Just caught an interesting Paul Newman movie…he played an American physicist who defects to east Germany (he is actually a spy, going in to see about east german anti-missile technology). At any rate, he is found out (he kills a east german agent tailing him) and has to leave the country. An underground opposition group (“Pi”) puts him on a phoney bus, and he is assisted in getting on to a ship going to Sweden. Given the corrupt nature of the east german stasi, was it all that hard to escape? (Especially if you had money). East germany had a long border with the west-i know that Berlin was heavily fortified, but in rural areas-could you cross the border easily there?
The Stasi had a reputation for being ruthless not corrupt. A Stasi agent who took a bribe to let an “enemy of the state” escape would almost certainly have been discovered (the government coerced everyone to be an informer) and arrested himself.
That’s the first time I have heard that. Generally they had a reputation as unusually loyal and zealous. It was very hard, but of course it still happened.
Because of the way the socialist economy worked or rather didn’t money was much less useful than in the west. Generally the limiting factor was availability of goods and services. It was not unusual to have savings and nothing useful on which to spent them. This went so far that sometimes people queued up in stores to buy newly arrived wares sight unseen because almost any random crap was better than mere money.
Foreign currency was a different matter, but at that time it was still illegal to own for East German citizens. That means that it was very dangerous and of very limited usefulness.
Berlin received so much attention because it was a weak spot that was much harder to secure at the same level. The whole border was heavily protected. Wikipedia has a pretty good overview. See especially the section on escape attempts.
This is not entirely true - there were special shops in East Berlin that ONLY took West German Marks - they sold things like Levi Jeans, imported scotch and whiskey, coffee, Swiss chocolates and other luxury goods not found elsewhere. When I asked how they rationalized having such shops, the theory was that when Aunt Hilde in the West would send you 50 West Marks for your birthday/Christmas - you could go to these shops and purchase some items.
In reality, these shops fueled the black market money exchange - when I would go to East Berlin, I would be hounded by people asking if I wanted to exchange money - often for 10 times the official exchange rate. Then again, East Marks were pretty useless - food and drink was cheap, but there simply weren’t enough goods to spend your money on anything else - for instance, if you wanted to buy a new car (Trabi was the model over there), it was a waiting list of 11 years! You had to pay cash, and most people had enough in their sock drawer to pay for a car, as they had no other places to really buy anything of value anyway.
As far as escaping - it was easier prior to 1967 when they really fortified the border. I heard many a tale - my better half is from Berlin and half of his family was in Potsdam (East Germany) and one of the aunts arranged travel: A truck, carrying huge boxes of color TV’s, would stop on a side road for just a couple of minutes - one relative would crawl in one empty TV box in the back of the truck and stay hidden until they got into West Berlin and then were dropped off on a quiet road there. They got four family members out that way.
While bribing Stasi might sound like a good idea in theory, it didn’t work in practice. First of all, every house/apartment building/work place had a network of people who were paid or rewarded for any info on other people. Sometimes they would even install hidden microphones to hear what you were saying - even today, when renovating, they are finding these in some apartments in what used to be East Berlin. People would just go missing - one day they were at work, the next day they were gone. Usually sent to prison for even discussing plans to escape or making specific comments against the regime or any number of infractions. So it wasn’t like you could hand a few hundred West Marks to some Stasi dude or border guard, as they had other Stasi dudes and other border guards watching themselves!
A little known fact is that some East Germans were actually “deported” to West Berlin! These were hard core drug addicts and thugs of various sorts that were simply too much trouble for the East to deal with - so they would simply dump them over into the West! Most of those people eventually ended up in West German prisons or psych wards.
I have lots of stories about East Berlin - when I first moved to West Berlin I had little money so I would go over to the East on weekends, change my few marks into LOTS of East Marks and hit the bars (lots of them to choose from) and eat at the meager restaurants, but was able to “party hearty” on pennies back then. I met lots of people there, would go to parties and hang out and meet up for drinks…so I got to hear many stories and learned first-hand what it was like to live there. They HATED it.
I only met two guys who said they were happy there - both were studying to be doctors and said how they appreciated learning medicine and not having to pay for their studies, as the state paid for it all. I did burst their bubble though…I mentioned that after they went through this 6-8 year process to be a doctor, they would be paid the same as if they were a construction worker or a truck driver.
“Yes - that is only fair that everyone gets paid equally.”
I thought that over and said, “Really? You spend all those years studying hard, and when you go to work it is a matter of life and death, and you work hard and long hours, and you think the guy who drives a truck 6 hours a day and then spends 5 hours getting drunk in a bar should get paid the same as you do?”
I could see their brains mulling this over and knew I had hit a nerve. When I went on to say that in most Western countries, doctors were usually one of the highest paid professions and had the best homes and best cars and could travel anywhere in the world, I think I could visibly see them deflate. They had never thought of that before - and yeah, it was kind of evil of me to have done that, but they were indeed pro-party idiots who needed that little reality check.
Enough of this walk down memory lane…
The short answer is “Yes, after about 1967 until the Wall came down, it was very, very difficult to escape East Germany.”
Yes, of course, but initially those were aimed at foreigners/West Germans. Private possession of foreign currency was only legalized in 1974. An East German trying to shop there in the 60s would have had some explaining to do – doubly so if they were held to the higher standards of a Stasi officer.
Was the entire border between East and West Germany as heavily fortified as that between East and West Berlin?
Short answer - yes.
In the rural areas, they had the same fortifications - with the barbed wire, death strip, watch towers, guard dogs, cameras, roving patrols - and often the locals were not even allowed to get near enough to see those borders, let along get near enough to try to cross them.
Just driving nearby, or walking nearby, would be enough to be arrested and dragged away unless there was a very valid reason for you to be in that area (i.e. local farmer with sheep or something).
Not to say people didn’t try - and there were a few spots (later fixed) that were easier to get through if you didn’t mind a short swim or some difficult terrain. Unlike East Berlin where the Wall could be easily seen from apartment buildings and was five feet from your front door, the border in rural areas was far removed from sight in most areas/villages/towns - making the fact that your were even in that area reason enough to arrest you.
DMark, this was a great post. As far as I’m concerned you can walk down memory lane any time. Really interesting - thank you!
I don’t know about 1965, but I do know that when my mother and her family fled East Germany in 1953, the border between East and West Berlin was still open. It was legal to visit West Berlin, but not to bring anything with you. So you could escape from East Germany provided that you were willing to leave everything behind except for the clothes you were wearing. That’s what my mother’s family did. She was eight years old at the time.
Don’t encourage me - we could go on for hours and hours - but one story related to the below comment:
Yep - it was a snap back then - lots of people worked in the West and lived in the East - until they tightened things up.
My somewhat funny story (have told this before, but here it goes again) was of two Gay guys who wanted to be together - one lived in West Berlin, the other in East Berlin.
They heard that some people were escaping through the border of Hungary into Austria - but it was still a challenge to get to Hungary. So the guy on the West paid to sneak his friend across East Germany, across the Czech Republic and down into Hungary…then he had to sneak over to the border, climb through, and then there was an expensive plane from Vienna to Berlin - and voila! They were together - arm in arm - although it had cost thousands of dollars.
Then - bang - the Wall came roaring down TWO DAYS LATER! People were flooding from East Berlin to West Berlin, freely - with no problem. The two guys sauntered through the Wall, went back to the other guy’s apartment in East Berlin (milk was still fresh in the fridge) and came back with suitcase of clothes and personal items.
So - if they had just waited about a week for the official fall of the Berlin Wall, they would have saved a ton of money and time and fear and agony - but then again, nobody saw that coming!
Still - kind of funny after that whole adventure to then suddenly just stroll over and and go back to the apartment before any of the neighbors even really noticed he was gone!
Similar story for my dad. He escaped from East Berlin to West in 1956 by taking the subway from one side of the city to the other, bringing nothing with him but what he was wearing.
You need to write a book.
Thanks, I hadn’t considered the fact that even being near the border would be sufficient grounds for the authorities to suspect somebody.
Its surreal to think that this all took place in very recent history, though I suppose we have something along the same lines in other places such as North Korea at this very moment.
Though the North/South Korean border is a very different beast. It’s the most heavily fortified border in the world (with a DMZ in the middle). If you’re not in the military, you just don’t get near it. When North Koreans defect, they cross the Chinese border.
How heavily fortified is the NK/Chinese border these days? I once read a book about a North Korean defector who left via China, in the 1960’s I believe, what struck me was her description of her disbelief that the Chinese were so rich and full of plenty that they provided white rice for their dogs to eat, gave you an idea of how bad things must really be in North Korea if she was so impressed by that.
IIRC if you were elderly or disabled the East German authorities basically rubberstamped exit visa applications “to go visit relatives”; the logic being that once you were drawing a pension instead of working it was no loss to the state if you didn’t come back.
Pretty much. One of the dirty secrets of the Wall (and the entire border) was that virtually no GDR youth wanted to stay. The GDR could deal with losing the elderly, but until the Wall hardened up they were suffering a tremendous brain drain among ambitious and talented youth. Later on, they kept exiling unhappy intellectuals of various stripes, which bought domestic peace at the price of stagnation - which was largely a fine deal to the Communist elite.
The GDR state was an interesting beast. It’s popular support was extremely low outside Berlin, where a sizable percentage of the populace were party members and who got the best in the nation, limited though it be. Other GDR cities were often pretty tense over the fact that East Berlin got a big chunk of the limited resources available, and the countryside was apathetic at best. Unlike the Soviet Union, the GDR never got rid of the churches, which formed an anti-Communist nucleus albeit a cautious one. In the end, the Wall came down simply because the GDR was a castle built on mud. Without the Soviets propping it up it wouldn’t have lasted a fraction as long as it did, and it’s instructive that it had two leaders over its short live - both long-serving toadies to the Soviets, and both replaced when they started arguing with the Soviets.
Then again, that was the Warsaw Pact in a nutshell, wasn’t it?
Unlike other the population of other Eastern Bloc countries East Germans knew exactly what they were missing (except in Dresden, der Tal der Ahnungslosen) because they could watch West German TV. No other communist country (at least in Europe) had to deal with a larger & richer capitalist next-door neighbour that spoke the same language and had the same culture. Also a lot more East Germans had Western relatives able to visit with presents or send money than in the Soviet Union.
East Germany was in may ways a disaster. yet its leadership were all doctrinaire Marxists-so much so that they never questioned just why they lived in a failing economy. To them, Marxism was always right-no matter that the state didn’t function, the people were poor, and all around was unrepaired damage from 1945. Ulbricht and his cronies always believed that they were right 9and the world was wrong). it is amazing that it lasted as long as it did.