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Belarus and Hong Kong Are Building the 21st Century’s Berlin Walls

Sixty years ago, a barrier in Berlin transformed Europe overnight. Today, authoritarian regimes are following in East Germany’s footsteps by barring their citizens from leaving.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A picture taken in 1961 shows the newly built Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz.
A picture taken in 1961 shows the newly built Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz. AFP via Getty Images

Sixty years ago on this day, the world’s most iconic wall suddenly appeared. During the night, soldiers had begun erecting a wall and barbed-wire fence stretching through the divided city of Berlin, and when Berliners woke up, those on the Eastern side discovered it was too late to make their way to the West. That was, of course, the East German leaders’ intention. Today, authoritarian regimes face population flight similar to that of East Germany. These regimes, too, may well resort to forcibly keeping their citizens home by force.

“Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, God of Israel, Let my people go,” the Book of Exodus recounts. Pharaoh refused, but led by Moses and Aaron, the enslaved Hebrews left anyway. From ancient Egypt to the Soviet bloc, it’s a similar story.

In the 1950s, the East German regime led by Walter Ulbricht faced a similar exodus. Every year, hundreds of thousands of East Germans, especially well-educated ones, left their country for the freedom of West Germany. About half of the leavers were under 25, and East Germany lost a dangerous number of physicians, engineers, and dentists to the brain drain.

Sixty years ago on this day, the world’s most iconic wall suddenly appeared. During the night, soldiers had begun erecting a wall and barbed-wire fence stretching through the divided city of Berlin, and when Berliners woke up, those on the Eastern side discovered it was too late to make their way to the West. That was, of course, the East German leaders’ intention. Today, authoritarian regimes face population flight similar to that of East Germany. These regimes, too, may well resort to forcibly keeping their citizens home by force.

“Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, God of Israel, Let my people go,” the Book of Exodus recounts. Pharaoh refused, but led by Moses and Aaron, the enslaved Hebrews left anyway. From ancient Egypt to the Soviet bloc, it’s a similar story.

In the 1950s, the East German regime led by Walter Ulbricht faced a similar exodus. Every year, hundreds of thousands of East Germans, especially well-educated ones, left their country for the freedom of West Germany. About half of the leavers were under 25, and East Germany lost a dangerous number of physicians, engineers, and dentists to the brain drain.

Today, authoritarian regimes face population flight similar to that of East Germany. These regimes, too, may well resort to forcibly keeping their citizens home by force.

By the end of the 1950s, the country had lost an estimated one-third of its university-educated population to West Germany. By July 1961, it had lost 2.7 million people. Although fences had been erected along East Germany’s border with West Germany proper, some 1,000 East Germans were permanently leaving their country each day by simply taking the subway to West Berlin.

That summer, the average East German doctor was looking after an average of 1,400 patients, compared to an average of only 800 patients per doctor in West Germany, and the continuing exodus created a worsening labor market crisis. Many East Berliners simply commuted to West Berlin for work—but it didn’t really matter if they spent the night in East German beds when their work was being performed in another country.

In fact, East Germans traveled to West Berlin for enjoyment, too. Curt Stauss, 13 years old in the summer of 1961, regularly took the subway to visit his godmother in West Berlin. “The trips were nothing out of the ordinary,” he told me. “Yes, there could be border checks, but I don’t recall ever having been checked.” Karin Blechschmidt, 12 years old when the wall went up, recalls hearing similar stories from family and friends: “East Berliners lived and shopped in West Berlin, and West Berliners came to East Berlin go to the hairdresser, or to the opera, or to see musicals. Those things were super cheap on our side.”

At the East Berlin factory where he was employed as a manager, Hans Modrow watched a dire situation unfold. “We were having huge problems with our machine production because so many of our employees were taking jobs in West Berlin,” he told me in 2014, when I asked him about the time just before the wall went up. “In 1959, the factory had 1,200 workers making machines. When I arrived in 1961, we only had 700 workers. How long was such a situation supposed to continue?”

Modrow had been drafted by the Wehrmacht as a teenager and ended up in a Soviet prisoner of war camp but was allowed to leave in 1949 after attending communist cadre training; after returning to East Germany, he became a communist youth league functionary and a member of parliament. The reform-minded Modrow was later to become East Germany’s last communist leader.


