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BEFORE THE WALL: EAST GERMANS, COMMUNIST AUTHORITY, AND THE MASS EXODUS TO THE WEST

  • COREY ROSS (a1)
Abstract

Based on sources from the East German regime's internal archives, this article examines how the exodus of over 3 million people from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) before the construction of the Berlin Wall undermined the communist regime's ability to exert its authority over internal affairs. Instead of focusing on the relatively well-known economic and diplomatic costs of the mass exodus, it considers rather the grass-roots political ramifications of this unique phenomenon among the Soviet satellite states. The article focuses on three interrelated issues: first, the government's little-known efforts to curb and control emigration before the Wall; second, the myriad causes of the mass emigration and how these were perceived by the party/state apparatus; and third, the variety of strategies through which ordinary East Germans who stayed in the GDR attempted to use the possibility of flight to the West to enhance their bargaining position with state authorities. It argues that the refugees to the West were not the only East Germans to capitalize on the permeable border around West Berlin. The possibility of emigrating westwards also gave those who stayed a degree of power vis-à-vis the regime that they otherwise would not have had.

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I am very grateful for the financial support of the SSRC Berlin Program and the German Academic Exchange Service which made possible the research on which this article is based. I would also like to thank Patrick Major for his careful reading and helpful comments. An earlier and shorter article appeared as ‘“Sonst sehe ich mich veranlasst, auch nach dem Westen zu ziehen”: Zum Zusammenhang von Republikflucht, SED-Herrschaft und DDR-Bevölkerung vor dem Mauerbau’, Deutschland Archiv, 34 (2001), pp. 613–27.
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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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