SOON AFTER ULBRICH’s RETURN from the Moscow congress, work began on transforming the still-largely-improvised Berlin barrier into something durable and impregnable.
It had already been strengthened with anti-crash devices at points considered particularly vulnerable to heavy vehicles such as trucks and buses. Following the experts’ report to Honecker’s ‘Central Staff at the end of October 1961, military engineers began to ‘extend’ the existing arrangements. The aim was to make them both more secure and-at certain symbolic or notorious places, such as the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie-a little less brutally unattractive.
The need for further tightening of border security was made more urgent by disturbances that accompanied the ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ confrontation confronation between 22 and 29 October. On the night of 27/8 October, in the French Sector, a sizeable force of West Berlin police was required to break up a crowd of 150 youths, who were attempting to cut down the barbed-wire border fence. According to the New York Times, twenty-two Easterners took their chance to flee during that single night, including a customs official in uniform.1
The propaganda barrage in East Germany continued, as did the arrests-though the wave of repression began to tail off towards the end of 1961. Superficial resignation was soon the dominant mood among the GDR’s population.
None the less, the regime could not relax. In September it started rallying loyalist forces, especially the young enthusiasts of the Free German Youth, encouraging them to spy on and direct the thoughts of family and friends. The FDJ youngsters were organised in a campaign, ‘Blitz against NATO broadcasts’, meaning all Western television and radio stations, Kids would clamber on to roofs and redirect the aerials to stop them receiving signals from the West, Adults known to watch or listen to Western broadcasts were pilloried by youthful fanatics. In some cases, miscreants were reported to the authorities and radio or TV sets confiscated.
The regime’s nerviness was to some extent justified. Western subversives of various kinds, particularly foreigners and West Germans, could still pass pretty freely between West and East Berlin so long as they didn’t make their status too obvious.
Western intelligence services, which had been caught napping on 13 August, managed to rebuild skeleton agent networks within a fairly short time. The CIA’s Berlin Operations Base (BOB) reported on 6 November 1961 that despite new border controls it had managed to keep or regain contact with twenty-five agents operating in East Berlin. Judging that access might be restricted at some point, canny BOB officials had already begun supplying agents with two-way radios or letter-drop arrangements, to replace the face-to-face debriefings that had been standard while the border remained open. However, there were still some who had to be contacted in person. It was true, as the 6 November report suggested, that despite the substantial numbers of Westerners still crossing back and forth since 13 August, this traffic was now coming under increasingly thorough physical and documentary control.2
Although the CIA’s activities were curtailed by the Wall, BOB was none the less well aware of the mood in East Berlin, of the economic situation, and of the police actions being conducted by the Communist regime, and therefore able usefully to supplement the Allied military missions’ reports. Within a year of 13 August, BOB had published 262 field reports based on two-way communication with thirty sources in the East, and carried out fifty missions in support of these agents without losing any operatives to theStasi and KGB counter-espionage networks.
One thing was clear: the CIA could no longer actively build up any kind of ‘resistance’ network in the East. This had always been a slightly dubious concept, but with the Wall in place it became impossible. The best BOB could do was to maintain assets, and use the information those assets supplied in cleverer ways; for instance, to influence the propaganda war. A German-speaking BOB representative was added to the team that interviewed East German refugees, especially army and border-police deserters like Conrad Schumann. The BOB man’s job was to quickly digest the material thrown up by the interviewers, detailing the escaper’s reasons for leaving, disillusionment with the regime, and so on. Without having to wait for the full interrogation report, by which time the story might have gone ‘cold’ he would turn it all into punchy copy. This material would be rapidly fed to the press in West Berlin and the rest of the world, using the CIA’s excellent journalistic connections.
But how much could and would West Berlin and the Allies do to help those imprisoned behind the recently built Wall?
The Allied and West Berlin authorities were in a quandary. No one wanted to provoke the East Germans or the Russians into cross-border interventions, so violent demonstrations by West Berlin civilians were discouraged. On the other hand, the West Berlin police could not resist becoming involved in escape attempts, helping refugees as far as they could, and even providing covering fire. They were, technically, forbidden to do such a thing, but the rules could be stretched. The West Berlin law-enforcers could plead that they had been shot at from the East, and so their weapons had been fired in self-defence. Since many escapes took place under cover of darkness, it was hard to prove otherwise.
Mayor Brandt himself was similarly torn between his heart and his head. At the beginning of December, he declared at a meeting:
In the long run we cannot prohibit anyone, not just from saying what they feel about the Wall, but from giving a stronger expression to that feeling. Let no one believe it is easy for us to send in our police against young people when they demonstrate against inhumanity.
A few days later, he put it even more clearly: ‘Our police force…is there to protect order in West Berlin, but not to protect the Wall.’3
The West Berlin Senator for the Interior, Joachim Lipschitz, had been forced to leave East Berlin in 1949 because of his commitment to the SPD. He had become passionately involved in training a new paramilitary police force to defend West Berlin from overt or covert attacks from the East. Lipschitz, a courageous leader of the socialist underground during the war years and a proven man of action, may even, if British official reports are to be believed, have been involved in a plan to blow up part of the Wall as a protest on New Year’s Eve 1961/2. The senator’s unexpected death, aged forty-three, on 11 December 1961, means we shall probably never be sure.