While other regimes may have concluded they should make their countries more palatable, Ulbricht had pestered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to build a wall separating East from West Berlin since 1953. Khrushchev’s frequent suggestion that Ulbricht’s regime should try to make East Germany more attractive to its population fell on deaf ears in East Berlin, and in the summer of 1961, Khrushchev finally consented.

East German Central Committee member (and future leader) Erich Honecker launched the secret project, of which nothing was known until Aug. 12, 1961, when the Central Committee released a statement mysteriously explaining that “for the prevention of hostile activity by the revanchist and militarist powers of West Germany and West Berlin, a control of the kind that is customary at the borders of every sovereign state will be introduced at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border with the Western sectors of greater Berlin.”

So it was that on Aug. 13, 1961, Blechschmidt sat down for coffee in her hometown of Mengersgereuth-Hämmern, near East Germany’s border with Bavaria. An older cousin and the cousin’s husband, a local party chief, had come to visit. “My cousin’s husband announced the news and was thrilled about it,” Blechschmidt told me. “But even though I was only 12 years old, I realized what it meant. Before the wall, we were already restricted, but after it went up, we were really stuck in this country.”

Even though the regime had desperately wanted the wall, East Germans were not allowed to refer to it as such. “If you said the wall in school, you were told off,” Stauss recalls. “You had to refer to it as the antifascist protection bulwark.”

East Germany is not the last country to face the dilemma of citizens voting with their feet. For 2019, Belarus’s statistics agency recorded a net gain of some 14,000 people. But no statistics have been published for 2020, when President Aleksander Lukashenko clung to power in a disputed election that caused mass protests and the departure of democracy supporters for Poland and Lithuania. In June, the government of Belarus imposed a ban on foreign travel, meaning Belarusian citizens are no longer allowed to leave the country. An Olympic athlete who dared to criticize the government was almost forcibly returned from Japan but managed to gain entry to Poland and seek asylum there.

Hong Kongers, meanwhile, are leaving for the U.K. in large numbers. Last year, the British government issued some 200,000 so-called British National Overseas passports, for which Hong Kongers born during the crown colony period are eligible. And in the two months after the U.K. introduced a new visa option for Hong Kongers—allowing them a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship—more than 34,000 people applied. Immigration lawyers and international realtors report a surge in highly skilled Hong Kongers hoping to settle abroad.

In June, the government of Belarus imposed a ban on foreign travel, meaning Belarusian citizens are no longer allowed to leave the country.

Just this month, the U.S government announced that Hong Kong citizens currently in the United States will be allowed to remain and work in the country for 18 months after their current visas expire. Such visa holders are, of course, mostly students and professionals. Like East Germany 60 years ago, Hong Kong may face not just brain drain but brain hemorrhage. A new immigration law in Hong Kong, which came into force on Aug. 1 and is said to target illegal immigration, seems designed to instead restrict emigration.

Are there similarities between Belarus today and East Germany in 1961? I asked Andrei Sannikov, a Belarusian former diplomat, deputy foreign minister, and presidential contender. In 2010, after coming second to Lukashenko in Belarus’s presidential elections and joining pro-democracy marches, Sannikov ended up in prison; he only emerged after 16 months, which included torture.

“In 1961, Ulbricht was protecting his rule and the communist system with the help of Khrushchev. In 2021, Lukashenko is trying to protect his illegal rule with the help of [Vladimir] Putin. But the difference is that there is no longer an ideological disguise to justify barriers being erected to prevent citizens from leaving and entering the country.” Unlike Ulbricht, Lukashenko can hardly erect a wall. On the contrary, Sannikov argued, “the wall has to be built against Lukashenko and his regime to allow people of Belarus to live in freedom, without any barriers.”

Today, East Germany is remembered mostly through the Berlin Wall. At least 170 pieces of it adorn various public spaces around the world. Indeed, reflected Blechschmidt, who became a pianist but stubbornly refused to pledge any form of allegiance to communism, building the wall was the biggest mistake the East German regime ever made: “Yes, people were leaving, but after a few years they may have returned. “We had work for everyone, health care for everyone, and fantastic government funding for the arts, but we didn’t have freedom. In the West, they had freedom but hardship if you somehow failed in life. Every system has its advantages and drawbacks.”

By giving their citizens more freedom, Chinese President Xi Jinping (and his Hong Kong frontwoman Carrie Lam) and Lukashenko of Belarus would risk the stability of their regimes. But by refusing to let their peoples go, they risk ending up like Walter Ulbricht: eternally remembered for one despicable thing.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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