Tag Archives: Germany

Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations

I would like to explain an effect that I think is responsible for a lot of misconceptions regarding immigration. If I am right, my explanation shows that some common explanations, while not being entirely false, are mostly irrelevant, or at least of second-order importance. And this also means that conclusions based on such explanations, are off the mark. Explanations that naively extrapolate trends can be especially misleading.

Let me start with an example of what I mean. In 1961, the Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey struck a deal that Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) could be hired by German businesses. There were similar treaties also with other countries such as Italy (1955), Greece (1960), or Yugoslavia (1968). 1961 was the year the GDR built the Berlin wall, so rather suddenly the influx of East Germans came to a halt (about 200,000 in 1960). The West German economy was running at full speed with 8.2% annual GDP growth in the 1950s. German businesses were desperately trying to hire additional workers as unemployment fell to below 1%.

So from 1961 to 1971, about 650,000 Turkish guest workers were hired, and until 1976, this grew to about 825,000. What happened in the meantime was that on November 23, 1973, the German government (Social Democrats & Free Democrats) decided to suspend the treaties with Turkey and other countries (except Italy) after a sharp economic downturn and rising unemployment. So no more workers could be hired. In addition, guest workers in Germany were given a choice either to return home or stay permanently. Family reunion was still possible. Only about 135,000 of the 825,000 Turkish guest workers in 1976 were women. Assuming that 135,000 of the male guest workers were married to them and the others would bring in an additional 535,000 women via family reunion, the total would amount to 1.4 million adult immigrants of Turkish descent. Since a return home was encouraged via payments, you would have to subtract a certain number of returnees, though.

And here is what baffles a lot of people: numbers kept going up after 1973. There are now (as per 2013), 2.8 million people of Turkish descent in Germany, roughly a doubling or even more if you assume there was some return migration. Most of the increase came long after 1973, e.g. there were only 2.1 million people with Turkish citizenship in 1998 (that’s when naturalization became rather easy, so up until this point Turkish citizenship usually meant someone was an immigrant or descended from one).

Here are some of the usual suspects to explain the rise: diaspora dynamics, chain migration via family reunion, men marrying women from Turkey and bringing them in, very high birth rates, maybe encouraged by generous welfare benefits, etc. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence for most of this, and also data supporting some of the claims, I think this all is at best a sideshow, and so further conclusions built on such explanations are mostly irrelevant. If I am right, there is nothing baffling about the observation at all, and the explanation is actually rather simple. It is only that a naive analysis tends to overlook the effect I will explain now.

I will work with stylized facts, but the results should not be materially different if you calibrate the model with exact data. Let’s assume that in one year 1 million people immigrate. For the moment let’s also suppose they are 50/50 men and women. To make things more transparent, I assume for the moment that immigrants are 0 years old (of course, that is false, but I will show later how to fix this).

What happens to the initial immigrants over time? Here’s a stylized graph for the percentages over time:

Percentage Alive

So, no one dies until age 51. Then 1% die per year until age 76 (i.e. a quarter), and 3% per year until age 101 (the rest). This is not entirely true as a certain fraction actually die already before 51, and the real graph is certainly not piecewise linear. However, it is not far off, and life expectation comes out slightly above 80 years which is quite close to reality. I also make the simplifying assumption that men and women have the same mortality. This is not true either, but again not too far off.

How about children? Again I make a simplifying assumption which is roughly in line with reality. The following percentages will have a child at the age on the x-axis (lumping men and women together, so per person, not woman):


The peak is at 30 years, positive rates are from ages 16 to 44. The percentages add up to 100%, i.e. everyone (men and women) has exactly one child or two children per woman. Since no one dies in the relevant age groups (by assumption above), this means you have exactly replacement fertility (that’s why I adjusted reality a little to get confusing effects out of the way). To stress the point: there is no growth that I have built into the model. As you will see, no fancy birth rates are needed.

What happens to the one million initial immigrants in year 0? Since I assumed they are 0 years old, they won’t have any children right away, but starting after 15 years they will. And after some more time, their children will have children, etc. So the immigrant population (including descendents) will develop like this (millions):


Don’t be fooled by the slight downward trend at about 100 years. There is some oscillation, but the number the line converges to is about 2.76. So over time, the one million will grow to 2.76 million. Children and grandchildren come on top. However, initial immigrants eventually die out, so great-grandchildren and further generations only make a minor difference, and the whole population settles into a steady-state. All in all you have almost a tripling, and that’s although I assumed replacement fertility, i.e. no growth at all!

Let’s fix the one unrealistic assumption. Of course, immigrants do not come at age 0. They come perhaps at age 20 (or 30 if you prefer this). But that’s very easy to fix. Just start at 20 (or 30) in the above graph instead of 0. There may be some children that were born before immigration. Add them in under the heading of family reunion which increases the size of initial immigration some. For immigration at age 20, this means that the factor will be slightly less than 2.76. If you take immigration at age 30 instead, then this will boost initial immigration by about 50%, so the factor is somewhat below 2. Note: 2 was about the factor we had for immigrants from Turkey to Germany (2.8 million people of Turkish descent now versus about 1.4 million initial immigrants, but maybe also some return migration). And I did not need any assumptions about massive further family reunion, brides from Turkey, gigantic birth rates, etc.

Here are some conclusions that are easy to read from the graph. Let me assume that immigrants come at age 20 (i.e. the graph starts at year 20). If you like some other age, adapations do not change the conclusions materially which are stylized anyway:

  • Since there was only immigration in year 0 (i.e. 20 in the above graph), if the government decides to shut down immigration after that, then numbers will keep rising for over 50 years. Restrictionists will be stark staring mad because they are looking for loopholes as an explanation. There should also be calls for even stricter enforcement like a clamp-down on family reunions (although that is not possible by assumption).
  • Over one generation (by construction on average 30 years), numbers will double. So this seems like a population with an extraordinary growth rate of 2.4% per year (for a doubling). If a population in steady-state (!) were to grow at such rate, it would mean a fertility of 4 per woman (by construction it is exactly 2 per woman). In the first years the increase is even steeper, more like 3% which corresponds to a fertility of about 5 in steady-state. So restrictionists will be looking for the huge families and come up with cultural explanations. And that would even apply here, where it is false by assumption. Higher fertility would not be unimportant, but compared to an additional perceived fertility of 2 or even 3 via the effect it will be second-order for a moderate divergence in fertility.
  • After one generation, and even two generations, restrictionists may simply extrapolate the trend and conclude how the immigrant population will grow indefinitely and swamp everybody else. However, again by construction, there is no growth, and things will level off eventually. So the extrapolation is totally unwarranted.
  • After about 50 years, the baffling thing might be that numbers stagnate (as is the case for people of Turkish descent in Germany by now). So there will be amazement over how that could happen.
  • And one final conclusion that restrictionists usually miss (maybe if they did not, they would have to be very dishonest about the other claims): If you let in one million in the beginning, you will have 2.76 million descendents eventually. Not only the initial immigrants come, but their whole part in the population pyramid at home. (There is a twist that I will explore in a further post: this also means that all those people are missing in the source country.) So if restrictionists understood the effect, they could scale everything up by a factor of 2.76 (or whatever it is exactly calibrating with actual data) and make their stories even scarier.

Just as an extra service, here are the headlines in Germany for the next decades:

  • 2015/2016: There are 1 million Syrian refugees to Germany.
  • 2017: We can’t handle so many people and will close the borders for Syrians. (I am optimistic this will not happen wholesale, but then I want to stay true to the above example.)
  • 2037: How could that happen? We let in just 1 million and clamped down on further immigration, now there are 2 million people here of Syrian descent! Are they smuggling more people in? A reporter has noticed a Syrian family with 10 children. It’s probably their culture. Let’s try to clamp down even more on migration from Syria.
  • 2057: Now there are more than 2.5 million people of Syrian descent. Soon everybody will be Syrian here. What went wrong?
  • 2067: Strange, they always had those extremely large families. Are they now migrating back to Syria?

