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Economic Opportunities, Emigration and Exit Prisoners

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2020

Carlo M. Horz
Department of Political Science, Texas A&M University
Moritz Marbach*
Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zurich
*Corresponding author. Email:


How do economic opportunities abroad affect citizens’ ability to exit an authoritarian regime? This article theorizes the conditions under which authoritarian leaders will perceive emigration as a threat and use imprisonment instead of other types of anti-emigration measures to prevent mass emigration. Using data from communist East Germany's secret prisoner database that we reassembled based on archival material, the authors show that as economic opportunities in West Germany increased, the number of East German exit prisoners – political prisoners arrested for attempting to cross the border illegally – also rose. The study's causal identification strategy exploits occupation-specific differences in the changing economic opportunities between East and West Germany. Using differential access to West German television, it also sheds light on the informational mechanism underlying the main finding; cross-national data are leveraged to present evidence of the external validity of the estimates. The results highlight how global economic disparities affect politics within authoritarian regimes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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