West Berlin policemen and East German Volkspolizei face each other across the border in Berlin, circa 1955. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How to Seal a Border

Perhaps the most famous and ambitious attempt to seal a border was the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and dismantled in 1989. It formed part of the Inner German border. Only in Berlin was it a real wall, elsewhere a system of restricted zones, protective strips, barbed-wire fences, minefields, and spring-guns, patroled by the Border Troops of the GDR, which were 44,000 strong in 1989. Another 3,000 to 5,000 “voluntary helpers” assisted them in their role. In addition, the Staatssicherheit (State Security) secret police employed 91,000 or 1 in 180 citizens, the largest security apparatus in world history, with another 173,000 unofficial collaborators. Not all Staatssicherheit personnel worked on preventing “Republikflucht”(desertion from the republic), but one of their major tasks was to block attemps early on. And then you would also have to add some of the 80,000 regular police officers of the “Volkspolizei” (People’s Police) and their 177,500 volunteers who were also engaged in detecting potential refugees.

So how did it work out?

Let’s go back to before the Wall was built, way before it was built. In 1891, the classical liberal politician Eugen Richter published a short novel: “Sozialdemokratische Zukunftsbilder,” translated as “Socialist Pictures of the Future” and also available online. He took the then Marxist program of the Social Democratic Party as his starting-point and made predictions what would happen after a Socialist revolution. His conclusion: Germany would team with secret and regular police and people would leave the Socialist “paradise” in droves because of its economic decay and political oppression. In the novel the Socialist leadership first take it in stride because they think that it is only about a few bourgeois exploiters and dissatisfied artists. But then they realize that all kinds of people try to emigrate. Since the government cannot tolerate the loss of their labor force, they eventually man the borders and shoot the refugees. Not only in this regard did Eugen Richter’s prediction turn out to be amazingly accurate.

Now fast forward: After the end of World War II, Germany and its capital were divided into American, British, French, and Soviet occuption zones. There was vast destruction in all of them, and economic conditions were dismal throughout. However, the Soviet Union put pressure on their occupation zone to go Communist from the start. That prompted hundreds of thousands to leave for the West, 1.6 million from October 1945 to June 1946 alone. In 1949 the GDR was established which institutionalized the Communist regime. Not only growing oppression in the GDR pushed people to emigrate, but also the “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) in the West exerted increasing pull. So from 1949 on, between 125,000 and 280,000 people left the GDR each year, with a peak of 390,000 in 1953, or more than 2% of the population. Until 1961, this added up to 2.7 million or about 15% of the population.

The GDR reacted with a series of ever stricter measures. In January 1951, it issued an executive order that demanded emigrants hand in their passports before leaving for the West or else face jail of up to three months. A passport law in September 1954 held out a prison sentence of up to three years for leaving the GDR without permission. Already in May 1952 the GDR had started to make massive efforts to seal the Inner German border. However, alerted by these measures and after the suppressed uprising of 1953, even more people left, most of them now via West Berlin where control was harder to implement. In 1961 the government of the GDR was at the end of its tether and made the fateful decision to seal the border for real. The construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961. Eugen Richter’s prediction had become reality after 70 years, and also that border guards would shoot on refugees. At least a few hundred and probably more than 1,000 would die until 1989.

What’s interesting is that however impressive the Inner German border was, even after August 1961 plenty of people were able to cross it. Certainly not as many as had before, so the GDR could achieve its goal of stabilizing the regime, yet far more than one might expect. Those who wanted to leave showed an inventiveness that could well match that of the GDR apparatus: tunnels were built, some escaped in self-made balloons, West Germans smuggled others out in the trunk of their cars, and sometimes brute force would do the job with improvised explosives or a truck ramming through the border fortifications.

However, the first choice was to use an easier route via countries that did not have as strict a border regime. In this way more than 43,000 managed to leave the “Paradise of the Workers and Peasants” in 1961. Of course, the GDR clamped down on such emigration by restricting travel abroad. In 1962 there were still 11,000 of them, though, and in 1963 more than 9,000. Putting in more effort, the GDR reduced this number to a low of only 1,768 in 1979 from where it started to rise again to more than 9,000 in 1988. From 1961 to 1988 it all added up to slightly less than 180,000 emigrants. When Hungary opened its borders with Austria in September 1989, 15,000 East Germans on vacation in the country took the opportunity with both hands and left for the West in the first three days alone, another 20,000 in the rest of the month. Two months later the Wall was history.

What’s even more amazing is how many managed to cross the Inner German border as so-called “Sperrbrecher” (blockade breakers). There were 8,500 in 1961, and still 5,800 in 1962. The numbers dropped, but it took the GDR until 1970 to push it below 1,000 a year surging again to 1,800 in 1973. A low of 160 was only reached in 1985 after which the number started to rise again. The total from 1961 to 1988 came to an impressive 40,000 people who found the border fortifications no hindrance to leave. The “success” of the GDR in reducing numbers came with ever heavier oppression. From January 1968 on, “illegal border crossings” led to a sentence of up to two years, or for “more serious cases” of up to five years which was increased to eight years in 1979. Also surveillance of the population grew ever tighter. From 1976 when the Staatssicherheit started to keep tabs to 1988 about 38,000 attempts to leave the GDR were thwarted or about 3,000 on average a year. However, border checks themselves proved rather inefficient despite the high level of scrutiny. Of the 3,000 “Ausschleusungen” (smuggling out) about 1,200 succeeded or roughly 40%.

What are some of the conclusions that closed border enthusiasts can draw from the experience of the Inner German border and the Berlin Wall?

Well, first a moral point that I would make: all this was a grave injustice, barring millions of people from escaping oppression and improving their economic condition. I am glad the Federal Republic of Germany never for a moment thought about sending anyone back. Actually the Federal Republic even bought out many of those who had been caught or were imprisoned for just handing in an application to leave the GDR. And I am also glad the Federal Republic of Germany restricted this not only to Germans from the East under the assumption that the GDR was illegitimate and so refugees were German citizens. Also Hungarians after the failed revolution of 1956, Czechs and Slovaks in 1968, Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and Poles in the 1980s were welcomed and not sent back.

The other conclusion is that you cannot seal a border completely. The GDR even had the advantage that it had a Socialist economic system where all economic activity across the border is under state control and hence monitored more easily. Likewise the GDR did not have to care much about business travelers or tourists. And then it still took a lot a effort. A quarter of a percent of the GDR population were engaged in border control. Another percent worked on surveilling the populace for the Staatssicherheit and Volkspolizei, more than one percent acted in a supporting role. And, of course, it all involved a lot of intrusion and disregard for civil liberties. The only good point I can see was that throttling exchange with the outside world also made the GDR so much poorer and backward that it could not accomplish all it wanted. Some former Staatsicherheit officers have recently expressed awe at the extent of NSA data collection. However, if so often any potentially negative consequences of free migration are highlighted, how about the concrete negative consequences of trying to block it? If you want to literally seal a border, it takes more effort than even the GDR put into it.

Additional Remarks

– There is a difference between keeping people in and out of a country. Being locked in in the GDR was much more serious than being locked out. However, thwarting emigration is at the same time much easier because the government has all the means to surveil the population, build a dense network of informers, etc. In the analogous case for immigration, this would amount to doing all this on foreign soil.

– My numbers come from different sources, so they are not perfectly consistent. According to the Staatssicherheit data, there were fewer people who escaped. Since my point does not depend on the exact numbers, but only on the order of magnitude, I have not tried to mend this. My point is that hundreds and maybe thousands could cross the Inner German border each year even against the coordinated and massive efforts of a huge police apparatus.

– One of Eugen Richter’s predictions was also that the Socialist state would have no problem with emigration of pensioners. Actually, that turned out to be true as well. The GDR dumped old people on the Federal Republic of Germany. This is a caveat for proponents of open borders who argue that a welfare state and free migration do not collide or only in a minor way. That may be true under current conditions where immigration policies are tilted towards young people. Cynical governments like the GDR could well put this to the test.

– I am sorry that many of the references point to websites in German. Unfortunately often I could not find similar material in English. I hope with some translation tool you can get a grasp of what is in the German original.

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of West and East German border police confronting each other, moments after a woman successfully crossed the interior German border in Berlin, 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via the Google Cultural Institute.

Hansjörg is a mathematician by training with a doctorate from the University of Bonn, Germany. After a year at Stanford University as a guest scientist, he went on to work in the financial sector and managed corporate bond funds. Currently, he is building his publishing company Libera Media.

See our blog post introducing Hansjörg, or all blog posts by Hansjörg.

13 thoughts on “How to Seal a Border”

  1. Excellent article. Thank you. You fill in a lot of details about the GDR and its policies that confirm the arguments about restricting emigration. Much appreciated.

  2. I want to highlight the additional remark that the GDR liked to dump old people on the Federal Republic. I’m very sympathetic to open borders, but this seems to me by far the biggest problem if you would open the border completely.

    If you are not able to work, there should be the requierment of adequate income and health insurance.

  3. Interesting view for someone commenting as “libertaer” (libertarian). 😉

    The GDR had like 17 million population, the FRG 60 million. The FRG was much richer. Not all pensioners left the GDR. So all in all it was not such a strain for the FRG. Actually, since reunification the German government has to pay pensions for all East Germans. Since the GDR never built a capital stock to fund future pensions, and also the West German system is pay-as-you-go, this means that those pensions are mostly paid for by West German employees. I am not sure what costs less.

    The FRG only extended such privileges to East Germans (and ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe). Not to anyone from the Eastern bloc although you could ask why the FRG as the legal successor of the Third Reich does not have obligations towards pensioners from countries that were devastated during WWII and have as a consequence a much smaller capital stock and are so much poorer (I think there are some payments, lump sum, and in specific cases for holocaust survivors or those who had to do forced labor).

    In Germany I often hear people who boast how the German welfare state has “human rights” to adequate income, health insurance, etc. However, those are only human rights if you think that just Germans and those within Germany who have a similar status are human beings. In fact the German welfare state cuts most people in the world off from such “human rights.” I don’t think it could be otherwise, but I find it hypocritical to boast about it.

    An interesting counterfactual would be: What if the GDR had been the larger country, and there had been so many pensioners coming to the FRG putting a real strain on West German finances? My guess would be that the whole talk of “our brothers and sisters” in the East would have broken down and West Germans would have considered sending them back. I mean also the FRG had border controls, only against immigration.

    After unification there was quite a bit of resentment against East Germans and how they had to be paid for mostly by West Germans. A leading politician of the Social Democrats (now ironically The Left, i.e. the successor of the GDR communists with most of their support in the East), Oskar Lafontaine, proposed in late November 1989 (after the Wall had come down) that East Germans should no longer be considered German citizens. The German government decided to send massive subsidies to the East. One of the purposes was also to halt migration of East Germans to West Germany. However, there were 150,000 to 250,000 per year from 1991 to 2004 anyway (but also 50,000 to 150,000 going in the opposite direction).

    1. I have to correct myself on one point. I wrote “this means that those pensions are mostly paid for by West German employees”. Of course, East German employees also pay into the system and in this way they also finance East German pensioners who receive lower pensions on average. However, there are more unemployed in East Germany, and wages and hence contributions are lower, so I think it is probable there is some hidden subsidy going from West to East, but not as much as I wrote.

  4. Very interesting history lesson, but is its applicability to other cases limited by the fact that East Germany was trying to close a border to EMIGRATION, while most countries today only restrict IMMIGRATION?

    It seems to be widely believed today that it’s immoral and a human rights violation to restrict emigration, as East Germany did, but acceptable to restrict immigration, as the contemporary US and just about every other country now does. While I am, of course, skeptical about the right of governments to restrict immigration, I do see a moral difference between restrictions on emigration and immigration. To force someone to stay in a place where they don’t want to be is closely akin to slavery. A person is being treated as a prisoner, exploited. The whole world except one country is denied to them. To prohibit someone from moving to the country where they want to go isn’t to enslave or exploit them, and it denies them access to only one country, not the whole world. When ALL countries deny a person the right to immigrate, and when the entire surface of the globe is the territory of some sovereign state, restrictions on immigration start to become restrictions on emigration. Thus the Jews on the MS St. Louis, with nowhere to go that would accept them, were trapped in Nazi Germany, even though Nazi Germany would have been happy to see them go. Even then, though, restrictions on immigration that add up to a restriction on emigration are still not akin to slavery, nor are they exploitative. They are an unjustified use of force to prevent a person from fulfilling his or her telos, from pursuing his or her dreams, from flourishing, all without hurting others. That’s more than bad enough, but it’s not slavery.

    From a practical point of view, the difficulties of sealing a border might not be quite the same when one is sealing it against immigration, as when one is sealing it against emigration. If an emigrant physically gets across the frontier, he’s scot-free. Well, maybe not, if you can go after the family he left behind. But mostly. An immigrant, after physically crossing the frontier, is still under your government’s power, liable to be found out at any moment. Of course, I regard internal enforcement of immigration restrictions as a major danger to the liberty not only of immigrants (though that’s bad enough) but of natives as well. It’s simply unjust to demand documents from a person who’s innocuously walking down the street and is not suspecting of any crime against anyone’s person or property. That is not among the actions available to any just regime. But if it’s not a just action, it is a FEASIBLE action, and it makes restrictions on immigration more enforceable than restrictions on emigration.

    Two interesting, somewhat tangential points that this post makes me think of:

    1. The link between socialism and migration restrictions. Historically, the advent of migration restrictions and the rise of welfare states occurred around the same time. Logically, you can see a strong connection between the two. A rich country can let in anyone if it doesn’t have a social safety net, but if it considers itself responsible for giving handouts to the poor, then it has a strong reason not to let too many poor people in. But was there a CAUSAL link from socialism to migration restrictions? How did that operate exactly? I know certain particular figures, like Samuel Gompers, combined labor organization with racist agitation against the Chinese? Was that common? This post provides good historical work linking socialism to the emigration restrictions in East Germany. I’d love to see similar evidence elucidating the link, or lack thereof, between socialist ideas and immigration restrictions in the West and worldwide.

    2. While explicit emigration restrictions are rare today, plenty of people face effective emigration restrictions because all the places they could migrate to prohibit them from doing so. In particular, the West effectively serves as the jailer for many totalitarian regimes by refusing to allow people to exit them except through cumbersome and inadequate refugee processes (though the latter are much better than nothing). It would be interesting to quantify the effect to which the less welcoming attitude of Western and other governments has left people living under tyrannical governments worldwide effectively trapped behind a new Berlin Wall.

    1. The connection between Socialism and closed borders is interesting. It is not so much that the Socialists defended closed borders as a matter of principle, but that it followed logically from their program.

      In Richter’s novel, it is not only that emigration is suppressed, but also internal migration. You cannot change jobs and the government punishes dissidents by sending them to far-away locations. That all turned out to be true, e. g. you had to get permits for moving within Socialist countries (still so in China today). In other writings Richter makes the point, that with a central plan for the whole economy, everything has to dovetail. So there is no leeway for anything that could perturb the grand plan: no freedom of consumption, no choice regarding jobs and no movement within the country or out.

      Eugen Richter also got a lot of his intuition from another source: the Prussian state and the German Conservatives of his time. His ingenious insight was that the Socialists once in power would be the new Conservatives because they had a similar program where the state is tantamount and tries to regulate most aspects of society. If you know the context, the novel becomes really funny. E. g. the Socialists sit on the right in parliament and Richter puts Conservative catchphrases in their mouths: that a “great party of order” has to be formed and that the opposition is a “party of subversion” or that politicians are called “dashing” (schneidig) and appeal to “all good patriots.”.

