Dirk Deckert and Karsten Kluender dreamt of traveling, surfing, sailing and freedom. Those were pie-in-the-sky dreams for two men living in tightly-controlled East Germany. They hatched a plan to use their passions in a bid for freedom. There were some patrols along the coast, but it appeared less dangerous than other escape routes. Early one morning in November 1986, they approached the sea with their surfboards. They were going to surf to Denmark. ”
how about some real escapism?
The end of World War Two signalled an unsure future for defeated Germany. At a pair of Allied Peace conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, the fate of Germany’s territories was determined. It was here that it was decided to split Germany into four ‘allied zones’, the eastern part of the country went to the Soviet Union and the western part to the United States, Britain and eventually France. West Germany was technically Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany was Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, or GDR). Despite Berlin sitting entirely in the eastern part of the country, and I constantly have to remind myself constantly that Berlin was *nowhere *near the east-west border, the city was divided into similar zones.
The existence of West Berlin, a consciously capitalist city deep within a communist East Germany, ‘stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat,’ according to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. So tenuous were the relations between East and West that Russia began plotting to drive the United States, Britain and France out of Berlin for good. In 1948, a Soviet blockade of West Berlin was set up, blocking off all rail and road access to West Berlin in an effort to starve the western Allies out of the city. In one of the most dramatic standoffs in the history of the Cold War, the Berlin blockade saw the United States and its allies supplying their sectors of the city from the air. Known as the Berlin Airlift, the allied nations flew in more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and other goods for over a year, until the Soviets ended the blockade. Things were *relatively calm for a while, but in the late 1950’s, the Soviets noticed a trend. People noticed how life on the capitalist side was recovering faster than life on the Communist side –not to mention there were a lot fewer spies keeping tabs on regular folks– and they began to emigrate. This was especially true of doctors, scientists, and skilled professionals, resulting in a serious brain drain in the east, which got worse year over year. Khrushchev ordered the East German government to stop the flow of emigrants for good. On the night of August 12, 1961, in *one *night, barbed wire that formed the initial barrier was swiftly covered with bricks and mortar. It was later reinforced multiple times to become an impenetrable 12f/3.7m high concrete wall, roughly 100mi/161km long, complete with no-mans-land, land mines, guard dogs, guard towers, and checkpoints. The relatively fluid border, which had allowed some 60,000 East Germans to commute daily to well-paying jobs in the West, to visit friends and loved ones, attend soccer matches and concerts, or go to the theater, was gone. With no warning, whichever side of the border you went to sleep on Aug. 12 was where one was stuck for the next 28 years.
The opposing structure didn’t stop people from trying to make the great escape to the west. Roughly 171 people, some of them defecting Soviet soldiers, lost their lives trying to cross the border, but over 5,000 more East Germans managed to make the impossible journey to the west. And some of them got really creative with it.
But the first person to cross that foreboding line hopped over it. When the “wall” was three days in, much of it was still just barbed wire in sections, though with soldiers and police to enforce it. One of those was 18-year-old Conrad Schumann, stationed at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ruppiner Strasse. He might have been young, but he could tell which way the wind was blowing. He wanted out of the GDR, like now. He paced his beat nervously, while chain-smoking and occasionally pushing down the barbed wire coil. (It was only two-foot-high.) While the other guards were distracted by the gathering crowd, Schumann swapped out his loaded submachine gun for an unloaded (and thus lighter) one. At 4 p.m., Schumann flicked away his cigarette, took a running start and deftly leapt over the barrier, dropping his gun and just leaving it as he was whisked into a waiting West German police car. A West German journalist captured the leap to freedom in what would become one of the most famous images of the wall until 1989. The “free world” loved Schumann, but many of the people he left behind considered him a loathsome traitor. Even after he was reunited with his family after the fall of the wall a generation later, many people shunned him as a deserter. Schumann was the first soldier from the National Peoples Army to escape, but it is estimated that 2,700 East German soldiers and policemen followed his example.