Some further remarks


  • The basic effect is known as “population momentum,” i.e. population growth has a certain inertia. Even if fertility changes (goes up or down), it takes some time before population growth changes to a new level (higher or lower). You can understand the effect in the following way: if you have a population with no growth, but 1% extra children in one year. Then this is equivalent to 1% immigrants at age zero. So you have the above build-up. There will be another 1% after one generation, and another 1% after two generations (minus some initial “immigrants” who have died in the meantime), and then it levels off.
  • The effect that I describe is not just population momentum. My main point is about how population momentum is easily misinterpreted in the context of immigration. If you have an extra 1% children in one year, and it builds up to 2.76% extra population over time, anyone who looked at the development would speak of about 1% population growth per generation, which is not very impressive. The reference point here is the whole population. If the extra 1% population are immigrants, however, one may be inclined to take a different reference point: initial immigrants. So the same development would be described as a growth of about 100% per generation, which is much more dramatic. While the two cases are parallel, the perception is quite different.
  • There is an extra effect that makes the perception even more dramatic. Since immigrants do not immigrate at age 0, but 20, 25, or 30, the first generation appears shortened. It does not take about 30 years for a doubling, but only 5 or 10 years. This adds even more drama. Especially, if someone does a sloppy analysis by comparing data for only two data points (which journalists or the general population are maybe prone to do).

Angela Merkel and the crying refugee, and the search for a human face of the costs of migration restrictions

A video showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel responding to a young Palestinian refugee has received a lot of attention in the press and in the social media last week. Reem Sahwil, a teenage girl whose family still faces the threat of deportation after four years in Germany, described her situation in some detail and eventually started crying on the air, prompting Ms Merkel to try to comfort her, all the while staying firm in her defense of the policies that have been causing Reem so much grief.

Most of the responses I’ve seen were critical of Angela Merkel, often describing her as cold hearted and her response as clumsy and insulting.

This sort of incident may be a strategic godsend for the cause of free(r) migration.  In the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook, Sam Dumitriu suggests that “More situations like this should be engineered to make the costs of closed borders salient.”

The largely critical response also seems encouraging. As Andy Hallman pointed out in another Facebook thread, it’s not far fetched to imagine how commenters could have instead been “flippant about the little girl’s suffering”.

The great news is that a much more commonly expressed response has been anger at the unjust treatment of this young girl. The not so great news is that a lot, if not most, of the criticism focuses not on the policies, but on morally trivial aspects of Ms Merkel’s interaction with Reem.

What happened

An 88 minute long program was filmed on the 15th of July, which shows Chancellor Merkel talking politics with 29 teenage students of a school in Rostock. At one point the moderator passed the microphone to Reem Sawhil, asking her to tell her story. Reem explained that she is a Palestinian who had moved to Germany from Lebanon four years ago. She has found it easy to assimilate as people have been nice to her at her school and she likes her new home, but she has recently become aware that other young refugees have a much harder time.

Ms Merkel complimented her for her flawless German, and Reem explained that she loves languages and has also greatly enjoyed learning English as well as some Swedish, and that she will take up French next year.

Reem then explained that her family still had not received a residence permit, and that her father remains banned from working in Germany. Probably in anticipation of Reem’s participation in the TV program, her family members had started asking why it is that foreigners aren’t allowed to work as easily as Germans, and Reem had tried and failed to find any answers.

She then explained that her family had recently gone through a rough time, as they had been on the verge of being deported. Reem said she had been feeling very bad and that her teachers and friends had all noticed. Ms Merkel asked what the current situation was, and Reem explained that they had received permission to stay for the time being after some bureaucratic hoop jumping, but were still waiting to hear back from the immigration authorities. She then said how much she misses her family members whom she has not been able to see in four years.

Ms Merkel explained that the policies in place require that the authorities examine whether refugees have a legitimate reason to want political asylum. She said that policy makers have recently been discussing the issue of refugees being found to have an insufficient claim to asylum only after having spent several years in Germany while waiting for the authorities to make a decision. Here she asked Reem whether she had come to Lebanon from Syria, which Reem said was not the case. She then explained that, while Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps were clearly not well off, many other people live in political circumstances that are even worse, especially people in war zones. She repeated that it is a serious problem that refugees in Germany often have to wait for a decision for such a long time, and stated that measures to make this procedure faster are now under way. She added that they would not let all refugees from Lebanon in since they have to prioritise for people who come directly from war zones.

Reem then said she has a great desire to study in university, and she finds it tough watching her friends enjoy their lives and prospects while the uncertainty about her future deprives her of such enjoyment.

Ms Merkel said she understands this, but that she cannot simply grant her wishes. Politics can be tough, she said. And while she happened to be face to face with Reem at that time, and Reem happens to be an extremely likable person, there were thousands upon thousands of other people in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that if “we” told those people they can all come, “we wouldn’t be able to handle it”. The only answer they can offer, she said, is to make sure the procedure does not take so long.  But, she repeated, many would have to go back, too.

The moderator then suggested to Ms Merkel that she remember Reem’s face and hold it in memory when making policy decisions on these issues. He asked her how quickly the authorities’ decision would be reached in the future, and Ms Merkel started telling him that she thinks the vast majority of cases that have been pending for more than two years would be processed within one year from now. I know this is what she went for saying because she stated it later in the program, but here she stopped mid sentence as she noticed Reem was crying.

She then walked up to her and stroked her back, telling her she had done great – suggesting, perhaps, that she took her crying to be from nervousness after having opened up on television. The moderator said he didn’t think it was about how well she’d done but about the toughness of her situation. Ms Merkel said she knew it was a tough situation, and that she nonetheless wanted to stroke her because “we” do not want to force people like Reem into such situations, and because Reem has it hard, but also because Reem had described so well, for very many other people, the sort of situation one can end up in.

What else happened

On the 10th of July (five days prior), a set of new laws had been passed, pursuant to which Reem will very likely be able to stay in Germany. These laws may not protect her parents from deportation, however, and also aim at deporting more refugees more quickly in the future. They also state that refugees can be incarcerated for up to four days prior to deportation.

As outraged responses started pouring through the web, a few articles stating that Reem was speaking up in defense of Ms Merkel appeared. They linked to a brief video in which Reem stated: “She listened to me, and she stated her opinion, and I think that’s fine.”

My comments

I think Ms Merkel has been unfairly accused, by very many commenters, of having been very harsh toward Reem in this encounter. And, in solidarity let’s say, I will begin my comments with some harshness of my own.

Obviously Reem is in a difficult situation, and I think the policies that put her in this situation are severely immoral. She has the right to live in any housing that a landowner agrees to rent or sell to her or her family, and her father has the right to work any job an employer or customer agrees to pay him to do (as does Reem, for that matter). Violating these rights without sufficient justification is wrong.

Yet, if we’re looking for a representative human face for the receiving side of the cruelty of migration restrictions, that face is not Reem’s. Reem is far too well off.

If you think to say this is to belittle the toughness of Reem’s situation, ask yourself whether you may be belittling the hardship of the many millions of people who have it far worse than her.

Hans Koss defended Ms Merkel against many of her recent critics in a similar vein:

The policies might be wrong in different ways, but I think that the idea to completely abolish any prioritization (currently Syria > L[e]banon > Albania) is more wrong; I believe that the capacities should be increased, but as long as the capacities are not unlimited (and that simply won’t happen – and if so, soon after that a party would be elected which drastically reduces it), prioritization is better than no prioritization. I believe that the debate is overemotionalized, which is bad for the refugees; I think it is remarkable how Merkel addresses the topic of prioritization in an honest way after having [made sure] that the girl is currently not in a desperate situation.

