The Berlin Wall: Escaping for Freedom and Love

On March 5th, 1946, Sir Winston Churchill
delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. This is when he famously announced to the
World that “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in
the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”
The curtain clearly divided the areas under Soviet influence from the rest of Europe. To many, this marked the beginning of the
Cold War. Churchill’s ‘iron curtain’ may have
been a figure of speech, but across many borders in Europe this division took the form of physical
barriers: walls or structures to prevent capitalist infiltration of the ‘paradise on Earth’
that was real socialism. More likely, these barriers were to prevent
citizens of Eastern Europe from fleeing repressive regimes and police states. In today’s Geographics, we are going to
explore the most famous of these barriers, the Berlin Wall. This was one of the hot spots and key symbols
of the Cold War, a concrete metaphor of a world torn asunder by ideological divide,
living under the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. But let’s not overlook that this symbol
had an actual impact on the lives of actual people. Heroes would risk their lives to seek freedom
across the Wall, help others escape, or simply to be reunited with their loved ones on the
other side. Heroes, forever and ever, or maybe, just for
one day. Building the Wall
After the end of WWII, the fate of Germany, Europe, and the whole world was determined
by the Allied Peace conferences in Yalta and Potsdam. It was there that the three greats – Churchill,
Roosevelt, and Stalin – decided to split Germany into four ‘allied zones.’ The eastern part of the country went to the
Soviet Union, the western part to the United States, Britain, and France. These respective zones later became the German
Democratic Republic, GDR, and the Federal Republic of Germany. The GDR was ‘democratic’ only in name,
with its citizens being ruled by a one-party system and kept in check by the relentless
secret police, the Stasi. Berlin was an anomaly: it sat entirely in
the eastern part of the country, and yet the Potsdam agreement sanctioned that it should
also be divided into the four areas of influence. West Berlin became a capitalist enclave placed
deep inside Communist territory, an example of what a true democracy was like, right in
the face of the GDR’s centres of power. In Nikita Khruschev’s words, West Berlin
was “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat”
Berlin would become one of the flashpoints where Cold War tensions threatened to escalate
into full-blown conflict. Take, for example, the Soviet blockade of
1948: a complete block of supplies to West Berlin, intended to starve the western Allies
out of the city. This is when the famous Berlin Airlift took
place. But despite the tensions, movement across
the city sectors was still relatively free: travel still required special visas, paperwork,
and plenty of bureaucracy, but it wasn’t forbidden. East Berliners could enjoy Western entertainment
and goods not allowed in their area, while West Berliners took advantage of the cheaper
restaurant prices before watching the latest drama by master playwright Bertolt Brecht. It wasn’t long before defectors and asylum
seekers started taking advantage of the situation, crossing to West Berlin before leaving the
GDR for good. From 1948 to June 1961, roughly 2.5 Million
people had escaped to the West. In one single day, August 12th, 1961, 2,400
had defected. That night, Soviet leader Khrushchev gave
the East German government permission to close the city’s border for good. It took only one night. The morning after, Berliners on both sides
of the border woke up to realize that their City had suddenly turned into a darker shade
of concrete grey. The Wall had appeared, and it would stay there
for long. The barriers erected on that August night
were expanded and reinforced over the following week. They measured 155km – 97 miles – in length,
with the proper Wall consisting of 43 km – 27 miles – of concrete separating the two sectors
of the City. The remaining 112km – 70 miles – were mainly
made of wire fencing, and they enclosed West Berlin from the surrounding GDR territory. When we say ‘Wall,’ it is easy to think
of it as, well, a simple Wall. But this was more precisely a complex fortification
system: the main feature were two concrete barriers, each almost 4 metres or 12 ft high. These barriers ran in parallel, with a “death
strip” between them. The barriers were topped with barbed wire
and electric fences, fortified with 302 observation towers, as well as bunkers, vehicle trenches
and an estimated 55,000 landmines. The whole structure was patrolled by the infamous
‘Grenztruppen’, the highly trained and specialised Border Troops of the GDR. The Wall still allowed for some crossing points
the most famous one being ‘Checkpoint Charlie.’ The soldiers stationed at these crossing points
