When East Germans escaped over the inner German border during the Cold War, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) described their actions as Republikflucht, which means “desertion from the republic“ or “flight from the republic.” Additionally, the word Republikflüchtlinge describes “deserters from the republic.”
When used by GDR authorities to speak of deserters, the word had a negative connotation, associating them with a crime against the state. The word closely resembles the more generalized Fahnenflucht, which literally means “desertion from the flag” and in this case refers to military desertion. The word Republikflucht therefore invoked similar feelings of betrayal against the state, and specifically referred to escape from the GDR.
Millions of Germans fled the east during the post-war period before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 – and even after its erection, several thousand others managed to escape. Some even obtained permits to visit the west, never to return again. Many who attempted Republikflucht, however, were shot at the border. Tens of thousands of others were imprisoned for up to eight years for their attempts.
The GDR publicly condemned the actions of Republikflüchtlinge, and in 1955 outlined the seriousness of such a crime in a booklet published by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
A woman is pulled out of a tunnel through which she escaped from East Berlin to the West on October 5, 1964. In total, 57 people escaped through this tunnel German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info before it was discovered by East German border guards.
“Leaving the GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity,” the booklet says. “…Workers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists.”
Today, the word Republikflucht is one of many unique words associated with the GDR, and is often used to describe the many escape attempts from the communist regime. If you are reading German history related to the fall of the wall, this is a term you will surely come across – a term that partially defines the way we remember the effects of the Cold War.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy