Practical Knowledge and Inner-German Migration

But within a week I’d already found work. [1]

Citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who moved to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the 1980s later incorporated their migration experience into their biographies as success stories. When they relocated, they were between thirty and forty years old and had families. They migrated at a point in their lives when they had already acquired a lot of practical knowledge, if through experience in a different context. Their relocation was about much more than a change of residence, however. GDR citizens also had to come to terms with a new political system, bureaucracy, and society.[2] What practical knowledge could they use to master their new situation? How did they experience their initial encounters with the new system, their search for employment, and their children’s education?

Stories about Initial Encounters

The reception center at Giessen in the FRG was the first place that all GDR citizens went.[3] Here they were formally registered and their applications for residence in the FRG evaluated. Experiences with the new bureaucracy varied, but only the fewest of GDR citizens later recalled FRG officials in positive terms. Of course, the approval of one’s application to depart the GDR in the first place had been an act of caprice; nobody knew the criteria by which the GDR authorities decided on these applications. The migrants had little faith in this bureaucratic process and even less so in their legal security (Rechtssicherheit), that is, in the predictability of legal outcomes. Once in Giessen, they were issued an “Application for Residence in the Territory of the Federal Republic.” Not surprisingly, they again felt helpless, overwhelmed, and at someone else’s mercy. One person later remembered, “Well, something that shocked me a bit. So we got these forms, this stack of forms (laughs) with thousands of numbers that needed to be filled out. And I thought ‘Yikes!’”[4] Someone else recalled:

Well, then it all started with the forms. That you had to fill out all kinds of forms, that, I think, is what caused us the most stress in the beginning here in the West, these forms … I mean, in the GDR there were also some forms, but in cases of doubt, the people over there would tell you what you needed to write and which boxes to tick. The forms weren’t as extensive as they are here—20 pages and always in triplicate.[5]

Migrants tried to harmonize their practical knowledge with these new experiences by comparing their encounters with FRG authorities to the bureaucratic procedures they knew from the GDR. Filling out the new forms independently and self-reliantly was a novel, if tedious experience and had to be learned. Along the way, these inner-German migrants could begin to develop trust in bureaucracy and faith in their legal security.

Another new experience in their migration consisted of encounters and daily interactions with “foreigners.” The initial encounters took place in the reception centers in the federal states, the next step on the migrants’ path. While some of the migrants may have traveled previously in socialist countries, regular encounters with non-Germans remained the exception in the GDR until the 1980s.[6] Thus GDR citizens were all the more perplexed when they met Poles, Russians of German ancestry, or Romanians in the reception centers. “When we were in B.,” one man recalled, “what surprised us was that there was a Romanian German, and within a week, all at once, she had an apartment.” His wife elaborated, “We were the only ones in the camp, the only ones there from the GDR. The only ones! Only Romanians and Poles!”[7] The GDR citizens were especially surprised that they were formally treated in the same category as other immigrants in the FRG integration process, even though they were Germans according to the constitution. They regarded the other migrants as competitors in the integration phase, not only for the material aid needed for their fresh start but also on the labor market.

Stories about Occupational Fresh Starts

By the time the migrants left the reception centers in the federal states, they had for the most part found work and could thus rent their own apartments. Some of the migrants already had 20 to 25 years of work experience, which shaped the intellectual capital, or expertise, they had brought with them. Nevertheless, many things were new. Hardly anyone knew how a job application for a company in the FRG was supposed to look, let alone how job interviews were conducted. They had to rely on pointers from friends and relatives. Yet the stories men told later in life made it look as if their job searches had gone off without a hitch. The epigraph to this piece comes from a conversation with a master craftsman who had been able to start work very quickly, albeit at the lower status of journeyman or employee. People with higher qualifications had to search a bit longer, for maybe six months.

Migrants mostly found work below the professional qualifications and experience they had acquired in the GDR. This was especially the case for women, who had been able to pursue careers into the middle tiers in the GDR, where women’s employment had been the norm. Women who had previously worked as bank employees or department heads found themselves working as secretaries or beauticians. This meant a loss of status, a fact not addressed in the interviews. Perhaps the salary of a single earner compensated for the loss of status. After all, it allowed a standard of living far exceeding that of the GDR. In any case, bemoaning a lack of status did not comport with the migrants’ dominant success narrative.