Many of the widely circulated criticisms of how Ms Merkel conducted herself strike me as blatantly unfair. E.g. the Daily Mail reports that

Jan Schnorrenberg, manager of the opposition Green party’s youth wing, wrote: ‘Explaining to a young girl on live camera that her fate doesn’t matter to you – just shameful.’

Ms Merkel did no such thing.

The guardian reports that

But she was forced to stop mid-sentence, and muttered “oh Gott”, on seeing that Reem was crying.

Did the author mishear? She did not mutter “oh Gott”.

But a much more important point about many such criticisms is that, even if they were fair, they would be unimportant. Had Ms Merkel actually lost her composure, or been particularly clumsy, or had she actually been cold or condescending toward Reem, even, those things would not be worth a fraction of the outrage so many have invested in these accusations.

Has Ms Merkel done anything wrong? Yes. She defended immoral policies. But note that these policies have been around for many decades. There’s no news here. Note, also, that these policies are overwhelmingly supported among the electorate.  They’re not exactly her doing. And when she says that “we wouldn’t be able to handle” a massive inflow of immigrants, that statement can be quite reasonably defended on the basis that so many natives might respond to this inflow in seriously disruptive ways. (E.g. see reports of arson attacks and shootings here and here.) Spare some blame for those less prestigious agents of representative democracy, too.

When billions of foreigners have been victimised by the restrictionist policies of (far) more tolerable countries for such a long time, why make such a big deal out of Reem? In many cases, the reasons may well involve territorialism: Foreigners enjoy a lot more sympathy with respect to their desire to immigrate once they’ve already settled in the receiving country, even if they did so illegally. That Reem has been living in Germany for four years is sure to win her a lot of support, even though it also makes her such a “lesser victim” of the policies. The fact that she’s clearly bright and academically ambitious should win her further support from the many people whose pro-immigrant sentiments extend only to highly skilled individuals.

John Lee wrote some great comments in an email replying to my request for thoughts for the present post:

One tension I observe in immigration policy is that a lot of people support harsh policies in principle, but when confronted with the human impacts of their actions, they waver and demand an exception for that specific instance of harshness they’ve encountered. This is especially common on the left — in the US, the left’s reaction to the child asylum-seeker influx was basically spineless, since they refused to meaningfully alter US immigration policy, but demanded lots of exceptions for the children. A somewhat similar response materialised from the compassionate right as well (where they didn’t demand policy changes but offered charitable aid for the children).

The upshot of it is that the most “effective” immigration policies are those which hide away the suffering and harshness. Some of the comments I saw about the Merkel video were to the effect of “Well yes obviously now that she’s integrated into German society they have to let her stay. But that’s why the compassionate thing would have been to prevent refugees like her from ever coming to Germany in the first place.”

He attached this cartoon from The Economist:

For all the problems with the many reactions to the video, I think it’s fabulous that many people at least recognise the cruelty of deportation, at least when it’s given a likable human face, at least when that face belongs to someone who’s already put down roots in the receiving country. I hope the video makes a lasting effect in this regard.

Related reading

Note: The featured image of Angela Merkel is from author Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck on WikiMedia Commons and is licensed dually under Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA) and GFDL. You can get more details here.

Introducing: New German-language Open Borders Website

March 16 is not only the second anniversary of Open Borders: The Case; today is also the day a new website is launched: Offene Grenzen.  The name is German for “open borders” and that’s what the website is dedicated to.

Currently, there are about ten contributors to Offene Grenzen.  While the layout looks different, the main thrust is similar to Open Borders: The Case. There are pages for background topics with in-depth material and references. And there is a blog with up-to-date commentary on current developments as well as for debating with proponents and opponents of open borders. Of course, they are also on Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube.

Open Borders: The Case has played a major role in bringing all this about. Not only are two of the contributors to Offene Grenzen occasional bloggers here (Sebastian Nickel and myself), but also some of the initial material could build on the excellent resources at Open Borders: The Case. And also, it is has been an inspiration seeing this website grow over time and generating interest from sometimes unexpected quarters.

