilled. On August 13, 1961, the authorities sealed the border, and in the next weeks the Soviets and East Germans erected a massive wall across Berlin that stood until 1989. Cold War;Germany
Refugees;East Germans
Immigration;West Germany

Further Reading

  • Backer, John H. Winds of History: The German Years of Lucius DuBignon Clay. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983. A history of General Clay’s administration of the American sector in Germany. Very well researched, with detailed documentation. Illustrations, index, and bibliography.
  • Botting, Douglas. From the Ruins of the Reich: Germany, 1945-1949. New York: New American Library, 1985. A history of Germany under Allied occupation, analyzing many different aspects. Very readable and well researched. Has some material on the refugee question. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Davidson, Eugene. The Death and Life of Germany: An Account of the American Occupation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961. Analysis of the period of German occupation from 1945 to 1953, especially in the American zone. It deals with the refugee question and the problems caused by the Cold War. Very well researched. Puts positive light on American rehabilitation efforts. Bibliography and index.
  • Keesing’s Research Report. Germany and Eastern Europe Since 1945: From Potsdam Agreement to Chancellor Brandt’s “Ostpolitik.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. The history of Germany from 1945 to 1970, based on contemporary news reports from the Keesing’s archives linked together by a narrative. The first section deals with the occupation period. Contains material relating to East German refugees. Index, no bibliography.
  • McInnis, Edgar, Richard Hiscocks, and Robert Spencer. The Shaping of Postwar Germany. New York: Praeger, 1960. A survey of the German situation at the end of the 1950’s. Considers the entire German question, including the refugees from the East. Gives a brief historical outline and focuses on the division by the superpowers, a comparison of the economics and politics in the two Germanies, the Berlin issue, and the dilemma of unification. Contains a chronology and maps as well as documentation and an index.
  • Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Analysis of Truman’s role and how his policies affected political events in Germany, Greece, China, and Korea. Includes an index and a bibliography.
  • Pounds, Norman J. G. Divided Germany and Berlin. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1962. Part of a series of short geographical studies published for university students in the 1960’s. The author, a leading geographer of Eastern Europe, surveys the German question at one of the peaks of the Cold War, shortly after the communists built the Berlin Wall. Examines the question of refugees. Bibliography and index.
  • Ruhm von Oppen, Beate, ed. Documents on Germany Under Occupation: 1945-1954. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. A selection of documents concerning the Allied occupation of Germany. Contains the texts of treaties, memoranda, protocols, and decrees from all occupying powers and concerning various issues, including the refugees and reparations. Contains a map and index.
  • Settel, Arthur, ed. This Is Germany. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950. A collection of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles on occupied Germany, written by international correspondents. “March of Millions,” by Denis Martin, concerns the refugees coming from Eastern Europe and East Germany into the Western zones. No index or bibliography.
  • Williams, Charles. Adenauer: The Father of the New Germany. New York: Wiley, 2001. A strong, well-researched biography of West Germany’s first chancellor. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Potsdam Conference

Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia

Berlin Blockade

Germany Splits into Two Republics

Communists Raise the Berlin Wall