When the Germans Feared (German) Migration

In international coverage of Germany since 2015, when over a million refugees and migrants arrived in the country, the topic of migration has reigned supreme. Implicit in this narrative is the belief that until that year, the spontaneous arrival of a large number of refugees was unprecedented. However, the reality is far from that misperception. One does not even need to return to the mass expulsion of the ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War (the single largest forced mass migration in human history) but rather only look back a few decades to when the ‘threat’ of East German migration dominated headlines and concerns.

Wartha border crossing, Eisenach, 10 November 1989

The collapse of Eastern Bloc states was the consequence of structural issues, partially exacerbated by the West, rather than purely externally driven. This is well illustrated by the movement of large numbers of East German refugees who left for the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The large scale exodus of citizens from the German Democratic Republic increased massively in the second half of the 1980s, rising from roughly 40,000 in 1986 to 80,000 the following year and reaching 200,000 in 1988. The massive flight of people from East Germany, which peaked at 116,000 between just 9 November (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 31 December 1989, was largely unanticipated and unwelcomed. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, following a visit to East German leader Honecker to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of East Germany, described that state as ‘on the verge of social chaos and complete political and economic collapse.’ Parties from across the political spectrum in West Germany called for halts to immigration, which topped 400,000 in 1990 due to the loosening of emigration laws in Poland and the USSR. Not only did the right-wing party The Republicans make electoral progress, but even traditionally left-wing parties began to adopt more restrictive attitudes towards East German immigration. Oskar Lafontaine, leader of the Social Democrats, proposed limits on emigration from East Germany while a spokesperson of the Greens in Berlin went so far as to call for the reintroduction of a hard border between the two German states.

Opposition parties were not the only ones who sought to limit emigration from East Germany with the hope of stabilising the state. In fact, the West German government tried to discourage migration due to a growing housing shortage, which mayors had previously complained about. Similarly, two-fifths of West Germans, predominantly the poorer members of society, resented government subsidies that went to East German refugees, as they were unable to access such benefits.

The accelerated pace at which East Germans left their state in the 1980s was largely determined by the role of other European transit countries – primarily Hungary, and to a lesser degree Czechoslovakia – and their willingness to open their borders with Austria. The consequences of this decision were twofold. The first was a sudden spike in movement to the West. The second was the threat that the unexpected flood of migrants would pose to the stability of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and their respective regimes. The absence of any Soviet intervention was a consequence of the Sinatra Doctrine; that is the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other communist states. This resulted in a large and sudden population transfer, as conditions in the Eastern bloc were compounded unwillingness to limit emigration, resulting in further westward migration.

East and West Berliners celebrating in front of a control station on East Berlin territory, during the opening of the borders to the West, 10 November 1989.

The primary cause of the fall of East Germany was impending economic collapse, which was in turn caused by mass migration to the West. With approximately 2,250 citizens leaving daily, East Germany was losing the equivalent of one-medium sized company each day. The departure of about 10% of the East German population during the course of the decade hit the economy particularly hard since individuals with the highest educational qualifications, such as those in the medical profession, were most likely to leave. In turn, the remaining population of East Germany was demoralised and left wondering if it was worth remaining in the collapsing state.

While drawing direct parallels to the modern day might be misleading, present-day Germany’s migration debates shares strong underlying themes with the fall of East Germany. The impact of push and pull factors, as well as the role that home and destination countries play in establishing them, continue to matter. Examining how the West German government tackled issues such as housing or benefits may offer us lessons to draw upon. However, these tensions remain unresolved, as evidenced by the unequal development of the two former halves of Germany and social cohesion is still negatively impacted despite decades of countermeasure. With the question of migration still dividing Germany (electorally, this time), reflecting on these questions would serve us well when analysing Germany of the twenty-first century.

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