How hard was it for West Germans to visit East Germany?

I’m sure East Germans visiting West was very rare as there was a chance they may just not return. But if you were a West German, could you get a weekend pass or something to go visit relatives in the east? I’m sure the border check upon return would be intensive, but was it possible? Or were families literally not in contact for a generation?

Before anyone says this is a crazy question…western tourists were able to visit the east. As well as western soldiers stationed in Berlin. Maybe it changed over time? Impossible in the early 60’s…eased up in the 70’s. Maybe impossible again in the early 80s?

Just as a personal comment which doesn’t really answer the question, sorry, as US Air Force in 1975, I was able to visit East Germany, but my friend and I had to wear our uniforms, we were forbidden to travel on public transportation and we had to tell the officials at Checkpoint Charlie when we were coming back. We were 10 minutes late coming back, and got yelled at.

A plot point of the movie 1 2 3 (screened in 1961) was that it wasn’t too hard at all to travel between the Berlins. There were checkpoints, but the American stars went back and forth as did at least one East Berliner.

Now this is a movie, of course.

My recollection is that they tightened the border considerably later in the 60s or 70s.

Judging from the IMDb trivia for “One, Two, Three”, border security was tightened while the movie was being made. :eek:

It was possible with various sorts of bureaucratic rigmarole to go through in the way of getting prior permission, registering and reporting one’s presence and departure, compulsory exchange of currency and so on.

And if you were in a suitable position in West Germany, and especially if you managed to do something illegal or embarrassing in the east, there might always be the prospect of being blackmailed or pressured into being an informant for them.

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, so this movie was almost certainly made before the wall existed.

I believe military personnel from the Four Powers could travel east or west via treaty.

Yepp - “One, Two, Three” is notorious in Hollywood history for being a box office failure because it was overtaken by reality. It was shot before the construction of the Wall, but released afterwards, and was completely outdated by that time because the plot relied on the possibility to travel freely between East and West Berlin.

As for the question: I’m too young to have experienced it myself (I was born in West Germany and was six years old when the Wall fell), but in my knowledge it was possible for West Germans to get to East Germany with some, but not extensive, amount of bureaucratic hassle. You would have to apply for a visa, which you would normally get unless you were on some blacklist of the East German regime, e.g. for being an outspoken critic of them. Restrictions were, for most of the time, tougher for West Berliners, as part of East Germany’s general policy of insisting that West Berlin was not part of West Germany. But in times of détente, even West Berliners could relatively easily get a day visa for a day trip to East Berlin (returning on the same day), or get a visa for a longer stay if they had family on the other side to visit.

What was more of a hassle were the plethora of restrictions that applied to you when you went to East Germany. You were not allowed to bring Western newspapers, for instance. East Germany was constantly short of hard currency, so West Germans were required to exchange a minimum amount of West German marks for East German marks per day, at an official rate that vastly overvalued the East German currency; you could not exchange it back to Western money when you returned, and you could not even take it across the border with you, so the only option you had was either to spend it (but what was there to usefully spend it on?) or give or throw it away. There were also restrictions on the areas where you were allowed to go, and the checkpoints you had to use on your way back.

Precise details varied over time; it was a constant feature of the era of separation of Germany that when tensions between the two regimes rose, East Germany would tighten up the rules, partially also to have bargaining power vis-à-vis the West, which tried to give West Germans relatively easy possibilities to stay in touch with family and friends in the East.

In addition to that, it was possible to stay in contact with friends and family in the East via mail. It was rather common to exchange letters or parcels with gifts, but the East German secret policy was notorious for opening such mail and often stealing parts of the contents, especially when West Germans sent cash to East Germans. Phone calls were also possible, but cumbersome because not very many East Germans had a phone at home. In fact, the policy of the Eastern regime partially relied on such gifts sent by Westerners to friends in the East; a notorious example was coffee. It was a hugely popular product in the East, but put a strain on the government’s budget because most of it would have to be bought on the global markets in exchange for Western currency. When coffee prices rose, a common tactic of the Eastern regime was to cut coffee imports and rely on Westerners sending coffee to friends in the East when prices rose.
More anecdotally, a common joke in East Germany during the separation ran as follows: An East German sends a friend in the West a letter, saying “Thank you very much for your package. I buried its contents in my garden to hide themn, as you suggested.” A week later, he sends the following letter: “The plan worked, the secret police were here and dug the whole garden. Now you can send me the tupil bulbs and I’ll plant them.”

Another fascinating cold war fact is that East and west Berlin had two separate train systems that ran in a loop through each others territory. The U Bahn was the West Berlin network, there was stations in East Berlin that it ran through but didn’t stop. The S Bahn was the East German network and likewise it ran through some sections of West Berlin but didn’t stop.

