Ethics and Emigration: The East German Exodus, 1989 (Case Study #6)


In the fall of 1989, thousands of East Germans defied Prime Minister Erich Honecker and his regime's ban on unauthorized departure from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and escaped to West Germany through Hungary, Poland, and even Czechoslovakia.

This spontaneous mass exodus occurred despite a relatively liberal emigration and travel policy in effect at the time. In 1989 alone the GDR was planning to give some 100,000 East Germans permission to leave permanently, compared to fewer than 30,000 in 1988 and about 10,000 in 1989. In September and October of 1989, some 55,000-60,000 East Germans fled without permission. Ironically, the Berlin Wall came down at that time for precisely the same reason that it had been put up: to stop the hemorrhaging that threatened the regime's very survival and to keep its people in.

The East German revolt of 1989 thus raised a variety of policy-relevant ethical issues. What does it mean to be a citizen in the absence of choice? How does this relate to prevailing notions of human rights? What can and should nations do to promote "the freedom of movement"? If it is incumbent on all governments to grant their own citizens the right to leave, do governments not also have a moral responsibility to give all citizens, irrespective of national origin, a place to go?

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