There were several such attacks on the Wall from the Western side, using high explosives, in the last weeks of 1961 and well into 1962. The largest was on the Potsdamer Platz in July 1962, after which the Western authorities were forced to take action for fear someone would get killed. These detonations were almost certainly staged by members of the ‘Girrmann Group’ a student escape-and-subversion organisation based in the Free University of West Berlin. None seems to have achieved much beyond a certain protest value. They did, however, cause a special kind of panic among the control-fiends who ran the GDR. Lengthy reports were sent to Ulbricht on such incidents. S-Bahn trains, which passed through West Berlin but were still operated by the Eastern authorities, were also favoured with several small bombs. These were a kind of violent complement to the boycott of the S-Bahn network by Westerners, which continued throughout the 1960s and into the 197os.
But what really frightened the SED bosses, and encouraged Berliners and their sympathisers all over the world, were the escapers. The people who proved the Wall was not impregnable, who offered hope to the trapped millions of the GDR.
Heroism and tragedy were never far removed from each other in those early days. Hundreds escaped but hundreds more were arrested for trying and often sentenced to long prison terms. Thirteen human beings died trying to escape from East to West Berlin between 13 August 196I and the end of the year.
Of the Wall’s first martyrs, four fell to their deaths while trying to escape from windows and rooftops in the Bernauer Strasse, between August and October. After this time, the buildings skirting the West were purged of their tenants, and windows and doors systematically bricked up.
Six more people died trying to swim to the West, including two in the Teltow Canal, one across the Humboldthafen, two across the Spree river, and one across the Havel between Potsdam and West Berlin. The three killed by shooting-including Günther Litfin and Roland Hoff in August-were equalled by those who simply risked too much and drowned.
The victim who died in the Havel was a nineteen-year-old private in the ‘Readiness Police’ patrolling the border with Potsdam. He made a vain attempt to swim across the numbingly cold river to the Wannsee shore in West Berlin, but was retrieved from the water and placed under arrest. However, by this time he was barely alive, and died from exposure and waterlogged lungs on the way to hospital.
Udo Düllick, a 25-year-old engineer with the East German railways, was sacked after expressing anti-Communist sentiments during a political argument with colleagues. A few days later, on 5 October 1961, he tried to swim the Spree river between Treptow in the East and Kreuzberg. He came under fire from a border patrol, but was not hit. In the event, the exertion, the currents, and perhaps the terror were what killed him. His lifeless body was fished out of the water by West Berlin police.
Düllick carried no papers, and for days remained the ‘unknown victim of the Wall’. Then his brother, who lived in Switzerland, arrived in West Berlin and identified his body. Only then were the worst fears of Udo’s anxious parents in East Berlin confirmed. Their son was given a highprofile burial in West Berlin. The parents, pious Catholics, were permitted to hold a quiet memorial service at the chapel of rest in the Rehfelde cemetery, a few kilometres outside East Berlin. With typical cynicism, the Stasi imposed one condition: the priest who delivered the eulogy for Udo must not mention the cause of his death or any of the surrounding circumstances. Such enforced silence became the rule at services in the East for victims of the Wall.
The very last death of 1961 was one of the most heart-rending. The previous year, Ingo Krüger, twenty-one years old, had become engaged. His fiancée lived in West Berlin, and Ingo in the East. A mere inconvenience until 13 August, when they were caught on different sides of the border. Luckily, his fiancée had a West German passport, and could visit him in East Berlin, but the situation was unbearable.
Ingo Kruger’s secret resource was his skill as a champion diver. He decided to don a wetsuit and breathing apparatus and swim under the water to the West. Several friends were let in on his plan, as was his fiancée. On 10 December 1961, a Sunday, she visited him before crossing back to the West. She would wait in the chill of the winter’s night to receive him there. Everything had been arranged.
At eleven that evening, Ingo and three friends stepped on to the Schiffbauerdamm, which ran along the eastern side of the Spree below Friedrichstrasse station. They said their farewells. Ingo stripped off the coat that concealed his wetsuit and launched himself into the water. He did not plan to dart straight across from East to West. The point where Ingo dived under the surface was quite some way from the border itself. The idea was that Ingo would swim, helped by his wetsuit and breathing equipment, under the surface of the river for abour 500 yards. He would negotiate an entire curve of the Spree, still in East Berlin, and pass under another bridge before finally reaching a point where he could move over to the Western bank and clamber ashore on to the Reichstagufer, hard by the old German national parliament and a few yards inside West Berlin. In this way he could avoid the attentions of border guards, who would be looking for escapers entering the water at the nearest point to the West.
It was a bold plan, but not foolhardy. Ingo was a sportsman, an excellent swimmer, with all the right equipment. So his fiancée, clothed to beat the December weather, waited anxiously bur hopefully for him on the Reichstagufer.
At around 11.30 p.m., an East German customs launch found the body of a young male in the,water by the Marschallbrücke, the last bridge before the border. Ingo Krüger’s fiancée was forced to watch from 200 yards away in the West as, in the floodlit distance, a corpse was recovered from the river. Soon the launch disappeared again into the darkness.
The appalled young woman must have known the truth, but still she hoped. She wrote repeatedly to Ingo’s mother, daring to believe that the body might be someone else’s, that perhaps the man she loved had been arrested. He might be in prison, but he would be alive. No reply. Only in the early days of 1962 did she finally learn that her lover’s mother had been prevented from writing to her. Frau Krüger had identified her son’s remains on 12 December, less than two days after the escape attempt. His body bore no marks or signs of injury. Ingo had simply underestimated how icy the Spree could be in December, and overestimated his resistance to cold.
Of course, there were spectacular successes too. Several trucks managed to crash through into the West before the anti-vehicle barriers were strengthened in the late autumn of 1961 and ‘no-go’ areas extended.
On 5 December, an engine driver, 27-year-old Harry Deterling, drove a scheduled passenger train at full speed against the barriers that since August had blocked the line at the border station of Albrechtshof. He continued boldly on, travelling several hundred yards along the still-extant railway line and into the safety of Spandau, in West Berlin. Of the thirty-two people on board, twenty-four, including seven members of Deterling’s own family and his fireman, Hartmut Lichy, were privy to the escape. Deterling had carefully recruited them for what he called the ‘last train to freedom’. All cowered on the floor of the wagon as the train powered through the final border defences and a hail of bullets swept over them. Seven other passengers, including the train conductor, had known nothing of Deterling’s plans, and dutifully returned to the East. One other unwittingly involved passenger, a seventeen-year-old girl separated from her parents by the Wall, spontaneously decided to stay in the West.
Such escapes were lucky or carefully planned, or both. Even before the Wall was fully fortified, to approach the border head-on and alone was a perilous business. Between 13 August and 31 December 1961, according to Stasi figures, a total of 3,041 people were arrested as a result of failed escapes to the West. The greatest number—2,221 of these (73 per cent)—had tried to flee on foot. Another 335 (11 per cent) had made the attempt by rail, 244 (8 per cent) in motor vehicles, 114 by sea (the Baltic) (4 per cent), 96 by swimming rivers, canals or lakes (3 per cent), and crawling through the sewers 31 (1 per cent).
Was it surprising, therefore, that a need for expert help quickly arose, and that this help was in great demand?
Escape organisations came into being from the first hour. The early ones were built on idealistic foundations, as practical protests against the division of Berlin, and most originated among West Berlin’s large student population. One such organisation was founded on the very evening after the border closure, on 13 August 1961, at the Eichkamp international student hostel of the Free University (FU) of West Berlin.
If there was one group peculiarly suited to the escape business, it was the student community. Young, usually fit, mostly without day jobs or family responsibilities, students enjoyed access to extensive, even worldwide networks of like-minded and often influential contacts. They were also, in many cases, possessed of valuable specialist knowledge, in languages, engineering, the law, and so on.
The original impulse of the three main founding members of the FU group—law students Detlef Girrmann and Dieter Thieme, and a little later theology student Dodo Köhler—was based on mutual student loyalty. Before 13 August, a substantial number of the FU’s students—roughly 500—commuted from the East. The three conspirators decided to get in touch with these ‘Eastern’ students and if desired to find ways for them to escape to the West and finish their studies.
Girrmann and Thieme were both in their early thirties—old for students, even in Germany. In fact, they worked for the university administration, specifically dealing with welfare issues affecting the Eastern ‘ex-students’. This gave them access to the university’s registry and thus to all necessary addresses, personal details and so on—as well as to photographs of the subjects.4
The founders were all West Berliners. After being effectively banned from the East after 23 August, they had to find students with West German or foreign passports to trace the ‘ex-students’. These contact-makers became known as ‘runners’.
The initial stage of contacting fellow students marooned in the East was a risky business. One of the ‘runners’, later intimately involved in many escapes, was Burkhart Veigel, a medical student with a West German passport. He described the normal method of approach once they had found their ‘ex-student’ (‘Ex’) targets:
It was of course not without danger for the runner, or for the potential escaper, for if the Stasi…got wind of it, then both would be arrested and tried, the one as escape organiser, the other for ‘fleeing the Republic’. And so every runner visiting an ‘ex-student’ had to have a harmless story ready, a reason why he was visiting, e.g. to ask whether the ‘ex’ wanted to give him a final term paper, or whether the ‘ex’ could, despite everything, come to the West of the city for a meeting with their professor. The fake story had to be absolutely credible, but also sufficiently harmless, so that the runner looked at worst like a well-meaning idiot and never as a ‘criminal’ (in the East’s jargon). Only when you were certain that no unwanted other was listening in, or the runner could be sure that the ‘ex’ was ‘safe’, e.g. not a spy or someone who had meanwhile been ‘turned’ by the Stasi, only then could you go very cautiously on to the next stage…5
Once it was decided that the contact was safe, then the possibilities for coming to the West could be explained and instructions given. This was done with an almost bureaucratic thoroughness. Forms were filled out, personal details put on file. Other important information could come from the official student database.
