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Changing Sides. Remigration and Immigration in the GDR, 1949-1989

Wechselseitig (Changing Sides) tells the little-known story of people who migrated from West Germany to East Germany – the German Democratic Republic, or GDR. While knowledge of the more than three million people who took the reverse route is firmly anchored in collective memory, these stories are less familiar.

The majority of the approximately 500,000 people who migrated to the GDR changed sides from West to East before the building of the wall in 1961. Only a small minority chose this path for political reasons. Most migrants were returning to their family and friends, had fallen in love, were fleeing criminal prosecution, were following the calls of the churches, or were looking for work, a better life, a fresh start – in short, the typical reasons for migration one sees throughout history. What makes these specific migration narratives unique is the Cold War and the particular struggle between the systems of East and West.

Wechselseitig brings this aspect of German-German history alive through the lives of more than 20 migrants, both prominent personalities and previously unknown individuals. The men and women seen in this exhibition crossed the inner-German border between the 1950s and the late 1980s. Their experiences varied considerably; the spectrum of life stories ranges from a fulfilling and happy life in the GDR, to undergoing day-to-day spying, to imprisonment, escape attempts, and death.

Wechselseitig also addresses several overarching themes of West-East migration: procedures in the reception centres, the migrants’ struggles to integrate into GDR society, the often decisive role played by the Ministry of State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or MfS, also known as the Stasi), German-German propaganda battles, the GDR’s foreign espionage activities, and the experiences of Eastern spies after their return to the GDR.

'Changing Sides' in Gera

„Changing Sides. Remigration and Immigration in the GDR, 1949-1989” can be seen from 26 August 2022 to 27 November 2022 in the Memorial Amthordurchgang Gera. The flyer of the exhibition can be found here, the opening hours here.