I’m not sure how they stopped people from the S Bahn jumping off when it ran through West Berlin sections as apparently it was above ground for most of its

That’s not entirely correct. On the basis of a very early post-war agreement among the Allied powers, the East German rail company was assigned to operate the S-Bahn in all of Berlin, including the Western part (for that reason, the East German rail company never changed its name and kept, until 1990, the name of the pre-WW2 German rail operator, Reichsbahn, because that was the terminology used in the agreement among the Allies). After the construction of the Wall, West Berlin politicians appealed to West Berliners to boycott the S-Bahn as a sign of protest and to decrease the revenues East Germany would make from West Berlin S-Bahn fares. As a result, the S-Bahn in West Berlin became a huge loss-maker and started to decay because the East Berlin regime would not invest in maintenance; in 1983, the two sides agreed to hand over the West Berlin S-Bahn network to West Berlin authorities, so the anomaly of the West Berlin network being run by the East came to an end. Even during this anomaly, you had, of course, go through extensive border checks to cross the border by S-Bahn. The S-Bahn station in Friedrichstrasse was the most famous checkpoint for this.

There was also an U-Bahn in East Berlin, even though the network was much less extensive than in the West.

An Italian friend of mine told me about making a day trip to East Germany in the early 1980s. He actually speaks German, so at least he could buy books. But he found it literally impossible to spend the amount of money he was required to exchange. As his moment of departure neared, he went into the nicest restaurant he could find, had an extravagant meal, and left the rest of his cash as a tip for the waitress.

I used to read Let’s Go Europe, back in the '80’s, and if you can find one from back then, you can see the issues a casual traveler would have. One anecdote that I recall: You had to convert you currency to East German currency (perhaps all that you had on hand, IIRC) at the East German border. You could not bring any East German currency out. And yes, there were strict curfews and time points to be met for visitor visa holders. Harvard Press pretty much summed it up: East Germany wanted western currency, westerners themselves, not so much.

There is a movie made for German TV called “Westler” that is notable for filming the border crossing and street scenes of East Berlin shortly before the Wall fell. It’s your basic West Berliner meets East Berliner love story.

The trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ussu88p02fQ

Topic-drifting a little: in the 1980s, Poland operated a similar financial scam as regards tourists from the West. To get a tourist visa – obtained via the Polish tourist office in your own country – you had to pay in your country’s currency, x amount for each day of your planned stay in Poland. You were given in return, a certificate which you cashed for Polish money (zlotys) when you entered Poland – landing up with far more zlotys than you actually needed. And it was forbidden to take zlotys out of Poland. Various shifts were resorted to – as with Eva Luna’s guy in East Germany, lavish dining-out was a favourite. At least, once in Poland, tourists were allowed to go pretty much wherever they wished.

Western tourist did have to exchange a set amount of Deutschmarks for Ostmarks for each day they spent in the East, but they were credited for hotel fees and were allowed to take hard currency with them. East Germany had a chain of stores aimed at Western tourists & diplomats which sold Western & domestic goods not available in regular stores and only took hard currency. East Germans who had access to hard currency (ie sent by relatives from the West, or the nomenklatura) could also shop in them. Every Eastern Bloc country had their own version.

Moscow had a ‘hard’ currency store. I went there once to buy some locally made thing that cost about five dollars. I gave the woman a $20; what I got back in change was a combination of yen, lira, pence, and some unidentifiable coins that probably totaled about $2.

Back to the question: I crossed into East Berlin once with a diplomatic passport, which was probably harder to do than with a tourist passport, as they photographed both it and you (surreptitiously) and deliberately delayed entry just to be annoying. They likely assumed that anybody visiting officially was probably CIA. As with any SSR, wandering about was strictly limited to certain areas, and your movements were always reported by the ubiquitous soldiers posted on every corner.

I spent the fall semester of 1989 studying in then-Leningrad, and our dorm was down the block from a large Soviet/Finnish joint-venture hotel that had one of those (they were called Beriozka). We were sometimes requested by our Soviet dorm-mates to acquire things there that were unavailable anywhere else at the time (small electronics that didn’t suck, batteries, chocolate, imported booze or cigarettes, tea [which was rationed at the time], or once my roommate even sent me there for a can of tomato sauce so we could complete the ingredient list for Ukrainian borsch, because we couldn’t find the stuff anywhere else).

By the end of the semester, I had developed quite a collection of West European and Japanese small change. Not knowing what the hell I was going to do with it at home, I took it right back to the beriozka to make one final purchase. Boy, was the cashier pissed at me when I dumped the pile of change on the counter, and it took her quite a while to calculate the transaction!

I’m not convinced that they actually knew how to calculate in different currencies. My impression was that they guessed at a number of coins that you might accept and pushed them across to you, then glared at you if you protested.

While not technically visiting, you could drive through the GDR, going from West Germany to West Berlin. You needed a transit visa (paid for in hard currency), a full tank of gas (no access to gas stations) and no getting off the transit corridor, and you really didn’t want to break down. Occasionally the Vopo would pull you over and make you wonder if they just wanted a bribe, or if that would be the very thing getting you into more trouble. IIRC the wall started coming down on a Wednesday, but that Friday, driving from West Germany to West Berlin, the protocol was in full effect. That Sunday, however, driving back, all the checkpoints seemed unmanned or just not giving a damn. Night and day difference in 2 days.