During initial contact with an ‘Ex’, a password and simple codes would be agreed, to keep contact time and incriminating conversation to a minimum. This was especially important when arranging an escape rendezvous. According to Veigel, the escaper would receive a phone call from, say, ‘Uncle Josef’, who would recommend a particular radio programme. This meant to meet exactly when that programme began. Or the caller would ask if the ‘Ex’ wanted a little ‘fresh air’, to which the right answer was ‘Yes, but unfortunately I have a bit of a cold’.
Timing in these cases was very strict. Helpers were instructed not to wait more than a few minutes. In a totalitarian society such as the GDR had become, anyone seen loitering soon came under observation, particularly if dressed in Western clothes. If the delay seemed too long, the helper would leave and another rendezvous would be organised. If the problem occurred yet again, contact would be broken.
The actual methods used to effect escapes varied. Any escape project was known as a ‘tour’, whatever form it took.
The most popular way of getting people to the West was by providing them with forged documents. At least in the beginning, the so-called ‘Girrmann Group’6 could rely on the toleration, even the unofficial support, of the West Berlin and West German authorities. There was, all the same, no denying that these groups often operated at the limits of legality. The acts they undertook would have amounted, under normal circumstances, to fraud, forgery and criminal impersonation.
But in those weeks after the 13 August, West Berliners and democrats all over the world accepted that the situation was not ‘normal’. The student group’s foreign contacts were extensive. Foreign and West German passports could, of course, be ‘borrowed’, especially if the real bearer bore a physical similarity to the would-be escaper. Through sympathetic individuals in foreign diplomatic and official circles, they could also get hold of blank passports. Obtaining foreign documents became even more important after the end of September, when entry and exit visas were made compulsory for West German residents travelling to the East.
Veigel himself, supplied with the codename ‘Schwarzer’ (Black), did not just work as a ‘runner’ to East Berlin. He also visited foreign cities to collect batches of blank passports from contacts. One such trip was to Zurich. There Veigel met with Rolf Bracher, the son of a Swiss general, who used his position to obtain Swiss identity documents. Bracher had provided the same service to refugees from Soviet-controlled Hungary after the failure of the 1956 revolution.
Sometimes foreign sympathisers came to them. Veigel recalls a man arriving from Belgium with a suitcase full of passports and an official stamp from his home city, which could be used to certify the documents. In some cases—Veigel recounts with wonder—the people supplying these precious items had performed the selfsame service twenty years earlier, for refugees fleeing the Nazis.
Between two and three hundred blank passports were acquired in this way. The group preferred documents belonging to smaller European countries. To use British, American or French passports would risk embarrassing the occupation powers in their dealings with the East.
The group had quickly become adept at ‘adapting’ existing passports, but such gifts made their task much easier. Once documents had been delivered to East Berlin, the escapers had to acquire ‘biographies’ to fit their passport details. In the case of foreign passports, they were schooled in a few common phrases in their alleged languages. Finally they were taught to handle the exit formalities and to deal with any awkward questions from East German border officials.
For the first five months after 13 August, the ‘passport’ method worked very well, but it was not the only way to the West.
There were other routes. Via the sewers, for instance. Even before 13 August, these were often blocked with grilles. Many had been installed in the 1950s to block the movements of criminal gangs that smuggled cigarettes and other contraband goods between the Soviet and the Western sectors. The grilles were sturdy enough, but the Western students were determined. They came from the West Berlin side with hack-saws and cut holes in them.
The first escape organisers to use this route had been a group of senior high-school students, back at the beginning of September 1961. Like the FU conspirators, they were seeking ways of helping friends trapped in the East after 13 August, who wanted to get to West Berlin for the new school year. These teenagers—working on their own—learned by trial and error how to recognise sewer manholes. Then they sought a suitable sewer that ran directly from East to West.
Again, holders of West German passports had to do the research work in the East. They eventually found a manhole on the other side, 500 yards from the border. It was located in a factory area, so at night there was no one about. From here the sewer ran beneath the border into Kreuzberg. It lay 300 yards inside West Berlin in an abandoned lot. The entire run was therefore about half a mile. The sewer, following the street line, underwent a gentle thirty-degree bend after the border, so anyone climbing in or out on the Western side would not be spotted by sharp-eyed guards in the East. It was perfect. There was just one major problem: a grille some way into the East that had to be worked on without the Vopos noticing.
It took some days before the grille could be sawed through sufficiently for fugitives to wriggle through from the East. The biggest problem was that, having waded through a working sewer for half a mile or so, those who emerged on the Western side were covered in waste and reeked to high heaven. A laundry service had to be organised, since the last thing the high-school kids wanted was for their parents to find out. They might stop the operation.