looked and behaved like Grenztruppen, but were actually part of the Stasi. The Stasi, short for Stats-Sicherheit-Dienst,
or State Security Service, was the official internal security agency of the GDR Government. They were an efficient and omnipresent secret
police who closely monitored the lives of just about every citizen of East Germany – and
especially East Berliners. Stasi agents maintained meticulous records
about potential dissidents in their archives, ready to arrest and torture those suspected
of plotting an escape, or even worse, a sabotage of the socialist state on behalf of those
‘Western Fascists’. The Wall had divided the very soul of a Nation,
but most of all, it had direct, lasting, consequences on the lives of ordinary people, separating
them from their lovers and their families. But to what extent would these ordinary people
do the extra-ordinary to regain their freedom and the embrace of a loved one? Great Escapes: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
In general, the Wall achieved its purpose of preventing GDR citizens from reaching the
West. A 2017 study from the Free University of Berlin
estimates that 262 civilians were killed by the Grenztruppen while climbing over the wall. However, there are many stories of daring,
imaginative, and bonkers escape attempts which deserve to be remembered. The most iconic one was the leap to freedom
by a Guard himself. On August 15, 1961, two days after the erection
of the very first barriers, 18-year-old East German police officer Conrad Schumann was
assigned to guard a section at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ruppiner Strasse. There, he nervously paced back and forth,
chain-smoking and occasionally pushing down the section of barbed wire he was supposed
to watch over. At 4 pm, when the other guards were distracted,
Conrad dropped his cigarette and started running towards the barbed wire. As West Berliners started calling to come
over, Conrad leapt over the barrier like an Olympian, dropped his gun, and landed in West
Berlin, carried away by a police car. Conrad Schumann had made it. He moved to Bavaria, started a family, and
worked for Audi for 27 years. In the meanwhile, the photo of his jump had
become one of the most recognizable momentos of the Cold War, a symbol of inspiration for
all dissenters across the Soviet Bloc. In 1963, another military employee decided
he had had enough of real socialism. This was Wolfgang Engels — technically a
civilian, but employed as a driver by the East German Army. Instead of relying on agility, like Schumann,
Engels went for brute force. On the 16th of April, Engels ‘borrowed’
a PSW 152 six-wheeled armoured car and rammed it through the Wall. As he drove it into the concrete barrier,
he cried out: “I’m leaving for the West, who’s coming?” The PSW did bring down a section of the Wall
but got stuck in the debris. Engels left the vehicle, run across the ‘death
strip’ and climbed on the second barrier. When he got tangled in barbed wire, the Grenztruppen
took aim and shot him twice. As he was almost in Western territory, so
the West German border guards could fire back, offering cover. Some West Berliners who had been drinking
in a nearby bar then came to help, and freed Engels from the wire. Engels had lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was laying on the bar
counter. He recalled:
“When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that
I had made it”. Two years before Wolfgang Engels stole the
armoured car, another plan similarly relied on brute force. In December 1961, a 27-year-old train engineer,
Harry Deterling, was fed up with living with something that just wasn’t fair and so he
decided to go off the rails on a crazy train. Harry had discovered an abandoned train track
that still ran from an East Berlin suburb into West Berlin. The track connected the two sectors via a
7-foot wide passage, still left open in the wall. Deterling volunteered to drive a train that
ran on the nearest route and plotted “the last train to freedom.” On the 5th of December, Harry invited 24 family
members and friends on board and launched his train full throttle towards West Berlin,
smashing through the security barriers. Once Harry had driven his 24 fellow escapees
on the other side, one of the passengers rang West Berlin’s police to inform them:
“Hello. We’ve just escaped with a train.” When a massive armoured or speeding vehicle
are not available, you have to rely on stealth or incredible skill to make your way out. In 1964, 30 students from West Berlin dug
what was dubbed ‘Tunnel 57’. It took several months to complete and ended
up being 145m long and 90cm high, or 158 yards and 3 ft respectively. The Stasi eventually discovered it, but 57
people managed to escape before they did. My favourite tunnel, though, is the “Senior
Citizens Tunnel”. Led by an 81-year-old man, a group of seniors
spent two weeks digging quite a big tunnel. Unlike Tunnel 57, this gallery was high enough
so that escapees could walk through it, rather than crawl. According to one of these Senior Citizens,
