»You could say that we had hit the jackpot«

Im Herder-Institut. Leipzig 1976 © Archiv Neues Deutschland, Fotograf: Eckstein

Study and Political Exile

Students could not apply for a place at a GDR college or university directly. Places were allocated by the governments of friendly nations or the solidarity committees of national liberation movements. Some political emigrants were also given the chance to study. While the majority of Chilean emigrants were employed in manufacturing, some of them were able to continue their artistic careers in the GDR. Here, former students and political emigrants talk about their experiences.

»I didn’t even know what ‘archive studies’ was

Alemayehu Gebissa, Pham Thi Hoai, Kadriye Karcı and Carlos Medina talk about their paths to higher education in the GDR

Cold War Origins

The first foreign students in East Germany were eleven Nigerian youths who were participants in the World Youth Festival in East Berlin in 1951. The Cold War left them stuck in the GDR: the British colonial administration in Nigeria banned them from re-entering their home country after their stay in the GDR. The youths were admitted to Leipzig University. A preparatory class was set up to equip them for studying at university. It later developed into the Herder Institute,  the main educational institution for foreign students, at Karl Marx University, Leipzig (Basse, no date.).

Schöna, December 1984, © Sieghard Liebe

A Means to Achieving International Recognition

From these beginnings, studying abroad in the GDR developed into an international programme that was intended to further political recognition for the GDR. The idea was that students who had studied in East Germany could be assured of long-standing connections around the globe. Higher education in the GDR had a high reputation and was unique in another way: in most cases, it was free. And like their fellow East German students, many foreign students also received a grant financed by the national budget of the GDR.

Selected tutors taught prospective students; generally, one year of intensive German language courses and subject-specific teaching prepared them for their area of study. The specific qualifications that had also been promised to working migrants remained mostly the privilege of foreign students (Mac Con Uladh 2005).

Vietnamese students at the Herder Institute. Leipzig 1970. © BArch, Bild 183-J0911-0018-001 / Photographer: Waltraud Grubitzsch

Studying at the Herder Institute

Images from the GDR photo agency Zentralbild are testimony to the GDR’s pride at the educational opportunities it was able to offer to young people from all over the world. These images almost always depict cheerful foreign students together with attractive GDR teachers. The photo captions place emphasis on the educational aims: “During the 1970–71 academic year, 500 students received education, 130 of whom were from Vietnam. There were large delegations from the SAR (Syrian Arab Republic), Tanzania, Mali, Thailand, and Sudan. The goal of the education is to equip students with technical skills and language skills as well as with a worldview formed by philosophical materialism. In addition, the students will become familiar with the socialist structure of our Republic and with the working methods used in our universities.”

Growing Student Numbers

Even if public statements on higher education for foreign students repeatedly placed emphasis on the concept of solidarity, the allocation of study places was by and large informed by foreign policy and trade policy considerations. The first graphic below shows how the number of foreigners enrolled to study rose continually from the 1970s. The second graphic illustrates the GDR’s particular focus on African nations and anti-colonial movements, which translated into higher numbers of students during the 1960s. At the beginning of the 1980s, the GDR government abandoned existing allocation practices and discovered that higher education could serve as a source of foreign currency. As part of its commercialization of higher education, the GDR would offer places to students from countries that were not socialist, provided they paid for them. By 1989, around 10 percent of international students were studying on a commercial basis (Elsner and Elsner 1994, p. 19).

Number of foreign students, 1952–1990. After Damian Mac Con Uladh 2005a, p. 219.

The East German government provided students and political emigrants with living quarters. Accommodation in student lodgings or workers’ housing was standard for young people in the GDR, even if the quality of the accommodation varied in terms of facilities, and the level of supervision was not always equally strict (Mac Con Uladh 2005 b, pp. 51–54). But political emigrants did receive preferential treatment.

»There were families with children in these tiny rooms

Former students Pham Thi Hoai and Alemayehu Gebissa talk about life in student lodgings. Kadriye Karcı and Carlos Medina received apartments of their own

It was not just the shame at their preferential treatment as political émigrés that cast a cloud over daily life for Carlos Medina and Kadriye Karcı. The Communist Party of Turkey intended Karcı and her party cell to live together as a commune under the control of the party secretary. Like other political emigrants and students, she was not only subject to the rules of her host country, but to those of her home country too. Life in the GDR was shaped but also burdened by her own ideological beliefs, the demands of the party, and of diplomatic representatives.

»The party secretary always had the last word

Kadriye Karcı describes the effects of party ideology on living together

Kadriye Karcı describes the effects of party ideology on living together

»I moved out of student accommodation and squatted an apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin

Pham Thi Hoai, too, was under the watchful eye of fellow Vietnamese students in her lodgings––until she moved away from the path that had been mapped out for her.

Pham Thi Hoai on how her lifestyle turned from studious to rebellious

After moving out of student accommodation, Pham Thi Hoai led a double life. At university, she continued to achieve top grades. But elsewhere, she made the most of her freedom. She had German friends, moved in intellectual circles, and was in contact with the peace movement. She did not want to miss a single opportunity to learn something new.

Thanks to her good grades and the support shown to her by her professors, Pham Thi Hoai enjoyed an especially high level of liberty. However, things turned out differently for her boyfriend, a fellow student who was to be sent back to Vietnam due to unsatisfactory academic results.

»To be sent back was a huge disgrace

Pham Thi Hoai talks about how her boyfriend had to flee East Germany to evade forced repatriation to Vietnam

…X’s threat to commit suicide if deported must be considered a real possibility.