      When Richter in 1878 opposed the Socialist Law meant to suppress the Social Democrats, he made a remark in his speech in parliament that Socialism is the “shadow of the police state in demise that still falls onto our cultural life.” Police state had a milder meaning then: a state that meddles with everything and tightly regulates society. German “Polizei” has also an older meaning as “policy” or “regulation”. So what he meant was more akin to the licence raj than to 20th century totalitarian regimes.

      Eugen Richter could take many of the policies of the Prussian state and of the Conservatives as his startingpoint: E. g. in the 1850s and 1860s, many classical liberals in government service were sent to far-away locations as a punishment. And under the Socialist Law, Social Democrats were forced out of certain cities. The Conservatives were clamoring for restrictions on emigration and on internal migration because the Junkers did not want to lose the cheap labor on their estates. Again, the Socialists in the novel repeat the Conservative slogans, e. g. that there should be no “railway vagabondage” (Eisenbahnvagabondage), i. e. internal migration from the countryside to the cities, and from the East to the West.

    2. You make a good point about the connection between the rise of the welfare state and immigration restrictions. For Germany the two things really coincided. Germany had practically open borders from 1867 on. Then in the late 1870s the liberal phase came to an end and Bismarck started to implement his state socialist program with protectionism, organizing crafts into guilds again, nationalized railways, the state-run pensions system, etc. In 1885 Bismarck closed the borders for immigrants, at least from the East, and more than 30,000 Polish and Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary and Russia were expulsed, which also means that there was not much pressure on the welfare state.

      The connection is perhaps indirect. There was a change in the intellectual climate where two things came together. The Conservatives distrusted a market economy and liberty in general because it undermined the old order. Their view was mercantilist and feudalist, where the state should manage the country as a unified enterprise and organize it into a static structure. And the same from the Socialists, only with a different ideological reference point. The problem for the Conservatives was that with elections you could not take the old mercantilist program that focused on the interests of the monarch. So the trick was to coopt nationality and tap into tribalist impulses and turn it into modern nationalism.

      The basic idea seems to be that a nation is kind of a huge clan. And then other nationalities or just groups who are different are a problem because they do not belong to your clan. The welfare state is the part where members of the clan support each other. However, when Bismarck expulsed the Poles and Jews, this came as a surprise even for his supporters who found it hard to argue his point. The official argument was that it was meant to protect “national labor.” Poles were supposed to drive out Germans in the East by undercutting their wages. The Social Democrats did not buy it and opposed the expulsions as did Richter’s party. (I have promised to write a post on this.)

  5. First of all, thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment. I am a little unsure whether there is a fundamental difference between closing a border for emigration and closing it for immigration. Actually, I think these cases are pretty much parallel in a moral sense. Of course, the seriousness can be vastly different from a mere nuisance (I can’t move to North Korea) to a major injustice (people in North Korea cannot leave the country). Since I think that many people see a fundamental difference here, I kept the two cases apart because the point was not essential for my argument.

    You are right that you can also enforce immigration restrictions within a country. E. g. Germany does not have any border checks on land because of the Schengen agreement. However, that does not mean it is easy to immigrate if you are from outside Europe. And the main way of exercising control is in other ways: everybody has to carry a passport, your landlord and you are obliged to tell the government where you live, taxes on income are directly routed to the government for all employees, so there is also close supervision of the labor market. Germans have been accustomed to this for so long, that they suffer from a certain Stockholm syndrome. When I make the point that you could eliminate the bureaucracy that takes care of supervising where you live I usually get some adhoc confabulation about how this is in the interest of citizens. It is not by chance that the Nazis came up with the idea in 1935 (although I think there was also some registration before that because of the draft).

    My point was much narrower. I guess the intuition many people have is something like this: we are the good people, the bad people are on the other side of the border. So let’s just keep them out and seal the border. Well, that’s plainly wrong and even silly, but appeals to popular intuitions. However, even if it were true, probably there is no such option.

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