they had made it so, because “We wanted to walk to freedom with our wives,
comfortably and unbowed”. From the depths below the streets, to the
heights above the buildings, Horst Klein can lay claim to the most artistic attempt. Horst was a trapeze artist who had been banned
from performing because of his anti-communist beliefs. In December 1962, the acrobat performed a
tight-rope walk over a disused power cable, balancing his way to the West. The Guards failed to shoot him, but Klein
eventually fell from the line, breaking both his arms. Fortunately, he had landed in West Berlin. But if I were to give a prize for inventiveness
and determination, it would go to the legends that are the Bethke brothers. Ingo was the first to go. As a former border guard, Ingo Bethke was
familiar with the banks of the River Elbe, north of Berlin, and the defences around it. When he decided to flee East Berlin in 1975,
Bethke returned to the river with a friend and their sophisticated escape craft: an air
mattress. Ingo and friend traversed a mine field before
reaching the river, and then they silently paddled on their air mattress into West Germany. After Ingo’s defection, his brother Holger
came under scrutiny and pressure from the Stasi. It was time for him to plot his getaway. First, he took up archery and practiced for
several months. Then, he identified a tall building, close
to the Wall, that overlooked West Berlin. In May of 1983, he snuck into the top floor
with his trusty bow and shot an arrow into West Berlin – an arrow that was attached
to a thin metal cable. Ingo was waiting on the other side and fastened
the wire to his car. And finally, Holger launched himself from
the building, riding the zip line he and Ingo had created, zooming above the baffled border
guards. Ingo and Holger could have stopped there,
and they’d still be entitled to star in the pre-credit sequence of the next James
Bond movie. But they weren’t done yet. You see, there was a third brother, Egbert,
and he was still stuck in the East. Over the following years, Ingo and Holger
took flying lessons and acquired two ultralight planes. They then painted them in military colours,
including Soviet-style red stars. I wondered if they wrote “I can assure you
this is a Mig” on the fuselage? Anyway, with their crafts ready, the two brothers
flew eastward over the wall, landed in East Berlin and picked up a very surprised Egbert. Miraculously, they were able to fly back to
West Berlin in complete safety. Egbert later recalled:
“I thought I’d never see my brothers again, but they came out of the sky like angels and
took me to paradise.” Berlin Love Stories
Many escape attempts saw as protagonists young couples willing to start a new life away from
the repressive atmosphere of the GDR. A particularly spectacular one saw as protagonists
Austrian boy Heinz Meixner and local girl, Margarete Thurau. While working in East Berlin, Heinz and Margarete
had fallen in love and decided to marry. When GDR authorities denied them permission
to be married, the two lovers hatched an escape plan. On May 5, 1963, Heinz hired a convertible,
then removed its windshield and deflated its tires to make the car as low to the ground
as possible. He then drove the car to Checkpoint Charlie
with Margarete and her mother hiding in the back. When they reached the inspection point, Heinz
ducked and slammed his foot on the accelerator. The guards had lowered the barrier, but the
modified convertible easily sped below it, driving the two lovers into the West. Their getaway, though dangerous, was relatively
quick, compared to the predicament of our next couple of smitten lovers …
Eckhard and Regina West Berliner Eckhard had travelled to East
Berlin in 1967, to accompany his father to a school reunion. At the event he met East Berliner Regina,
who was also there with her father. Lightning struck, and the seeds of passions
were sowed. Immediately after returning home, the two
started exchanging letters. But their relationship was a triangle from
the start, and the third uneasy, overbearing presence … was the Stasi. Eckhard and Regina soon realised that the
Communist secret police was steaming open and reading their letters. The Stasi one day arrested Regina and questioned
her. At first they wanted to find out if she wanted
to flee to the West. Of course, she denied. Then they asked her
‘Do you love this man?’ She replied:
‘I am 18 years old, I don’t even know what love is!’ That apparently left the Stasi a bit confused
… but the agents knew was that this person was a flight risk, and they had to remove
any temptation that would pull her to the West. So these highly trained spies spent six months
of their time, energy, and resources to get an 18 year old girl to break up with her boyfriend. Regina was no fool, and she made sure the
agents saw her going out for coffee with other men. In the meanwhile, she continued to send letters
in secret to Eckhard with the help of her granny. Eventually, the couple managed to meet in
Hungary, where East Germans were sometimes given permission to travel. It was their first encounter since the school
reunion. Regina recalled:
“It was in front of a hotel, he was standing in front of me and I had no words. We went to the hotel. He came, saw, and conquered … veni vidi
vici,” Well, you have to make the most of your Stasi-free
time! The couple agreed to complete their college
studies first, before finding a way to be together. In early 1971, Eckhard had a plan: he paid
a man to extract Regina from the GDR by evading the Wall through a tunnel. However, the attempt failed before it could
even begin when the police discovered the underground passage. Later the same year, Regina tried again: she
travelled to Romania, where a man agreed to drive her to Yugoslavia and then smuggle her
to Austria. She was squeezed into the space previously
occupied by the fuel tank, right under the car’s trunk. Border guards searched the car, but luckily
did not think about searching underneath the trunk. During the ordeal, Regina had passed out. When she woke up, she was greeted by the driver
saying: “You made it to freedom.” Three days later Regina flew to West Berlin,
where she was finally reunited with Eckhard. In 2014, the couple was still together and
was interviewed by UK’s ITV News. They asked Regina if Eckhard had been worth
her predicament. She replied
“Of course he was!” This couples’ story was clearly a success. But sometimes, unions would prove even more
difficult, especially even the stranded parties were not adults, but a mother and her newborn
child. Sigrid and Torsten
In January 1961, a little boy was born in an East Berlin hospital to Sigrid and Hartmut
Paul. The birth had severe complications, as little
Torsten was born with organ damage and internal bleeding. The Wall was still eight months away, so the
couple were able to take Torsten to a better equipped hospital in the West. Doctors were able to treat Torsten, and in
July, Sigrid was finally allowed to take him home. Torsten’s health had been temporarily secured,
but he still needed medicines and special formula imported from the West, which Sigrid
picked up every Monday. Then, on the night between the 12th and 13th
of August, everything changed. A Wall had sprung up in town, separating the
Soviet sector from the West. Sigrid now had to apply for a permit to cross
to the other side, but GDR authorities denied it. “Our baby food is good enough,” they said. Within days, Torsten’s health deteriorated
and he was coughing up blood. The Pauls took him to the hospitals, but the
only doctors who could help were on the other side of the Wall. Transferring patients across the Wall was
allowed only for those with a heart condition. A sympathetic doctor falsified Torsten’s
papers to pretend he was a cardiac patient, and ferried him to the West. For the next few months, until Torsten turned
one, Sigrid was able to see her baby only for a few hours at a time, and only after
painful negotiations with GDR bureaucrats to obtain short-lived visas. Authorities eventually issued a blanket refusal:
Sigrid and Hartmut would not be allowed to see their child any more. The only option was to escape to the West. The Pauls acquired fake passports and were
ready to flee to West Berlin via a Scandinavian country, when they received a message from
a friend: the Stasi was onto them, so they better abort the attempt. As a means to find allies in their next escape
attempt, the Pauls welcomed into their flat some students who were also plotting to flee. All the students were arrested shortly afterwards,
and the couple was next: both were questioned, and Sigrid was imprisoned for six months without
a trial. In August 1963, Sigrid and Hartmut were charged
with failing to reveal the students’ escape plans and sentenced to four and a half years
in prison. Meanwhile, Torsten remained in the West Berlin
hospital, fed through a tube and looked after by the medical staff, whose letters occasionally
made it to the Pauls in prison. Almost two years into their sentence, Sigrid
and Hartmut were suddenly released. They had been ransomed by the West German
Government, who was essentially buying the freedom of thousands of political prisoners. They were free, but still not allowed to travel
to the West. After 11 more agonising months, Torsten was
well enough to return home. He was four and a half when he was reunited
with his parents. They were total strangers to him, but eventually
their relationship blossomed. Finally, the Pauls were a family. But the Stasi had one final ruthless twist
in reserve. After the Wall finally came down in 1989,
East German citizens were allowed access to the files kept on them by the secret police. When Sigrid reviewed her records, she discovered
that the Stasi had tried to recruit Torsten to spy on his own family. Thankfully, he had not caved. Plagued by poor health through his adult life,
he always remained loyal and extremely close to Sigrid. Eija-Riitta
Our final love story is a bit… unconventional. In 1979, a Swedish woman named Eija-Riitta
chose to marry the Berlin Wall in a small, intimate ceremony. She then adopted the surname Berliner-Mauer,
or Berlin Wall, in German. Eija-Ritta was diagnosed with a condition
called objectophilia, a condition where the afflicted experiences feelings of love, attraction,
arousal, and commitment for a particular inanimate object. Mrs. Berliner-Mauer claimed she fell in love
with the structure when she first saw it on television when she was seven. She began collecting “his” pictures and saving
up for visits. It was on her sixth trip in 1979 that she
finally tied the knot with Mr. Berliner-Mauer. Eija-Ritta insists that she had a full, loving
relationship with the Wall, albeit a long-distance one, as she was based in Liden, northern Sweden. “I find long, slim things with horizontal
lines very sexy. The Great Wall of China’s attractive, but
he’s too thick – my husband is sexier.” When the Wall was torn down in 1989, hard-line
Communists may have been horrified at the turn of events, but Eija-Ritta was devastated. “What they did was awful. They mutilated my husband.” According to The Telegraph, she has since
shifted her affections to a nearby garden fence. Heroes
After 28 years of living under the shadow of the Wall, liberation for East Berliners
arrived swiftly, almost by total surprise. The chain of falling dominoes was set in motion
in the Spring of 1989. Soviet Premier Michail Gorbatchev had made
the unprecedented decision to grant more autonomy to countries within the Warsaw Pact. The first to take advantage was the Hungarian
Government, which opened its borders with Austria. Soon, East Germans started pouring into Hungary,
so that they might cross the border and escape to democracy. At the end of the summer, another 4,500 escapees
sought refuge in the West German Embassy in Prague. When, on the 30th of September, they were
granted asylum by the West German government, the GDR had to yield. Its President, hard-line communist Erich Honecker,
allowed for their departure, with the condition that they travelled via East German territory. The 4,500 were transferred to Leipzig, from
which they boarded special trains to the West. The convoys were stormed by more dissidents,
while others preferred to stay, instigating a series of demonstrations demanding for democratic
reforms. These culminated with the March for Freedom
and Peace, on the 9th of October. Honecker understood that he had been beaten
and he resigned, succeeded by Egon Krenz. On the 9th of November, Krenz’ cabinet convened
a press release to announce that border controls to the West would be finally lifted. Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrmann asked
Minister of Propaganda Gunter Schabowski when would the restrictions be lifted. The politburo’s plan was to grant freedom
of movement only on the 17th, but Schabowski, poorly briefed and unprepared, improvised
with a mumbled ‘sofort’
Immediately. Apparently, Ehrmann had been tipped to ask
that question by an insider of the politburo, somebody who knew that Schabowski would bungle
the press conference. Whether by coincidence or by design, Schabowski’s
words had a momentous effect. Thousands of East Berliners took to the streets
and marched to the Wall, drinking beer and chanting ‘Tor auf!’ – Open the gate! Outnumbered and without orders, the once-feared
Grenztruppe obeyed the crowd and opened the checkpoints. The City was reunited. As ‘the greatest street party in the history
of the world’ raged on, thousands of Berliners from both sides tore down the Wall that had
scarred their lives for more than a generation. 11 months later, the two Germanies were reunited,
like so many of its citizens had been over the previous decades. The reunification allowed for many families
to finally embrace again. Many of those who had fled to the West were
able to return to their old homes in East Berlin. One of them was Conrad Schumann – the soldier
who had made the leap. Conrad reunited with his family and friends,
but some held a grudge against him. For having deserted, for having them left
behind. Years later, in 1998, Conrad walked into the
woods outside Berlin and hanged himself. During the years of separation, and during
the months leading to reunification, East Germans had manifested two ways to defy authority. Some had braved death to escape to the West;
others had preferred to stay, and, if necessary, protest for democratic reform. Who were the real heroes? Those who faced the guns and the barbed wire
with a gutty mix of ingenuity, courage, and good fortune? Or those who stayed behind, enduring the stupidity
of bureaucrats, the hardships of communist life, and the bullying of the Stasi? You could argue that both were heroes, in
different ways. But in an ideal place, an ideal world, there
shouldn’t be any need for heroes. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, the East Berliner,
put it perfectly: ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’