Putting a price on freedom | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 11.08.2012
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Putting a price on freedom

During the Cold War, the West German government bought the freedom of East German political prisoners. For the West, the motive was humanitarian, for the East, economic.

The deal was politically explosive - Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had to agree to it personally. Under absolute secrecy, the first eight East German prisoners were released to freedom on October 2, 1963. They crossed the inner-German Wartha-Herleshausen border checkpoint on a bus.

The communist regime demanded exactly 205,000 deutschmarks (around 100,000 euros) for the human cargo, which was followed by many hundreds of other people. For the first time, this chapter in the division of Germany is the subject of a museum exhibition. "Bought free - Ways out of Prison in East Germany" can be seen until the end of March 2013 at the former Marienfelde resettlement center for East German refugees in Berlin, which today is a memorial.

The exhibition tells the stories of six individuals and families who were imprisoned for political reasons. One was the Kolbe family from Dresden, who tried to escape to freedom in Austria via Czechoslovakia in October 1973. The attempt failed, and the parents ended up in prison.

The former Marienfelde resettlement center for East German refugees in Berlin (ENM - Andreas Tauber)

The first stop for many refugees from the East was the Marienfelde resettlement center

In May 1975, West Germany bought their freedom - but they had to wait another four months until they were able to see their two sons again in the West. Video interviews allow visitors to the exhibition to experience how they survived that time between hope and fear.

Lawyers negotiated over prisoners

The public on both sides of the border was not supposed to learn about this state-run human trafficking. The ransomed prisoners were sworn to secrecy. There were always rumors, but no official confirmation. Behind the scenes, lawyers Wolfgang Vogel (East) and Jürgen Stange (West) were in charge. Extracts from their years of correspondence are documented at the memorial. The letters can be seen, but they have also been professionally narrated and can be listened to.

The choice of words is businesslike and dry. But the tone is oppressive, with individual human fates hidden between the lines. "The list you supplied is currently being reviewed. It is not currently possible to specify a number at this time," Vogel writes on August 20, 1973 to his colleague Stange. Sentences like these mean they were haggling over East German prisoners.

Former East German negotiator Wolfgang Vogel, seen in 1996

Wolfgang Vogel made sure East Germany got a good price for its prisoners of conscience

Criteria such as family relationships and health played an important role, the director of the Marienfelde memorial, Bettina Effner, said. So, too, did work status. "Doctors and engineers were more valuable," she said, describing the cold logic of the East German regime.

Jailed twice

Imprisoned specialists who were needed in the East often found it difficult to get on the list. This was also the experience of medical doctor Renate Werwigk, whose family came from Berlin. She wanted to follow her brother, who already fled through a tunnel to the West dug by smugglers in 1963. The East German Stasi - the secret police - got wind of it. Werwigk and her parents were sentenced to several years in prison.

After her release, Werwigk contacted lawyer Vogel. Initially he told her there was no hope of leaving for the West, Werwigk said in an interview with DW. Vogel told her she should ultimately expect to be arrested again. After an attempt to travel from Bulgaria to Turkey with a fake passport failed, she was again sentenced to penal servitude in 1967. A year later she was deported to the West in exchange for an East German spy and 100,000 deutschmarks.

Help from the Church

To avoid even the appearance of state human trafficking, the West German government commissioned the charitable wing of the Lutheran Church with the financial details for the transfer of East German prisoners. This cover was possible because West German church communities had materially supported congregations in East Berlin since 1957.

Renate Werwigk

Werwigk was initially told she had no chance of joining the list

The Ministry for All-German Affairs, renamed the Ministry for Inner-German Affairs in 1969, was responsible at the political level in the West. From the outset, Berlin-born lawyer Ludwig Rehlinger made a great contribution to buying the freedom of prisoners of conscience. A comprehensive video interview about his experiences as a negotiator can be seen in the exhibition.

By the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, some 87,000 East Germans had ended up behind bars because they wanted to escape or were otherwise considered politically "unreliable" in the eyes of the East Berlin authorities. The West bought the freedom of nearly 34,000 of these "enemies of socialism" - the East German terminology for the inmates.

Only the first busload of 1963 was paid in cash - following which there was a barter transaction: people in exchange for goods. Depending on what the shortage-plagued East German economy needed, West Germany supplied food or petroleum. Diamonds also found their way from West to East.

'You are now citizens'

The ransoming of prisoners can be described as a "way of earning hard currency," exhibition curator Lucia Halder said. In this way, goods worth more than three billion marks ended up in the ailing German Democratic Republic. That was the price for the freedom of East Germans, whose first port of call in the West was the "federal reception center" in Giessen, under the leadership of Heinz Dorr. He greeted the new arrivals from the other part of Germany with the words: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are now citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany."