After the end of the Second World War, Germany was in political and economic ruins. Most of its major cities and industrial centers had been heavily bombed. In the final months of the war, production for the war effort had been carried into forests and mountain caves, as British and American air campaigns had destroyed much of Germany’s once formidable industrial capacity. As Soviet armies encircled and fought their way through Berlin, Hitler and many of his top officials committed suicide. Most of those who did not went on trial at Nuremberg for war crimes in the following years.
In the wake of the war, many Eastern European and Soviet bloc countries forcibly expelled the Germans living within their borders. According to some historians, upwards of twelve million people were driven out of Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946. These Heimatvertriebene (expellees) sought refuge in Germany, placing some strain on the already-challenged German economy for a time. Additionally, the Allied victory resulted in the division of Germany into zones supervised by the Allied Powers. The most recognizable division was between East and West Germany. With this division, the Soviet Union took administrative control of Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Thuringia. The United Kingdom, France, and the United states likewise assumed governmental roles in the western states. This division of power between capitalist and communist powers meant a planned economy in East Germany (the GDR), and capitalistic policies in the west (the FRG). The differences between the economies of East and West Germany made for very different immigration situations and laws.
The 1949 Constitution of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) does mention political asylum. Article 10 states that “Citizens of foreign countries will neither be deported nor expelled if they face persecution abroad for their struggles for the principles laid down in this constitution.” In effect, this was a gesture to welcome socialists facing political persecution to East Germany.
The West German Grundgesetz (Basic Law), also written in 1949, opened re-entry and restoration of German citizenship to former German citizens who either fled or had been expelled from Germany in the Nazi period. It also legally defined a “German” as “a person who possesses German citizenship or who has been admitted to the territory of the German Reich within the boundaries of 31 December 1937 as a refugee or expellee of German ethnic origin or as the spouse or descendant of such person.” However, despite legal definitions, many ethnic Germans who came to Germany after the war had difficulty integrating. Although they were German, they were also not German. Religious, lingual, and cultural barriers made for misunderstandings and distrust between some Germans and their expellee counterparts.
Article 16 of the Basic Law also granted broad political asylum: “The politically persecuted enjoy the right to asylum.” With a place in Germany’s most fundamental set of laws, asylum for politically accused persons stood as a fundamental right in German law. Political asylum, however, was not the only kind of refuge that millions of Europeans would seek in Germany in the coming decades. In the second half of the twentieth century, West Germany would become a hotspot of economic growth and development—and a highly desirable location for migrant workers.