If someone has turned your home into a prison, then you should treat it like a prison and start digging yourself a tunnel. In 1964, 30 students from West Berlin spent several months digging a 476ft/145m long tunnel to help people in the East escape. One assumes they had to crawl to freedom, because the tunnel was only 3ft/90cm high. Less than 48 hours after it was finished, the Stasi discovered it, but not before 57 men, women and children had managed to escape, which I assume is why the tunnel is referred to as Tunnel 57. But many more were still awaiting their turn when the GDR soldiers showed up and in the ensuing altercation, a soldier was killed by friendly fire, which the GDR blamed on West Germany. We can’t talk tunnels without mentioning the “Senior Citizens Tunnel”. A group of seniors spent two weeks digging a tunnel large enough that they could walk through it, rather than crawl. According to one of these Senior Citizens, they went through all that effort because “We wanted to walk to freedom with our wives, comfortably and unbowed”.
Lots of escape plans forwent walking entirely, preferring instead planes, trains, and automobiles, like the plan of Heinz Meixner and 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. In May 1963, Heinz rented a convertible, removed its windshield and deflated the tires to make the car ride as low to the ground as possible. He drove the low-rider to the famous Checkpoint Charlie with Margarete and her mother hiding in the back. As they reached the inspection guards, Heinz ducked and slammed on the gas. [sfx] The car was low enough to eek under the barrier and the two lovers, plus mom, sped to freedom.
But maybe you want something beefier than an open-top car. Wolfgang Engels, a civilian employed by the East German Army as a driver, decided communism had lost all its appeal.
Instead of relying on agility like Schumann, or speed like Meixner, Engels went for brute force. Engels spotted a parked PSW 152 six-wheeled armoured troop transport vehicle and “borrowed” it. He drove toward the wall, stopping to yell to strangers, “I’m leaving for the West, who’s coming?” No one took him up on the offer. Engels then put his foot down and hurtled apace into the concrete barrier. He smashed into it, but not through it. The PSW was embedded in the wall, but, critically, the door was still on the east side. Engels leapt from the vehicle, ran across the no man’s land between barriers known as the ‘death strip’ and climbed on the second barrier. The Grenztruppen, the GDR border guards, shot him. They had standing orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to get across. Bullet wound notwithstanding, Engles still managed to climb the wall… but he got stuck on the barbed wire, and the guard shot him again in the back. Finally a *West Berlin border guard saw what was happening and gave him cover fire. But by that time, Engles had lost consciousness. Luckily, some West Berliners drinking in a nearby pub rushed to his aid, freed Engels from the wire, and took him back to the pub. He woke up on the bar counter. “When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it”.
If one car is good, how about a bunch of cars in a line, or as experts call it, a train. In December 1961, a 27-year-old engineer, Harry Deterling discovered a section of unused train track that was slated to be demolished so the wall could be completed across its path, but it still ran into West Berlin. At least for the next five days. Time was short not only for the track, but for Deterling himself — he was about to be sent to a labor and re-education camp after refusing to comply with state programs. He volunteered to drive a train that ran on the nearest route and plotted “the last train to freedom.” Deterling invited 24 family members and friends on board and had them sit in the foremost car, along with 7 other people who happened to be in that car already and had no idea what was about to happen. When Deterling approached the last station, instead of slowing down to stop, he opened up the throttle [sfx] and disconnected the safety brake so that no one could stop the train. The guards also caught by surprise didn’t fire a single shot. The runaway train smashed full-speed into the temporary border barrier, finally stopping in the West Berlin district of Spandau, where I assume they went to the ballet. [sfx True] Spandau Ballet joke. They actually had a song called Through the Barricades, but it’s about the war-torn, bifurcated city of Belfast, Ireland, not Berlin.
Speaking of ballet and other flexible folks, one man used his skills as a trapeze artist to make his escape. In December 1962, Horst Klein found himself banned from performing because of his anti-communist beliefs. He noticed a cable spanning the barricades and death zone and a lightbulb went off. [sfx] He was going to do what he did best. Under cover of darkness, Klein climbed an electric utility pole, reached the high-voltage cable, didn’t immediately electrocute himself, which is always a plus, and started moving hand-over-hand over the wall. Dangling 60ft/18m above the guards, Klein was outside the range of the search-lights, but he was far from safety. Unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing gloves and it was winter in Germany. His hands became numb in the cold, he lost his grip and fell, breaking both of his arms when he crashed to earth. Luckily, Klein landed a few feet over the western side of the wall.
Fleeing to freedom was a family affair for the Bethke brothers, Ingo, Holger and Egbert.
Twenty-one year old Ingo dreamed of seeing the world, but living in a communist country, that ain’t gonna happen, cap’n. Ingo had become familiar with the Elbe river while serving as a border guard and decided that was his lucky horse. But first he had to get *to the river. To reach the bank, Ingo had to get past a metal fence, while not hitting the tripwires that would activate the floodlights. After that, was a barbed wire barrier, and after *that was a mine field. Through skill or luck, Ingo made it past all that and down to the river, where he deployed his secret weapon…an air mattress, which he blew up and and silently paddled to the other side. The Stasi found the air mattress and the GDR outlawed air mattresses in East Germany. It’s the reason why, to this day, air mattresses have a warning label saying they can’t be used as rafts. Naw, I’m just yanking your chain.
After Ingo’s defection, both the Elbe River and his brother Holger came under scrutiny. Eight weeks later, it was time for him to plot his getaway, but he’d have to find another way. For weeks, Holger and a friend prepared for the escape by working out and… practicing archery. In March 1983, the two dressed as electricians to get into a carefully selected building, where they hid in the attic. At night, Holger shot a nylon line over the wall using a bow and arrow. After two failed attempts. Third time lucky, which was handy because they only had three arrows. Ingo was waiting on the other side to receive the nylon cable, to which Holger tied a steel cable, with its end anchored around a chimney. Ingo tied the line to his car and pulled it taught, and Holger launched himself down it with a pulley like a zip line. But the line wasn’t steep enough and Holger ran out of momentum before he got to the end. Going back wasn’t an option, so Holger went hand-over-hand until he could drop down onto a balcony on the west side.
There was one brother left, so on to plan 3. Ingo and Holger took flying lessons and got their hands on two ultralight planes, which they painted in military colours, complete Soviet-style red stars under the wings, and added beefier engines so the little crafts could carry two people instead of one. The brothers themselves were decked out in fake Russian pilots uniforms, a coy communist cosplay. 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.”
The Bethke brothers weren’t the only people to fly to freedom in the west. Presenting [sfx drumroll] my favorite Berlin wall escape of all. Friends Gunter Wetzel, a mason by trade, and Peter Strelzyk, an electrician and former Air Force mechanic, put their heads together to brainstorm. Plan A, build a helicopter. They quickly realized that was perhaps a teeny bit impractical, difficult to source parts for starters, so they went with the next best thing – a hot air balloon. Accounts differ as to whether they were inspired by a television program about ballooning or a magazine article about the International Balloon Festival in Albuquerque.
The balloon would need to carry a total of 8 people, two men, two wives, and four children, ages 2-15, plus the proposed weight of the gondola, about 1650 lb/750 kg. Subsequent math, and I’ll take their word for it, said that the balloon would need to hold 71,000 cu ft/2,000 cubic metres of air, which would mean the balloon would need 8,600 sq ft/800 sq m of fabric. That was a pretty tall order in the small town where they lived and was guaranteed to both fail and attracti suspicion. They drove an hour to a department store in a larger town, where they told a flummoxed clerk that they needed 930 yds/850 m to make tent lining for their camping club. Wetzel spent two weeks sewing the cloth into a balloon shaped bag, 49x66ft/15x20m, on a manually-operated sewing machine from the 30’s. Strelzyk was on gondola and burner duty. The gondola was a simple square platform of sheet metal with little posts at the corners, strung with clotheslines as the wall. There’s a link in the show notes to a video of the actual balloon in a museum, definitely check it out because that gondola was a tragedy waiting to happen.
On an April night in 1978, they found a secluded forest clearing 6.2mi/10 km from the border to test the balloon. The burner failed to inflate the balloon, which they attributed to the fact that the balloon was laid out on the ground. To get around this, they found an 82ft/25m cliff at a rock quarry where they could suspend the balloon vertically–the homemade balloon with both their families held in by a bloody piece string– but that didn’t work either. Plan B3, fill the balloon with regular air first, with a blower made from a 14hp motorcycle engine, powered by jumper cables off Strelzyk’s car. To heat the air faster, they got it started with a homemade flamethrower. A homemade flamethrower. MacGuyver’s got nothing on these kids. You see, kids, MacGuyver was a TV show… nevermind. They went back to the clearing but the balloon still wouldn’t inflate. One reason, the blower illustrated, was that cotton is far too porous for a balloon. Their unsuccessful effort cost them the equivalent of six grand, and Strelzyk had to burn the fabric a bit at a time to dispose of it, their money and dreams literally going up in smoke.
The pair began testing samples of different kinds of fabric, from dress taffeta, which worked fairly well, to umbrella material, which worked the best but was the most expensive. They drove more than two hours to buy fabric this time, with the cover story that they needed a massive quantity of fabric to make sails for their sailing club. The store didn’t keep that much on hand and would have to order it, leaving the families biting their nails that the order would be reported to the Stasi. But the fabric came in without incident. They also splashed out for an electric motor for the sewing machine. Wetzel spent the next week sewing the second balloon and they returned to the forest clearing and, will wonders never cease, the blower-flamethrower combo had the bag inflated in about five minutes. The bag lifted and stayed up, but the burner on the gondola wasn’t powerful enough to create the heat needed to actually get off the ground. Back to the drawing board to tinker with different fuels and more tanks. They were getting nowhere and Wetzel wanted to abandon the balloon plan for a homemade glider or small plane. Strelzyk continued trying to work on the burner and they could get a bigger flame with the propane tank inverted. This isn’t a weekend project, bear in mind; it was 14 months between the first test and cracking the secret of the burner.
On 3 July 1979, with weather conditions favorable, the Strelzyk family lifted from a forest clearing at 1:30am and reached an altitude of 6,600ft/2,000m, according to the homemade altimeter. The gentle wind was blowing them toward freedom in West Germany when the balloon entered a cloud. Water vapor condensed on the balloon and the added so much weight, it caused the balloon to descend…at the edge of a minefield *600ft/180m from the border. The family spent nine hours hiking 9mi/14km back to their car and launch equipment undetected and made it home just in time to call out sick from work and school. They couldn’t have taken the balloon with them and it was discovered later that morning. Strelzyk destroyed everything remaining and even sold his car in case someone had seen it. The Stasi asked the public to turn in the “perpetrator of a serious offence,” with a list of all the items left at the crash site. The men decided their best, or only, chance was to build another balloon as quickly as they could.
They doubled the balloon’s size. Between that and trying even harder to avoid notice, they bought the 13,500sq ft/1250sq m in smaller quantities of various colors and types of fabrics from shops all over the country. The balloon also required 3.7mi/6km of thread. Wetzel sewed a *third balloon and Strelzyk rebuilt everything else. They were ready in six weeks and on the night of September 15, a thunderstorm created the winds they would need, and they went back to the clearing. It took only 13 minutes to get their balloon inflated. They lifted off, but when they went to cut the ground tethers, they didn’t do it in perfect sync, the gondola tilted, and the burner caught the fabric on fire. They put it out with a fire extinguisher and the balloon climbed to 6600ft/2,000m in nine minutes, drifting west at 19mph/30km per hour. The temperature was 18 °F/−8 °C and, again, the walls of the gondola were railings of clothesline. A design flaw in the burner caused the flame to be too high and the balloon split. The rush of air put out the flame. Wetzel was able to re-light the flame with a match, which he had to do so several more times before they landed. The tear meant they had to use the burner much more often to stay aloft, meaning faster fuel consumption and thus a shorter distance that could be covered, a difference of as much as 30mi/50km. At one point, they increased the flame to the maximum possible and rose to 8200ft/2,500m, high enough to be detected, but not identified, by West German air traffic controllers. They had also been detected on the East German side by a night watchman, who reported the unidentified flying object heading toward the border, and border guards turned on the searchlights, but the balloon was too high.
When the propane ran out, they descended quickly, with little idea of where they were. The men ventured out cautiously and noticed small farms with modern equipment, starkly different from the centralized farms and old equipment they were used to seeing. Two Bavarian police officers had seen the balloon’s flickering light and headed to where they thought it would land; Strelzyk and Wetzel were relieved to see they were driving an Audi – another sign they were in fact in West Germany. They’d landed near the town of Naila, only 6mi/10km west of the border. The only injury was suffered by Wetzel, who broke his leg on the landing.
And that’s… Back to Deckert and Kluender. Deckert damaged his wetsuit early doors and turned back; it was too dangerous to be in the freezing water without it. Unaware of that, Kluender went on, nearly exhausted by the time he spotted the Danish coast hours later. Kluender worried that Deckert had been caught, but Deckert fixed his wet suit and set out alone the next day. To his surprise, after six hours of surfing he saw a Danish fishing boat, which was specifically out looking for him, telling him that Kluender had made it safely to Denmark. Even with their successful escape, Deckert said: “If I had known that the wall would fall three years later, I would have stayed. Definitely.”