Over some days, an unknown but substantial number of the boys from the East were brought through the sewer to safety by their classmates. It was an amazing achievement for a group of teenagers, operating without plans of the sewers or professional tools or other special know-how, and without the Vopos finding out. But—largely because of the odour problem—the operation could not, in fact, be kept totally secret. The ‘Girrmann Group’ had an efficient intelligence system.
Dieter Thieme, one of the FU students who had founded the organisation, decided to use the sewer route in a much more ambitious form. The passport method was excellent, but there were sometimes complications. For instance, it might be difficult to fit an existing passport to a would-be escaper. Or, if the escaper was from outside East Berlin, there might be no convenient flat in the city to use as a staging point, where the essential ‘training’ needed (including the tedious and problematic learning of the passport-holder’s ‘biography’) could be carried out.
The sewer route had its own problems, naturally. The numbers Thieme and his colleagues hoped to bring through in this way were large. So, a correspondingly large number of runners had to be sent East.
With the increase in numbers, the danger of deliberate or accidental betrayal grew. The Westerners decided that escapers should be given as short a notice of their trip as possible. Best if they were told on the day they were leaving, rather than have them toss and turn through a last night in East Berlin, a night during which they might be tempted to share their fears with someone who turned out to be a Stasi agent.
This increased the safety margin, but the organisational burden was immense. In one case, a runner with several escapers to notify during a single busy day in East Berlin was forced to summon two female students out of a college lecture hall. Had he waited until they got home, the schedule would have been too tight.
Normally, one small group of escapers would begin to enter the sewer every half an hour during the hours of darkness, using the manhole first discovered by the high-school students the previous month. Everything was arranged in advance by the ‘Girrmann Group’. Each escaper was assigned a group and a time, and informed accordingly. Precision and punctuality were all-important.
There was another crucial service required from the Western side. After the planned escapes were finished for that night, someone had to replace the heavy manhole cover on the East Berlin side. Since West Berliners were not allowed into the East, West Germans or foreigners had to cross the border to do this.
Two courageous students volunteered for this role in the sewer project. The first was a student from West Germany, codenamed ‘Langer’ (Tall) and the second an Austrian called Dieter Wohlfahrt. ‘Langer’ would ride through to East Berlin on a Vespa motor scooter, while Wohlfahrt would use a vehicle left in East Berlin by a previous escaper. This second vehicle played an important role quite apart from its value as transport. Wohlfahrt would drive it to the deserted area where the manhole was situated and meet ‘Langer’. He would park the car right in front of the manhole so that the opening could no longer be observed. Then he and his colleague would laboriously lift the manhole cover, ready for the first party of escapers.
Wohlfahrt would conceal himself elsewhere in the factory yard. ‘Langer’ would stay in the open to greet this initial group, who were scheduled to arrive just after dark, around eight p.m. He would guide the first of the often terrified fugitives down into the sewer, telling them how to use the rough ladder and which direction to head in. Then, once he was confident the group could cope, he would jump on to his Vespa and ride the two blocks to the Heinrich-Heine-Strasse checkpoint. Within minutes, having shown his West German passport, he would be safely back in the West. There he would warn the organisers that their first customers were already wading slowly and gingerly through the stinking darkness beneath the lethal border.
A small reception committee would advance as far as the hole in the grille, to assist the incoming escapers as necessary. The crossing was not as easy as it may sound. The tunnel started out about 160 cm. (a little over five feet) high at its eastern entrance, but slowly narrowed until, as they covered the final stretch to safety, the escapers were bent low above the muck-encrusted surface. However, so long as they kept going, within a few minutes they would breathe fresh air on the Western side. Those reception-committee members who kept vigil at the grille, on the other hand, were forced to wait for long periods between groups, knee-deep or worse in the muck. When Senator Lipschitz, the students’ special friend in high places, was informed of this, he ensured that these noble volunteers were provided with the same high rubber wading boots used by the Berlin sanitation department’s regular employees.
The last escaper of each group was obliged to wait behind, then greet and instruct the first of the next. Wohlfahrt, the Austrian helper, would observe the operation from his hideout, ready to intervene in case of serious problems, but otherwise not showing himself until the last escape group had left. This was almost always after midnight, which was why Wohlfahrt had been assigned this task—as a foreign national, he could stay in East Berlin until two a.m., whereas West Germans had to be back on the other side by twelve.
Once the last of the escapers entered the tunnel, Wohlfahrt would wait a few extra minutes, in case of latecomers. Then he would cross to the sewer entrance and drag the manhole cover back until it fell into position and everything looked normal. Afterwards he would drive the car to some out-of-the-way spot and park it ready for the next night. Finally he would return to West Berlin on foot via the checkpoint.
The first day of the operation began after dark on 8 October 1961. Dieter Thieme, the originator of the scheme, watched from the upper landing of an apartment block just on the Western side of the border, where he had a view of the East Berlin factory yard. Hour by hour, Thieme watched the groups enter the sewer. For four nights everything went perfectly. At least 134 escapers made it through, according to the highly informal lists kept by the student helpers. Veigel thinks it was actually considerably more, because accurate accounting was not a high priority, and proper lists were made only on the final two nights.
After they had made it through, the muck-encrusted refugees were piled into a Volkswagen bus and driven to one of the FU’s student hostels. There they could finally strip and shower. Afterwards they were given fresh clothes. At a time of their choosing, they would report for registration as refugees at Marienfelde. They were told to use fictional cover stories to explain their escape, since it was known that the Stasi had agents in the camp administration.
It was on the fifth night of the operation, 12 October 1961, that something went wrong. Badly wrong.
Midnight had arrived. The last of the escapers were on their way through. Wohlfahrt had replaced the manhole cover and left. Another successful night’s work, it seemed.
Then Thieme, watching from his lookout on the Western side, suddenly froze. The student leader saw an unfamiliar vehicle race into the factory yard and squeal to a halt. A squad of armed Vopos filed out and began flinging up all the manhole covers they could find. They then stood with their machine-pistols trained on the openings.
The Vopos made no immediate attempt to go down into the sewer tunnel. The horrified Thieme, of course, had no time to divine their ultimate intentions. He hurried down to the Western sewer entrance. He had to warn the members of the reception committee, who would still be crouching by the grille, ready to help through the last of the escapers. The grille lay on the Eastern side of the border. Anyone discovered there would be liable for immediate arrest or worse.
Fortunately, however, the last of the escapers was already safely through and the helpers were preparing to climb out on to the Western side. Reassured, Thieme returned to his lookout. The Vopos stayed there until six the following morning, still waiting by the open manholes. They never dared go down into the sewer.
So the most successful of the sewer escape routes was closed. Whether it was betrayed, or whether the Vopos simply observed suspicious activity and decided to take action, is still uncertain. Thieme found out from his contacts in West German intelligence that the East Germans installed a much sturdier, heavily reinforced grille in the sewer tunnel, one that no hack-saw could reduce.
This kind of reinforcement by the East Germans seems to have been general after mid-October. There were rumours that at least one more small group had made its way through a network of storm drains connecting Reinickendorf, in the French sector of West Berlin, with the East Berlin suburb of Pankow, but even so well informed an escape organiser as Veigel has no precise information on the matter. Like the ‘Girrmann Group’ organisation, such operators kept quiet about their routes, in order to foil Stasi agents operating in the Western welfare and registration agencies.
In these early days, the organisers also did not talk to the press. But some of their clients did. Once in the West, some of the East German escapers had a tendency to brag about their success. ‘Yes, the press did wreck some of our escape routes,’ Thieme would later tell an interviewer. ‘But most of the damage was done by the refugees themselves. After us, the deluge, was the attitude. And there’s always an urge to play the hero’.7
In the meantime, towards the end of September 1961 the ‘Girrmann Group’ had also completed its first tunnel. The sandy Berlin soil was fairly easily worked, but correspondingly loose. Because of this, tunnels also required proper support, props and roofs to protect those digging below.
This first tunnel was just over twenty-five yards long, starting from the basement of a shed on land adjoining the Schönholz goods station, just inside West Berlin. It ran directly under the border into the East Berlin district of Pankow, more precisely into the Pankow municipal cemetery. The Eastern entrance lay beneath the memorial slab of a conspicuously well-tended grave. That autumn, twenty-three East Berliners found their way through this slightly macabre portal into the West over a period of two weeks. Then the Stasi was tipped off by a double agent in West Berlin. The East Germans set up an observation post. When two young East Berlin women tried to enter the tunnel on 29 December, they were arrested and imprisoned.
But passports, not tunnels, were what the ‘Girrmann Group’ was famous for. Tunnels were exciting, dramatic, and caught the public imagination, but considering the effort, expense and risk involved, they were rarely as cost-effective as other escape methods—so long as those methods could be used.
In the months after 13 August 1961, the ‘Girrmann Group’ helped some 5,000 trapped East Germans to attain a new life in the West. Their efforts began as an informal attempt to enable FU students trapped behind the Wall to continue their studies in the West. By the beginning of 1962, the organisation had become something much bigger. Word had spread, and the ‘Girrmann Group’ now accepted any would-be escapers referred to them by their network of contacts in the East.
Forged or altered documents were the preferred method. They seemed to be almost foolproof, and until January the organisation lost not a single escaper or helper. Veigel recalls bringing through six refugees at a time in this way.
This first great phase ended quite abruptly on 6 January 1962. On that day, Burkhart Veigel went East yet again on his West German passport. In East Berlin he met up with an escaper couple, to whom he gave two foreign passports in the usual way. Then, as they waited in line at Friedrichstrasse station to undergo the border formalities, the couple were suddenly singled out and taken away by Vopos. The train they had been planning to catch left for the West. Veigel waited, hoping that his two escapers would return shortly. When they did not, he reluctantly obeyed the rules of the escape business and climbed aboard the next S-Bahn. Within minutes, he was safely on the other side of the Wall.
Later, Veigel heard that the escaper couple had immediately confessed everything to the Stasi. The train he took was the last to leave before the East German police shut down the S-Bahn and sealed off the station. Had Veigel waited just a few more minutes, he would have been caught like a rat in a trap.
