Risking Freedom

Between 1949, when the East German state was founded, and 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, more than three million people left the country. The brutal division of Berlin led to different forms of protest: Many West Berliners offered help to relatives and friends in the East who wanted to flee the government’s restrictive policies. What began as spontaneous offers of help, however, soon evolved into organized escape assistance.

Escape helpers were motivated by their desire to help those wishing to flee, their own political convictions as well as their contempt of the communist regime. East Germany’s ongoing expansion of the border fortifications and its security compelled helpers to seek new escape methods and routes. Financial constraints and interests also began to play a greater role.

In East Germany, organized escape helpers were regarded as “state enemies” and the Stasi did everything in its power to stop them. If arrested, escape helpers faced many years in prison.

In the West, escape helpers were initially regarded as heroes fighting for freedom and acting responsibly. But later, after the “eastern policies” were introduced, escape assistance conflicted with political efforts to achieve a rapprochement between the two Germanys. By the mid-1960s, escape helpers were increasingly acting outside the social and political mainstream.

The fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989 made it possible for East Germans to move freely. Escape assistance, however, still takes place. It will continue to exist as long as people in the world are fleeing oppression, war and poverty.

Guarantee of Basic Rights

In the Federal Republic, East Germans enjoyed the same basic rights as West Germans. They were considered “German as defined by the Basic Law.” Article 11 guaranteed the right of Germans to move freely, to travel and to choose their place of residence. This included the right to cross the German-German border. Escape assistance, therefore, was not illegal in the West. But western authorities did take action against escape helpers, prosecuting them for document fraud, tax violations and traffic offenses.

Criminal Prosecution of Escape Helpers in East Germany

The Ministry of State Security (Stasi) was responsible for prosecuting and preventing escapes and escape assistance in East Germany. Escape helpers who were arrested faced trial in court. If convicted of “private escape assistance,” they could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The crime of “organized escape assistance” was punished with a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The East German criminal code of 1969 distinguished between "seditious human trafficking" (Art. 105) and "accessory to illegal border crossing" (Art. 213).

The Ministry of State Security was reorganized in 1975 to better coordinate its fight against organized escape assistance. The Stasi succeeded in planting informers in almost every escape assistance group.

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