During their autobiographical interviews, conducted in 2013, it was important for the onetime migrants to emphasize their successful job searches for at least two reasons. First, the GDR media had always reported on the ostensible predominance of unemployment in the FRG and a correspondingly high homelessness rate.[8] Such misinformation also contributed to the migrants’ practical knowledge. Once they had formed their own experiences in the FRG, they were able to correct such impressions. Second, success narratives served to assure the host society that the new citizens knew the values of the host state and behaved accordingly. They would not burden the welfare state.[9]

Stories about Their Children’s Education

The children’s high school graduation constitutes another facet of the migrants’ success story. Older pupils, to whom migration meant the opportunity to absolve the Abitur, regarded it as a challenge and a parental dictum to excel at the Gymnasium, the upper tier of the German high school system.[10] The adaptation process did not always go smoothly, however. In the 1980s, for example, pupils who had migrated from the GDR were usually made to repeat a year in their new schools. Particularly the higher-performance pupils regarded this as an affront. Sometimes their self-image was so sorely affected that behavioral problems manifested, such as fighting or slacking in performance.[11]

The main difference between the school systems in the GDR and the FRG lay in the fact that the GDR system consisted of comprehensive schools, while the host society mainly had a three-tier system.[12] It was not initially easy to grasp the differences between them, as the recollections of one family father demonstrate: “We enrolled our daughter in the Hauptschule. We thought that’s where everyone goes.”[13] The term translates literally as “main school” but actually refers to the lowest tier of the secondary school system. Years later, the qualified engineer was still embarrassed by his ignorance in this regard. In order to change the daughter’s school, the parents would have had to publicly declare their mistake and thereby reveal their initial ignorance. This risked public shame and was in any case difficult because migrants did not want to be conspicuous in their host society.[14] The daughter compensated by working hard. She was later switched to the Realschule, the second tier, and in the end absolved her Abitur, the highest school diploma in Germany.


Stories of inner-German migrants’ everyday experiences during their early days in the Federal Republic show the ways in which they needed to expand their everyday knowledge. They had to not only come to terms with the different structure of society but also make many practical decisions regarding, for example, where they wanted to live, what kind of jobs they would find, and in which schools to send their children. Migrants from the GDR already possessed relevant practical knowledge from the GDR, but they required new and different knowledge about West German circumstances. And they had to use their old and new knowledge efficaciously.

Their experiences ranged from making “correct” decisions to mistakes and outright blunders. The negative experiences they had along their path to acquiring new practical knowledge created feelings of disillusionment, disparagement, and insecurity. In hindsight, however, they framed these experiences in positive terms. If self-preservation played a role in their memories and testimony, we should probably not underestimate the compensating potential of experience and practical knowledge from their former lives in the GDR.

Jeannette van Laak is a research associate at the Leibnitz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow.

  1. Interview with the Winter couple on November 13, 2013, transcript (author’s papers), p. 3.  ↩
  2. See Jeannette van Laak, Einrichten im Übergang: Das Aufnahmelager Gießen 1946–1990 (Frankfurt a. M.: Campus Verlag, 2017), which provides the basis for this piece.  ↩
  3. Earlier there had also been Uelzen in the FRG and Marienfelde in West Berlin. The former was closed in 1963 and the latter was made much smaller. In the 1980s, the smaller Marienfeld center was administered by Gießen.  ↩
  4. Interview with Gudrun Möhring on May 29, 2013, transcript, p. 5.  ↩
  5. Interview with Wolfgang Thormann, in: Jeannette van Laak and Florentin Mück, eds., Sehnsuchtsort Gießen? Erinnerung an die DDR-Ausreise und den Neubeginn in Hessen (Gießen: Stadt Gießen, 2016), 172–80.  ↩
  6. See Almut Zwengel, ed., Die “Gastarbeiter” der DDR: Politischer Kontext und Lebenswelt (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2011).  ↩
  7. Interview with the Winter couple on November 13, 2013, transcript (author’s papers), p. 7.  ↩
  8. This was intended on the one hand as a deterrent and on the other to highlight the social achievements of the GDR. The interviews prove that unemployment and homelessness did indeed provide an effective argument.  ↩
  9. This wording is also found in the many letters of thanks sent to the reception center administrations over the years. See StA Gießen 7/3 004.  ↩
  10. Interview with Wolfgang Thormann, in: van Laak and Mück, eds., Sehnsuchtsort Gießen?, 172–80.  ↩
  11. Interview with Robert Carl, in: van Laak and Mück, eds., Sehnsuchtsort Gießen?, 183–90, quote 189–90.  ↩
  12. In the GDR, children in classes 1 to 10 attended a polytechnic high school. After that, some 20% annually went on to absolve the advanced high school and received their Abitur. In the Federal Republic, depending on the pupils’ level of achievement, primary school was followed either by Hauptschule (classes 5 to 9), Realschule (classes 5 to 10), or Gymnasium (classes 5 to 13).  ↩
  13. Interview with Gerd Engelhardt on June 25, 2013, transcript (author’s papers) p. 9.  ↩
  14. See Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” Menorah Journal 31, no. 1 (January 1943): 69–77.  ↩
Suggested citation: Jeannette van Laak, “Practical Knowledge and Inner-German Migration,” History of Knowledge, February 11, 2019,