COLD WAR PROPAGANDA BATTLES
West Germany views the mass exodus from the GDR as a sign of dictatorship and oppression in East Germany, and of the superiority of the West German political and economic system. The GDR in turn sees the growing number of West-East migrants in the 1950s as proof of both the crisis of capitalism and the appeal of the socialist system. During these years, the state-run GDR media often report on migrants and returnees from West Germany – with the particular aim of deterring the East German population from fleeing to the West. They warn of untenable conditions in the refugee camps, economic hardship and exploitation, poor housing stock and a loss of social status. Refugees are portrayed either as traitors or as having been blinded by Western propaganda. At the same time, the GDR endeavours to deliberately attract West German academics and other skilled workers in order to compensate, in part at least, for the losses suffered from East-West migration.
The West German government continues to emphasise that migration from West to East is not considered an “escape,” and that no one is being prevented from leaving. At the same time, it attempts to influence both the media and public opinion through press materials, interviews and brochures, insisting that people’s reasons for moving to the GDR are predominantly personal, not political. While the GDR is striving to depict the extent of the West-East migration as extensive and increasing every day, the West German government calls the East German numbers “wildly exaggerated.”
For no apparent reason, the GDR propaganda about returnees and migrants abruptly stops in October 1966. For West Germany, the now exceedingly small number of West-East migrants following the building of the wall in 1961 is no longer an issue.
Various GDR authorities, as well as the Ministry of State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or MfS) systematically collect statements by migrants from West Germany in order to exploit them for propaganda purposes. Particularly in the second half of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, so-called returnee conferences are held throughout the GDR. The speakers are handpicked. In addition to the required remarks detailing the deep troubles of West German society and the superiority of socialism, these conferences also include discussions on more problematic aspects of life in the GDR: the hostility that migrants are constantly faced with on the part of the GDR populace, the catastrophic housing conditions, the poor working conditions, and the neglect of commitments and promises.
The nationwide media coverage on these confer- ences, which are organised by the National Front, is exhaustive, the goal clearly defined: “The task of these conferences is to counteract the poaching of GDR citizens via the presentation of migrants and former Republikflüchtige (deserters from the republic) to provide arguments regarding varying development in both parts of Germany, to inform the population of the background and consequences of the introduction of compulsory military service in West Germany, and to contribute to further democratisation in our workers’ and farmers’ state.”
“OVER 20.000 FORMER CITIZENS WANT TO COME BACK”
With the headline “Over 20.000 former citizens want to come back” in the March 1985 edition of Neues Deutschland (ND), the topic experiences a brief propaganda comeback. The claim that thousands of former GDR citizens live in West Germany and are unhappy and want to return to the GDR triggers great astonishment amongst the people in the East. It does not stand up to a random analysis by the ZDF TV channel programme “Kennzeichen D” on 13 March 1985. In fact, the majority of those specifically mentioned with names and addresses do not want to return to the GDR. Some indicate that they have considered the idea. Others report that the GDR authorities have denied their return applications.
Only two days after publishing the article, the ND prints reader reaction letters. The general consensus is unambiguous: those who have left the GDR must bear the consequences. A return is clearly impossible, except in rare cases. The focus of the article is unmistakeable: no one should be applying for permission to leave the GDR without putting a lot of thought into it first.