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The Berlin Wall

Besides its increasing economic difficulties, by the end of the 1950s the GDR encountered another problem that began to threaten its existence: large numbers of people were leaving East Germany for the West. Nearly half of those who fled the GDR were under twenty-five years of age. Although crossing the border between the two German states had become dangerous after new security measures were introduced in the early 1950s and severe penalties for the crime of "flight from the republic" (Republikflucht ) were introduced by GDR authorities in 1957, a relatively safe escape route remained via West Berlin, which could be reached from East Berlin using the city's public transportation network. Once in West Berlin, refugees were registered and then transported to the FRG by air.

Alarmed by the continuous population drain, the East German Politburo ordered the erection of a wall along the border between West Berlin and East Berlin. On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, workers began building a three-meter-high concrete wall along the border of the Soviet sector of the city. Within a few hours, public transportation lines were cut, and West Berlin was sealed off from East Germany. Chancellor Adenauer and West Berlin's governing mayor, Willy Brandt, sought to calm the outraged West Berliners. The Western Allies did not react with force because they were unwilling to endanger world peace. Up to that date, nearly 3.5 million had left the GDR for West Germany. After the building of the wall, the stream of refugees decreased to a mere trickle.

Despite the construction of the Berlin Wall, many East Germans still tried to escape. Several hundred of those attempting to leave the GDR were killed; others were captured, perhaps after being wounded by automatic guns or mines along the border, and sentenced to long prison terms. With the sealing off of East Berlin, the East German regime had solved the refugee situation.

The "Socialist State of the German Nation"

The building of the Wall effectively halted large-scale emigration from the GDR. Although the SED failed to gain the active support of the majority of the population, young people, especially, began to tolerate the regime, at least passively. In the absence of any alternatives, they fulfilled their routine duties in youth organizations, schools, and workplaces. By the mid-1960s, the regime could afford to lessen internal pressures on its citizens, who, encouraged by increased production of consumer goods, had largely given up their open resentment against the SED and had turned their attention to improving their standard of living.

Ulbricht's state visit to Egypt in 1965 ended the GDR's political isolation. A previously unknown pride in East German achievements and a feeling of distinct GDR identity began to develop, first among ruling party functionaries and then gradually among segments of the population. In 1967 the GDR leadership, encouraged by these developments, attempted to gain official recognition of its autonomy from the FRG. When the FRG refused to grant recognition, the GDR government proclaimed a separate GDR citizenship and introduced a visa requirement for West Germans traveling to West Berlin and to the GDR. With these measures, the GDR began to practice a policy of new assertiveness and ideological delimitation (Abgrenzung ) in response to the FRG's policy of recognizing only one German citizenship.

Membership in the UN was a primary foreign policy goal of the GDR in the late 1960s. A veto by the Western powers in the UN Security Council blocked the GDR's bid, however. The GDR did gain admission to the International Olympic Committee, which permitted East German athletes to participate in the Olympic games as a separate team. For the GDR, however, the ultimate breakthrough in the area of foreign policy--a treaty with the FRG--came only after international political tensions began to ease under the new spirit of détente.

Following the conclusion of the Treaty of Moscow between the FRG and the Soviet Union in January 1970, a new era of communication began between the two German states that culminated in the signing of the Basic Treaty in December 1972. The next year, both states became members of the UN, and most countries came to recognize the GDR. Permanent diplomatic representations, in lieu of embassies, were established, respectively, by the FRG in East Berlin and by the GDR in Bonn, demonstrating the new climate of mutual respect and cooperation between the two German states.

In this new setting, there was no longer room for Walter Ulbricht, who had maintained a policy of confrontation with the West for many years. The Soviet Union, which had demonstrated considerably more flexibility than the GDR leadership during its negotiations with the FRG, was also irritated by the failure of Ulbricht's economic program and by his attempts to demonstrate ideological independence by adhering to conservative Marxist principles. In 1971 the Soviet authorities ordered that Ulbricht be relieved of power. His replacement was Erich Honecker, who, as secretary of the Central Committee of the SED for security matters, had been directly responsible for the building of the Berlin Wall.

Data as of August 1995

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