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Getting out of East Germany gets easier

In the ideological struggle that was the Cold War, East Germans voted the only way they could: with their feet. By the thousands each month, they escaped communist rule by slipping into the West through Berlin. In 1961, the East German government built a wall to keep them in. The Berlin Wall became both a barrier and a symbol of the differences between West and East, between democracy and communism. On Nov. 9, 1989, after floods of East Germans had left via third countries, the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way to German reunification.

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As a fellow communist-bloc nation, Hungary has long been an approved destination for East German travellers. In May 1989, Hungary tears down the barbed-wire fence on its border with Austria, making it easier for visiting East Germans to flee to the West.

By September, as many as 20,000 East Germans are camping out in Hungary, waiting for permission to leave for Austria. From there they can reach West Germany, where they are granted automatic citizenship. In this clip from CBC-TV, furious East German officials describe the exodus as the "organized smuggling of humans."

• Over the summer of 1989, some East Germans got help from West Germans who were visiting Austria. They would gather at points on the border with Hungary to help East Germans cross over. Most were volunteers, but some charged a fee for the service.

• The migration of East Germans via its territory put Hungary in a tough diplomatic position. On one hand, it had signed agreements with East Germany not to allow East German refugees to defect to the West. On the other hand, it was party to a United Nations convention on the treatment of refugees, and therefore it would not turn them back by force.

• Though the standard of living in East Germany was much poorer than that in West Germany, it was the most prosperous of the communist-bloc nations.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 11, 1989
Reporter: Claude Adams
Duration: 4:36

Last updated: November 5, 2014

Page consulted on November 5, 2014

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