The German reunification of 1990 was legally the annexation of West Berlin (a separately administered occupied territory) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) by West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG). What effect did this have on the status of people who were serving criminal sentences under East German law? In particular:

  • If, at the time of reunification, someone was serving time for a crime that was on the books in GDR law but not FRG law, did they get (a) immediate release, (b) release upon application by the convict, or (c) no change in their status?

  • If, at the time of reunification, someone was serving time for a crime that was on the books in both GDR law and in FRG law, but the two sets of laws prescribed different sentences, were these sentences (a) automatically shortened or lengthened, (b) shortened or lengthened on application by the convict/prosecution, or (c) left unchanged?

  • More generally, were those who had been convicted of a crime under GDR law, where said crime was also on the books in the FRG, entitled to a retrial under FRG jurisprudence, or were all past convictions of this sort left to stand?

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    Some info here, esp. in the last two paragaphs: deutsche-einheit-1990.de/ministerien/ministerium-des-inneren/… . In short there were amnesties for political and minor crimes. Most other sentences were reduced by a third. Convictions could be reassessed (but I am not sure this actually happened or what the results were)
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 10:51
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    One interesting difference between East German and West German criminal justice is the role of alcohol. In East Germany, sentences were stricter if a crime had been committed under the influence. In West Germany and now, Germany, sentences are more lenient.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 10:55
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    @Jan: this concerns the situation before the reunification. Rules regarding the time after reunification were inserted into the EGStGB (Einführungsgesetz zum StGB Art 315 pp), but this is quite complex. See also Art 18 Einigungsvertrag (gesetze-im-internet.de/einigvtr/art_18.html) and Anlage I Kapitel III C II (gesetze-im-internet.de/einigvtr/BJNR208890990BJNE008201377.html).
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 10:56
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    Another minor point: the criminal code of the FRG was applicable in West Berlin, too. It's possible that there were particular penal rules that were applicable only for Berlin (West) (Landesstrafrecht), but in general, the criminal code (Strafgesetzbuch des Bundes) was applicable there, too.
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 11:14
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    @LangLangC: I've removed the references to West Berlin, per your suggestion.
    – Psychonaut
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 13:22

1 Answer 1


Thanks to some hints provided in the comments to my original post here, I have been able to locate some sources that answer my questions, at least on a high level:

  • Beginning in 1989, even before the details of political reunification were being seriously considered, the GDR granted a number of automatic amnesties. Two of these—one on 1 October 1989 and another on 6 December 1989—were targetted at specific classes of crimes, including political crimes like Republikflucht that were not recognized as such in the FRG. At the same time, the GDR also significantly loosened its rules concerning judicial review of sentences and convictions, a circumstance that many prisoners availed themselves of in order to get their sentences reduced or convictions overturned. A third amnesty in 1990, which was made in furtherance of the impending reunification, resulted in a reduction in sentences across the board. Excepted from this amnesty were "Nazi crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, and aggravated violent or sexual offences", which were also illegal in the FRG.

    Together, these measures had the effect of reducing the prison population from 24,171 in November 1989 to 4375 in July 1990, with still further reductions in the days immediately before reunification. So relatively speaking, there were not all that many prisoners left when reunification took effect, and of these, it's unlikely that many (or even any) of them had been convicted for activities that weren't considered crimes in the FRG.

  • The third amnesty, the law for which seems to have been carried over into West German law, granted every remaining prisoner the right to have his or her conviction reviewed by an independent commission. These commissions were indeed constituted after reunification, and in about half of all cases the committee recommended clemency, conditional release, or quashing of the conviction.

Nothing I have found indicates that there was any automatic adjustment of the sentences apart from the above-noted amnesties; it seems all prisoners who wanted their sentences altered or convictions overturned had to initiate judicial review themselves, either pre- or post-unification.

I've found this information in various primary and secondary sources, though it's all briefly summarized (with references) in Corrections in the German Democratic Republic: A Field for Research by Jörg Arnold and Johannes Feest (British Journal of Criminology 35(1), 1995, pp. 81–94, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a048490).

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    A view from the trenches of an appellate court judge who dealt with this matter - svjt.se/svjt/1992/646. He is now an academic lawyer at Durham University, England (I think). Probably quite approachable if you’re doing legal research.
    – J Asia
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 16:13
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    The amnesty of October 1st, 1989 was before the begin of political changes (although that there was a political crisis was somewhat obvious by then). It was probably for the 40th anniversary of the GDR?
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 16:16
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    And a quick reunification was still quite unthinkable in December 1989, so that second amnesty may be somewhat off-topic as well. Although it obviously reduced the number of people incarcerated for things that would be legal in the FRG by a lot.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 16:22
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    The Volkskammerwahl 1990 took place on the 18th of March, where the SED lost power. Currency and Customs union on the 1st of July. Decision to join was made on the 23rd of August. Any decisions about adaptating jail sentences to West German law would have started after that. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 16:38
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    @Jan: The first amnesty is on-topic for the reason you mentioned; namely, that it released those imprisoned for crimes that did not exist in the FRG. This addresses my first question by making it somewhat moot. I will update my answer to make this point clearer.
    – Psychonaut
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 7:55

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