LOOKING FOR FREEDOM—5 TALES OF ESCAPING THE BERLIN WALL
The Cold War was a cruel time in many aspects, but one of the worst was definitely the Berlin Wall. Erected by the Soviets to guarantee their control over the part of Germany that belonged to them after World War II, it divided East Germany from the West from 1961 until 1989.
Now, 25 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 25 years since that grim reminder of Soviet control, of robbing people in East Germany their freedom. 25 years since so many of them lost their lives trying to escape. But there are also those who actually managed to slip over the border. No matter how fortified the Wall was, no matter how many watchtowers, guard dogs or barbed wire they had to pass, there were people who did it, people who took back their freedom.
There are many remarkable stories, but here are five tales of survivors with incredible luck—and also imagination.
5. Under the Wall
Many people tried to escape through tunnels. This was not the best option, since the tunnels were discovered more often than not, but there are still some who succeeded. In 1964, for example, 30 students from West Berlin dug one of the most spectacular tunnels that would help people from East Berlin escape the Wall. Dubbed Tunnel 57, it took several months and ended up being 145m long and 90cm high. By the time it was discovered, 57 people had managed to escape.
Another successful story is the Seniorentunnel, or the ‘Senior Citizens’ Tunnel’. Led by an 81-year-old man, a group of seniors spent two weeks digging quite a big tunnel. According to one of them, they had made the tunnel so tall because they wanted to “walk to freedom with our wives, comfortably and unbowed”.
4. Crazy Train
In the early days of the Wall, brute force could get one to freedom, too. Harry Deterling was a train engine driver, and he used his passenger train to get himself, seven members of his family and 16 other people across the border. Instead of slowing down as they approached the Wall, he turned it up to full speed and successfully broke through the Wall. That was literally a trip to freedom.
3. On a Tightrope
Stepping up the game, acrobat Horst Klein made one of the most daring escapes over the Wall. Taking advantage of his acrobatic skills, he climbed up an unused high-tension cable and started moving hand-over-hand over the Wall. Dangling 18m high, he had to be very careful not to be discovered by the patrolling guards. When he couldn’t continue with his hands, he swung his whole body onto the cable and crawled on like that—until he fell off. Luckily, by that time, he was already in West Berlin.
2. On a Hot Air Balloon
And we set the bar higher once again. Hans Strelczyk, a mechanic, and Gunther Wetzel, a mason, used their mechanical know-how to build a hot air balloon engine out of propane cylinders. Their wives then sewed the actual balloon together out of scraps of canvas and bed sheets. Together with their four children, the two couples flew up 2,5km and survived their trip to the other side.
1. On a Plane
If a hot air balloon was already risky, try the story of the Bethke brothers. Ingo and Holger, the two older brothers, had escaped the East, but Egbert, the youngest one, had stayed because of his girlfriend. However, he still wanted to get out, so his brothers came up with a plan. By that time, climbing over the wall or digging a tunnel had become impossible, so their solution was plain and simple: They had to fly.
The two sold their bar, bought two ultralight planes and brought the planes to West Berlin. To confuse the guards, they painted Soviet stars on their planes and dressed in military uniforms. Then they flew over the border.
Meanwhile, Egbert was waiting for them in a park, hiding in the bushes in East Berlin. One of the planes landed, while the other stayed in the air observing the area. The moment Egbert saw his brother’s plane, he ran for his life, jumped into it, and they quickly took off again, escaping once and for all.
As incredible as it sounds, no one noticed them.
But we can’t talk about escaping the wall without mentioning a certain song and a certain celebrity. If you paid attention, the title of this article already gave you the hint. Yes, I’m talking about David Hasselhoff and his well-known hit Looking for Freedom. To know more stories about the Wall and how that one song became a hymn for the people behind the Wall, tune in to David Hasselhoff vs the Berlin Wall, premiering in November on NatGeo.