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.
– 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.