Even with top grades and a political assessment that was deemed impeccable, students could still come up against the limitations of the system. X, a Vietnamese student with a faultless record, was described in the following way by the Stasi:

“x’s parents are workers and live in hanoi. from 1965–1973, x was in the vietnam liberation army. he was sent to university in the gdr in 1974. after completing education in the herder institute, he studied at the academy of fine arts leipzig, graduating with a degree in graphics. through the academy, he was transferred to the municipal museums in karl-marx-stadt [Chemnitz]. his work performance was evaluated as excellent. his political motivations are positive. his social activities should also be noted. according to his own account, he is a member of the executive committee of the youth wing of the srv [Socialist Republic of Vietnam] in the gdr.” (BSTU2)


BSTU, MfS_HA_II_29529, p. 25

The document states:  “The Division for Postal Control has established that a letter was sent by Vietnamese citizen [redacted], with the address 9005 Karl-Marx-Stadt, [redacted] to the chairman of the GDR State Council (which could not be officially evaluated). This letter outlines the citizen’s firm threat to commit suicide in the event of repatriation to Vietnam. In accordance with this information, temporary measures have been initiated by the police that will last until 24 April 1981.
We urgently request an investigation into this matter in cooperation with the relevant service unit and that we be informed of the result immediately in order to coordinate the next steps. If necessary, the intended measures of the police may be delayed for the time being.”

But X had fallen in love. He and his wife had succeeded in overcoming the hurdles to marriage between a GDR citizen and a foreigner. They gained the approval of the Leipzig city council, were married in December 1980, and had a daughter together. However, the Vietnamese embassy insisted on his repatriation and asked the relevant GDR authorities to initiate his return to Vietnam. X informed the police that he had applied for permanent residency in the GDR but had not received it. The police twice granted him a delay, explaining that if he did not present them with approval by 21 April, he would be sent back to Vietnam. Former student X wrote a letter to Erich Honecker, then head of state, describing his situation. He enclosed documents supporting his case and threatened suicide if he could not remain in the GDR. The Stasi requested further instruction from above and ordered the delay of additional police measures, so as to not provoke the suicide. At this point, X’s file breaks off.

»Chilean? Allende! And then: Venceremos!

Chilean emigrants were very much in the public spotlight in East Germany. The military coup against the democratically elected socialist government under president Salvador Allende in September 1973 outraged people worldwide. Two weeks after the coup, the GDR government resolved to grant asylum to persecuted Chileans, albeit only for members and supporters of Unidad Popular (Maurin 2005, p. 347), the overthrown government coalition. While taking in Chilean political exiles was part of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s internationalist credo, it was also in their own interests, as it served as a real-life embodiment of the party motto of “the struggle against imperialism and capitalism as well as for socialism, peace, national liberation and democracy” (Emmerling 2013, p. 396). The government’s granting of asylum was also intended to “help promote communism in Chile and safeguard Socialist Unity Party rule in the GDR” (Maurin 2005, p. 346). In accordance with the Communist Party of Chile, the GDR implemented a policy of proletarianizing emigrants, most of whom had an academic background: the majority of them were given work in manufacturing. However, Carlos Medina was able to secure work as a theatre director in the GDR and was one of a privileged group of around 50 artists who were employed at the Rostock People’s Theatre.

Carlos Medina discusses solidarity and the limits of freedom

The GDR’s policy of proletarianization and their severe restrictions on the Chilean exiles did not go unchallenged. Protests by sidelined Chilean revolutionaries in the GDR were recorded by the Stasi and ultimately their demands were partially taken into consideration. The Stasi reported (the monitoring of Chilean emigrants):

BStU MfS ZAIG 4097

The document states:  “Assessment On the Chilean Emigrants in the GDR
The Chilean emigrants were in many cases unhappy about their employment in production. In light of their activities in Chile, they had believed that they would work in administrative bodies, civic organisations, or institutions, or study. This increasingly led to the emigrants considering leaving the GDR.
With the introduction of measures to implement the decision of the GDR Council of Ministers of 1 August 1974 (including more generous policies for integration into the work process in terms of occupational requirements, abilities and preferences, the provision of a large number of university places, and the introduction of intensive courses for learning German), the process of work process integration was essentially complete; the expectation was that any existing dissatisfaction would be gradually overcome.”

The Chilean band Aparcoa, who had taken refuge in the GDR, were also employed by the Rostock People’s Theatre. They performed at many solidarity rallies and can be seen in the image below playing in the Palace of the Republic, Berlin.

Aparcoa playing in the Palace of the Republic. Berlin 1977 © Neues Deutschland archive

The members of the group were unable to come to terms with the realities of the GDR. Four of the six members left in 1977, moving to Peru, Venezuela, and France (Polster 2001, p. 24).

Chilean exiles did not always leave the GDR of their own volition. One year after the military coup in Chile, 21 refugees were deported from the GDR, and were vilified as “criminal and work-shy elements” in the corresponding Stasi report.

The document states:  “After consultation with the department of International Relations of the Central Committee of the SED and the Ministry of the Interior, 21 Chilean emigrants were deported from the GDR in 1974. Those deported were emigrants who were unable to adjust to social conditions in the GDR, and criminal and work-shy elements who, by exploiting existing personal difficulties, repeatedly attempted to instigate other political emigrants in the GDR to resist decisions made by GDR state bodies. Concrete evidence of hostile operations could not be demonstrated in this context.”

Most Chilean political exiles did not remain permanently in the GDR. Carlos Medina also returned to Chile for a period of time in the 1980s, but was drawn back to the GDR by the opportunity to work in European theatres. Medina was one of the 300-odd Chilean migrants who stayed in the GDR until 1989.

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Outside of Work

The migrants’ free time was regimented by the GDR too. Rather than being able to participate freely in society as promised, they often experienced racism.