English certainly is the lingua franca of the Internet, but it is also important to overcome linguistic borders and to translate concepts to different contexts. While many in German-speaking countries may be comfortable with reading English, often writing posts or commenting on them proves an obstacle. And then there are angles that are interesting from a more local perspective, but not for a worldwide audience.

I am honored to be a part of both Offene Grenzen and Open Borders: The Case, and I am certain there will be a lot of exchange in the future. Since Open Borders: The Case is so far ahead, it may go mostly in one direction at first, but hopefully also some day in the other. And maybe this is also an inspiration for launching further websites in other languages.

As Clemens Schneider, one of the founders of Offene Grenzen writes in a post introducing the website: the process of dismantling borders within Europe, and especially the fall of the Iron Curtain has been a huge inspiration. “But there are still too many walls in the world.”

Let’s tear them down!

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.

Did Open Borders Change the Course of World History?

Allow me to make the following counterfactual: Suppose all immigration of Germans to America had been blocked from the start. Restrictionists would have had lots of arguments on their side: Germany was a hotbed of various collectivist ideologies that were inimical to American liberty: rabid Nationalism, Antisemitism, Communism, and National Socialism. IQ of German Americans is at best average. German immigrants only slowly assimilated and kept speaking German. And then alien habits like minors can drink beer. Etc.

Now let’s go back to 1940.

The US had a population of 132 million, Germany including Austria, Greater Germany, had a population of 79 million. So the US had a population 67% larger than that of Greater Germany.

Today about 17% of Americans claim German ancestry. Since there was only low immigration of Germans after World War II compared to other groups, the fraction should have been even higher in 1940. Assuming a quarter of US population in 1940 was of German descent, US population in the counterfactual would go down by 33 million to 99 million. Add the 33 million to the German population and you get 112 million. So now Greater Germany is 12% more populous than the US. The effect would have been like another major power of 66 million had entered the war on the side of the Axis.

And it gets worse: Forget about General Eisenhower, and get used to Generalfeldmarschall Eisenhauer. Same for Chester Nimitz for the Navy (now: Generaladmiral Nimitz) and Carl Andrew Spaatz for the Air Force (now: Generalfeldmarschall Karl Andreas Spatz). And more as a footnote: also no William Patrick Hitler receiving a Purple Heart for his service in the US Navy.

I will not expand on the counterfactual and make a claim that the Axis powers would have won the war. But then I am not sure I could argue the opposite. In a world of completely closed borders for citizens of Germany, Italy, and Japan, you would have to repatriate also millions of German emigrants and their descendents from the British Empire and another big chunk of the US population for Italian Americans.

How well did restrictionist predictions stand up in the real world? Letting a fifth column onto your soil could have disastrous consequences. Plenty of danger for the US, right?

Not really. Incidents of treason and disloyality were few and far between. The “Christmas Declaration by men and women of German ancestry” was more representative, signed among others by Babe Ruth:

“[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway. These horrors … are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization. … [We] utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis … [and urge Germany] to overthrow a regime which is in the infamy of German history.

Moral: You can look on immigrants as people who perhaps keep some allegiance to their old country and its culture. If that culture is thorougly collectivist as it was in Germany in 1940, that does not look good. Assimilation may be slow and incomplete.

However, that is looking on things only from the limited perspective of one country. If you look on them at a global scale, the effect is different. Even incomplete assimilation means having more people who are less committed to their previous views, and even some (and in the case of German Americans many) who are completely out of reach for collectivism. Open borders undermines collectivism.

So if you are concerned about liberty in the world long-term, you would want to have as many people as possible who are not stuck in collectivist societies and can be indoctrinated by totalitarian governments, and as many as possible who are exposed to liberty and have a chance to change their minds in an open society.

Good luck for the world that liberty went along with open borders for a long time.

The photograph of then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers on the eve of D-Day, 1944 featured in the header is available at the Library of Congress.