The sudden disaster was simply explained. That same day, 6 January, the East Berlin authorities introduced a new measure for foreigners. Henceforth, all Westerners crossing the border into East Berlin had an entry permit inserted into their passports. This was given up when the visitor returned to the checkpoint before travelling back to West Berlin. So, anyone attempting to leave without such a permit in their passport could not have entered East Berlin earlier that day, and therefore must be an East German escaper. It was similar to the measure they had enforced for West German nationals back at the end of September.
Also in January 1962, the East Germans began to construct a road behind the border barrier, which gave a free run for guards, their vehicles and attack dogs, and also the beginnings of a ‘free-fire zone’. To set foot in this area immediately criminalised the intruder, making them fair game for the heavily armed Grepos.
A gradual but inexorable tightening of the rules-West Germans were soon subjected to strict visa requirements when visiting East Berlin, making the passport route harder still—was followed by systematic physical reinforcement of the border.
In this complex and fast-moving game of cat-and-mouse, which would continue for years to come, the ingenuity and ruthlessness of both sides would be tested to the limit. And perhaps ultimately there could only be one winner.
The Ulbricht regime, after all, commanded the big battalions.
By the early spring of 1962, Veigel had become a known quantity to the East German security forces. Stasi documents show that on 24 March he was added to their list of key escape helpers. ‘Active combating’ of this prolific and daring facilitator was ordered, and a warrant issued for his arrest.
The business no longer even remotely resembled a student prank. The East launched a barrage of insults and atrocity accusations against the West and the tunnellers and escape facilitators alleged to be its agents. The reality was, of course, more complicated, and would rapidly become more complex yet, but Ulbricht’s regime wasted no opportunity to label Veigel and his comrades as terroristic ‘saboteurs’ and heartless ‘traders in human beings’.
A significant boost to the East German authorities’ propaganda campaign against the Western escape organisations came on 23 May 1962. Private Peter Göring of the First East German Border Brigade, aged twenty-one, was on duty in the vicinity of the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery, hard by the Spandau Ship Canal. A figure was spotted scaling the border barrier. By the time the Grepos organised themselves, the escaper had crossed the last barrier and launched himself into the canal. On the far bank lay West Berlin. Despite warning cries and shots, he kept on swimming.
The fugitive was a young high-school student from the East German city of Erfurt named Walter Tews. He had come to Berlin specifically in order to escape, improvising his planned route from a tourist guide he bought at the station on arrival. He harboured an absolute, if perhaps naïve, determination to reach the West. Walter was also, though at 1.80 metres (5' 10") very tall for his age, only fourteen years old.
When he had swum two-thirds of the way across, Walter was hit by automatic fire and seriously wounded. Despite this, he managed to pull himself out of the water on the far side and find some protection in an alcove in the canal wall. He was now inside the British sector of West Berlin. Several armed West Berlin policemen had arrived in the vicinity and made efforts to retrieve the boy from his hiding place.
East Germany’s border forces were allowed to shoot at escapers, but with two provisos: no firing on women and children, or on to Western territory. Both rules were immediately broken. Despite his unusual height, Walter was a minor. He had also reached West Berlin soil. However, he continued to come under fire from the Eastern side. So did the West Berlin cops trying to rescue him. They accordingly fired back.
At last the shooting stopped. A civilian was able to dangle a rope for Walter to grab. They hauled the desperately injured teenager to safety and got him to hospital. By a miracle, young Walter Tews survived, but the crippling effects of the wounds he suffered during his swim to freedom remain with him decades later.8
Meanwhile, on the far side, the Border Brigade was about to gain its first martyr. Göring slumped down during the final exchange of fire and was found to have suffered three wounds: a superficial wound on his right hand, a bullet through his left shoulder, and a lethal ricochet that entered near his left kidney. He was dying. Another guard had been hit in the thigh, but was never in danger.
The East German regime seized its propaganda opportunity quickly and ruthlessly. Private Göring was granted a state funeral with full honours. Streets, military units and barracks, and schools were named after him all over the GDR, a process that continued until well into the 1980s. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant. He became part of the teaching in schools and at FDJ meetings.
The week after Göring’s death, a poem authored by a ‘First Lieutenant Grau’ appeared in an East German weekly. Two verses give the tone:
The foe’s deceits you did despise,
To us and to your oath stayed true,
Saw right through his barefaced lies,
So like a coward he murdered you.
You gave your all, beyond persistence,
You sacrificed for our good sake
Your hope-filled, precious young existence,
You fell for our proud republic.9
This doggerel would often be reprinted and anthologised in the years ahead.
The fourteen-year-old boy whom the martyr tried to kill is, of course, not mentioned either in the poem or in accounts published in the GDR. The official version was that Göring and his comrades had been lured into a trap by ‘terrorists’ and treacherously attacked in a ‘staged border provocation’. ‘West Berlin troops…carried out an armed ambush with American weapons against border security forces of the German People’s Police,’ thundered the statement. The Easterners had fired not a single shot against Western territory. East Germany’s Chief Prosecutor offered a reward of 10,000 marks (West) for the capture of those responsible.
