New Research into Deaths of Those Who Tried to Escape the GDR via the Baltic Sea

View of the Berlin Wall 1989 - Photo: Jan Meßerschmidt
View of the Berlin Wall 1989 - Photo: Jan Meßerschmidt

A research team belonging to the University of Greifswald’s Department of Politics and Communication Studies, led by Prof. Dr. Hubertus Buchstein, started its investigations into the deaths of those who tried to escape the GDR via the Baltic Sea on 1 July 2019. The project is part of a joint research project being realised by the Forschungsverbund SED-Staat at the Freie Universität Berlin and a research group at the University of Potsdam. The joint project ‘Grenzregime’ (border regime) has gained a grant of around three million euros from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Attempts to escape the GDR via the Berlin Wall and the border between West and East Germany have now been investigated in detail. However, no comparable scientific investigations have been made previously into the deaths of GDR citizens who tried to escape their country via the Baltic Sea or the borders to other Eastern Bloc states. The collaborative project aims to bridge this gap.

At the end of the 1950s/beginning of the 60s, continued emigration from the GDR led to the introduction of stricter border controls. The border politics reached their peak in 1961, when the borders were sealed off completely using walls and guarded border areas that stretched for several kilometres. Although the Baltic Sea formed a natural border in the north, the coastline was kept under stringent surveillance. A kind of ‘invisible wall’ was installed. The sea border and the coastline of the Baltic Sea were guarded by a strict border regime to deter people from considering escapes and to prevent them from fleeing the republic. Although there was a closely knit control network along the coastal stretches of the Baltic Sea, it didn’t stop several thousand people trying to escape via the so-called ‘wet border’ before the borders were opened in 1989. Current statistics suggest that this number amounted to approximately 5,600 persons. Roughly 80 percent were arrested during their escape attempts, it is estimated that 913 (around 16 percent) succeeded and at least 174 individuals died whilst trying to escape. The bodies of those that died on their escape bid were washed up on the beaches on Fehmarn, Rügen and Denmark, or were found by fishing nets out at sea.

The work at Greifswald’s research group shall focus on determining the details of attempts to flee the GDR that ended fatally. The aim of the project is to trace the fates of the victims and thus to preserve them from being forgotten.

The results of all three parts of the project will be published in separate books. The Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS) at Freie Universität Berlin’s University Library shall provide access to interviews of contemporary witnesses and the research results from the various parts of the project on a website for political education and the raising of awareness about the two German states and the SED dictatorship.

Further Information

Even after almost 30 years since the fall of the wall, it is important to close the gaps in the knowledge about injustice that occurred in the GDR and the consequences of the transformation process since 1989/1990. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has selected 14 research consortia from more than 100 proposals that took part in an official call to approach this topic. The Ministry is providing total funds of 40 million euros until 2022 to establish a stronger foothold for research into the GDR within the German university and research landscape.

To the website about the collaborative project
Chair of Political Theory and the History of Political Ideas at the University of Greifswald
Forschungsverbund SED-Staat at Freie Universität Berlin
Department of History at the University of Potsdam [de]

Media Photo

Contact at the University of Greifswald
Prof. Dr. Hubertus Buchstein
Department of Political Science and Communication Studies
Chair of Political Theory and the History of Political Ideas
Ernst-Lohmeyer-Platz 3, 17489 Greifswald
Tel.: +49 3834 420 3150