Cold War histories usually state something like "any German able to reach West Germany was automatically granted West German citizenship" to explain how easy it was to go from East to West, if only you could get round/across/through the wall.

So it's plain that once you defected, if you succeeded, you could establish yourself easily in West Germany. You were a West German. You could presumably apply immediately for a West German passport and travel, say, to France or Denmark.

As the comments below point out there was no legal distinction between citizens of the East and citizens of the West in West German law, and this was constitutionally guaranteed in the 1949 Basic Law‌​.

But what was your legal status as far as East Germany and her allies were concerned? Could you travel to the Eastern bloc countries immediately on your freshly minted West German passport? If not immediately, then after how long? Did you face immediate arrest or did the DDR, too, suddenly see you as a West German? Did the DDR formally revoke your citizenship and, if so, how quickly?

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    +1 for an interesting concept. And it begs the question: was it REALLY that easy even to travel to France or Denmark? Surely they had to jump through SOME hoops before they were given citizenship, just to make sure they weren't a Soviet spy?
    – Nerrolken
    Oct 10, 2014 at 22:01
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    There was no legal distinction between citizens of the East and citizens of the West in West German law, and this was constitutionally guaranteed in the 1949 Basic Law. The specific language is in Chapter 11, Article 116.
    – Comintern
    Oct 10, 2014 at 23:35
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    @TeaDrinker - I know, I just wanted to clarify the historical and legal basis for your first paragraph. Not intended as a answer.
    – Comintern
    Oct 11, 2014 at 4:07
  • There was no nationalisation process. In general the DDR ID card was sufficient to prove German nationality. One major exception existed: Nationalised DDR citizens were not considered Germans nationals. Jul 24, 2019 at 16:34
  • @Nerrolken As to the HOOP portion, that would intail only a check if the claim of nationality is valid. If valid, even if they were found to be a spy, they would still be considered a German national (the first trip to France or Denmark may however delayed by a few years.). Jul 24, 2019 at 16:47

2 Answers 2


I think you need to know some background information concerning the division of Germany.

There was one Germany, the Deutsches Reich. The Allies defeated it and divided it into four parts: the British, French and Americans in the West and the Soviets in the East.

It was soon apparent that after the party more and more rifts were opening. What to do with the Germans? While the Allies all said during the war that they would work together, it was soon clear that this would not work. The Soviets wanted reparations and moved heavy industry out of East Germany. Much more important for the West was the instantiation of a one-party system and centrally governed economy like the other Eastern Bloc countries.

The Western Allies on the other hand weren't so keen to have a socialist regime. While revenge plans like Morgenthau (dismantle Germany into an agrarian state) sounded good on the paper, they opened too many questions. Who should pay for the continued occupation of Germany? In a land which doesn't have much natural resources, would you destroy the capability of a country to sustain itself ? And if the Soviet Union sooner or later recovers, you have not only lost a possible ally, but exposed your borders. So the Marshall plan (with Soviet protests) started and West Germany got a new economy and a political system modelled by the West.

So during the Cold War it was apparent that the path was divided. The three Western Allies created FRG, the Soviets shortly the GDR.

And for both people there was only one Germany! In the west you were told the evil Soviets and their supporters are illegally occupying the Eastern part of Germany. The "GDR" was never considered to be its own country, even a long time after its declaration it was only called SBZ (Soviet occupied zone in German) until 1972. So every GDR citizen was considered as a German and eligible for immigration.

In the east you were told the evil fascists have conspired to work with the capitalists to create a puppet state under their control. The western allies broke their promise to work together and only if the rest of Germany would understand the fairness of the socialist system they would rise and join their brothers in the East. If you defected into the East, you were welcomed.

(These were offical standings. The Germans on both sides did not care much about the propaganda, but both knew that East Germany was repressive, to say the least. The eastern version was not entirely without merit: many Nazis escaped, survived denazification unscathed or worked for the Americans. And as a communist you would have been in trouble in the FRG during the early years.)

So on both sides, there was only one Germany, which was unfortunately partially under control of their foes. After more and more Germans defected from the East to the West and the wish for reunification in the East was suppressed by violence during the 17th July, the Iron Curtain was built.


But what was your legal status as far as East Germany and her allies were concerned?

You were a traitor, criminal and guilty of Republikflucht (2–8 years prison under bad conditions). There are known assassination attempts in West Germany, like Wolfgang Welsch and Fritz Eigendorf. Some people who were captured were offered for ransom because the GDR was always interested in western currency.

Could you travel to the Eastern bloc countries immediately on your freshly minted West German passport?

Snort. All eastern bloc countries had a good intelligence and, with exception of e.g. Yugoslavia, were under Soviet and their supporters control. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were not so keen to work together with the SU and GDR, but it would have been exceedingly dangerous to travel into the Eastern Bloc. Chances were good that you have been caught immediately and extradited to the GDR.

Did the DDR formally revoke your citizenship and, if so, how quickly?

Lose one of the principal opportunities for punishing you by revoking your citizenship? Fat chance.

"Cold War" is not only a word, it was a reality. The leaders of both countries hated each other's guts. 17th July was a public holiday in the FRG and even in the 80s the teachers should mark the abbreviation "BRD" for BundesRepublik Deutschland (FRG in German) as error. Why? Because the "DDR" (GDR) uses it in print.

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    Wasn't Bundesrepublik Deutschland always the West German state's official name for itself? Considering that name wrong simply because the foe also used it sounds strange. Sep 4, 2016 at 17:45
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    @HenningMakholm Yes, it was the official name, but the only correct abbreviation (!) for it was BD. Not BRD, this is obviously wrong because the enemy uses it. BD is the only acceptable abbreviation because our government declared it so. Stuuuuuupid!! Sep 6, 2016 at 22:17
  • @ThorstenS. There was no abbreviation other than Deutschland or the licence plate D. BE is the abbreviation for Berlin. The DDR always had an obsession for abbreviations. In the early 1970s they used DBR (as I remember from the train border station. Friedrichstraße ). Soon afterwords BRD was introduced, I always assumed because they were too similar and peaple were lining up in the wrong line during passport control. Each country desides for itself which, if any abbreviation is to be used, not political parties. Jul 24, 2019 at 16:24
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    There was an amnesty and GDR revoked citizenship for those who had comitted Republikflucht before 1972 in 1972 (zeitklicks.de/top-menu/zeitstrahl/navigation/topnav/jahr/1972/…). Which meant that they could visit GDR afterwards (if they got the permission for entering GDR). Aug 8, 2019 at 13:31
  • West Germans (whether former East Germans, or "native" West Germans) needed a visum to visit GDR (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/…), so there was nothing really immediate anyways, nor was any West German visitor allowed to travel anywhere but the destination specified in the visum. Aug 8, 2019 at 13:43

According to an article in Der Spiegel a GDR law from 1964 stated

Da ehemalige Bewohner, der DDR weiter als DDR-Bürger gelten, könnten sie -- sofern sie sich in den Machtbereich der SED begeben -- zur Erfüllung ihrer staatsbürgerlichen Pflichten oder (bei Besuchsreisen in die DDR) zur ausdrücklichen Anerkennung ihrer DDR-Staatsbürgerschaft gezwungen werden.

Roughly meaning: "Since former citizens of the GDR retain their citizenship they can be forced, if they travel inside the influence sphere of the SED, to re-affirm their GDR-citizenship." (I'm afraid this is not a very inspired tranlation but it conveys the general meaning of the law).

(edited to add) "Republikflucht" (escape from the GDR) was a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison, so I do not not think anybody would have considered travel back to the GDR (unless he had planned to voluntarily become a citizen again, in which case he'd probably received amnesty).

Funnily enough at that time the first paragraph in the GDR constitution read "Es gibt nur eine deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit", (legally) "there is only one cizitenship for all germans".

  • "Es gibt nur eine deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit": this sentence was removed from the Constitution in 1968.
    – fdb
    Oct 11, 2014 at 10:22
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    many people were lured back into the GDR by the StaSi with promises of amnesty and on arrival arrested and sent to prison or labour camps.
    – jwenting
    Oct 11, 2014 at 10:30

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