During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin observed that the soldiers were “voting by their feet” against capitalism by leaving the army. In eastern Germany which was subjected to Sovietization after World War II, the same thing occurred but in the opposite direction: People were leaving for the capitalistic part of their country. In the early postwar years, the occupation authorities and their German Communist (SED) henchmen felt that emigration was more useful than obnoxious because it helped them to cope with the task of supplying the population and to impose socialist transformation on an unwilling society. They realized only in 1952 that they were confronted with a phenomenon that would not cease after an initial period of change but was developing into a permanent threat to their regime. The Soviet Union’s decision in mid-1951 to abandon hope for early socialist unification of Germany and to include the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the Soviet military bloc resulted in an emphasis on systemic rather than national appeal. Massive migration to the West, however, testified to the lack of socialist attractiveness.
At the same time, leaders in both Moscow and East Berlin understood that migration created serious socioeconomic problems: Precisely those whom the SED regime wanted to stay—highly skilled personnel and young people—were the ones who were most eager to leave. To be sure, the GDR constitution of 1949 had stipulated everyone’s right to choose his place of residence, but from 1952 onward the authorities increasingly sought to prevent emigration. Although Iosif Stalin had ordered the closing of the border to West Germany, he and his successors refused to do likewise with regard to West Berlin. Until November 1958, they wanted to uphold this city’s quadripartite status. When Nikita Khrushchev challenged the West on Berlin, he did not dare to escalate the conflict to the point that war would become a serious risk. For almost three years, he also hesitated to break Berlin apart because doing so would be tantamount to admitting openly that his concept of free competition between socialism and capitalism in Germany had failed.
As a result, the SED leaders had to limit themselves to attempts to stop, or at minimum to limit, emigration by domestic action. Repressive measures were increased steadily, and “flight from the republic” was even declared illegal and punishable, but these measures had little effect as long as the road to the West was open in Berlin. When the East German regime adopted positive inducements for certain categories of people to stay, this did not help much either. A major reason for this failure was that implementation of ideological “class struggle” imperatives was incompatible with the needs of those deemed to belong to “enemy classes.” When the Communist regime wanted to keep “experts” (e.g., physicians, who were sorely needed) in the [End Page 130] country by granting them financial and social privileges, party leaders saw this as only a temporary measure that must not be allowed to favor “capitalist elements” in the long run. Hence, these people’s children, as the next generation, had to be excluded from higher education. This, however, was a crucial motive for their parents’ choice to leave for the West in spite of their privileges.
Discrimination on a “class” basis and the consequences of “class” politics were one of the dominant factors behind mass flight in the first place. Both political repression and economic failure were basically rooted in the regime’s anti-“bourgeois” orientation, that is, in the Communist imperative to break the socioeconomic power of the social strata that were believed to be enemies of the “working class” on grounds of their objective character. A telling example is agrarian policy. When masses of peasants left the GDR in 1959–1960 to escape from collectivization and thus caused a countrywide crisis of food supply, the authorities did not even consider easing the measure, let alone revoking it...