In fact, both a secret report by the East Germans’ own investigators and the enquiries of the Western police showed two things. First, the East Germans had fired off far more bullets than the Westerners—a total of 128 against 28. And second, against the specific orders of his superior, Göring had left cover, looking for a better position to deliver a kill-shot against the would-be escaper. He had thereby exposed himself to fire from the Western side. His own weapon was set to ‘automatic fire’.
After Göring, the authorities created what were in essence shrines to ‘murdered’ border guards, often preserving the man’s room in his barracks just as he had left it, complete with family photographs, possessions and so on. Groups of recruits, schoolchildren, and youth-group members would be given tours of such memorial sites. A guide would recite all the anti-Western catch-phrases, and rail against the ‘provocations’ of the West German and NATO warmongers, who had cut this young man down in his German democratic prime.
Peter Göring was the first of the Berlin border martyrs with whom the East German regime attempted to construct a myth of the ‘noble defender of the border’ and to establish a kind of macabre esprit de corps among the troops themselves.
This latter task was not necessarily easy. From documents recently uncovered, it is clear that Göring himself was among the keenest servants of the state, straining at the leash to do its bidding. Others were not so eager, their families even less so. The wife of a master sergeant from the First Border Brigade was reported as telling him, after she read the news of Göring’s death: ‘Under no circumstances should you sign up for another year’s service’. The woman was summoned to the company commander for a ‘clarifying conversation’.10
Of twenty-five soldiers of the East German border forces who died in Berlin during the Wall’s existence, almost half—eleven—were actually killed by escaping colleagues (including, in one case, a fleeing Soviet soldier). Unlike most other fugitives, such escapers were fully armed and able to return fire.
Nineteen-year-old officer cadet Peter Böhme, in training at a camp in Potsdam, deserted on 16 April 1962 with a comrade. They took pistols and ammunition, and for two days succeeded in evading a sizeable manhunt. On 18 April the two young men tried to cross the fortified border into West Berlin, sneaking from the Potsdam suburban railway station of Griebnitzsee on to a small triangle of land belonging to the Western district of Wannsee. When challenged, they opened fire. A shoot-out ensued. Böhme died, while his companion, Cadet Gundel, was arrested.
The leader of the patrol that had challenged the fugitive deserters was shot and died soon after. Jörgen Schmidtchen, was killed by a bullet from the ‘bandits’ as an official East German report described the desperate young men trying to flee the workers’ paradise.11 Although this killing of a border guard in the course of his duties preceded that of Peter Göring, Schmidtchen was not hailed as a ‘martyr’ in the same way—perhaps because the circumstances of his death, involving the attempted escape by two disillusioned GDR soldiers, officer cadets into the bargain, would have raised too many uncomfortable questions.
In January 1962, the East German government finally introduced conscription. Until 13 August it had not dared to do so, for fear of unleashing a tidal wave of draft-dodgers, fleeing Westwards to avoid induction. Now there was nowhere else to go, compulsory military service could be imposed on the population. The law came into force in April 1962, and the first compulsory recruits were marched into their training barracks without delay.
Previously, recruitment was achieved by enormous social and emotional pressure. In schools and factories, staff and visiting recruiters did their best to get boys to sign up. FDJ organisers were given targets for sign-ups among their young people. There were financial incentives for volunteers, and the promise of preferential treatment in civilian life if a young man signed to ‘do his bit’.
Once a youth had succumbed, he was the state’s to do with as it wished. At eighteen, Hagen Koch, for instance, had applied to join the East German navy, but found himself, so he recounts, blackmailed instead into joining the Stasi’s military arm, the Felix Dzerzhynski Regiment. And so he ended up at Checkpoint Charlie with a pot of paint and a brush on that extraordinary day in August 1961.
Another young East German of approximately the same age refused to accede to the blandishments of the recruiters who came to his high school in Luckenwalde, around forty kilometres south of Berlin. The boy did more than just that, in fact. He stood up in school assembly and gave his reasons, then wrote a letter to his school principal in which he proclaimed: ‘My mother did not bear us, her four sons, for war. We hate war and want peace.’ The boy, a high-flying student and prize-winning athelete, found his marks automatically reduced. His ambition was to become a sports reporter. It was now made clear that without army service he would not gain entry to the course at Leipzig University that would enable him to follow his chosen career.
Instead, the boy enrolled as an external student at the Tempelhof High School in West Berlin. For two years he commuted between home and city, studying for his Abitur, the university qualifying examination he was denied in the East. On Friday 11 August 1961, at twenty-one now a young man, he set off again from Luckenwalde. His brother took him on his motor bike as far as Teltow, the beginning of the S-Bahn line. From there he travelled to West Berlin. Two days later, the border was sealed.
The young man’s name was Rudi Dutschke. Marooned in West Berlin, he became not a sports reporter but a political scientist at the FU. He remained a Marxist, although not of the Ulbricht kind. Later, in the mid-1960s, Dutschke rose to international prominence as the most famous and charismatic leader of West Germany’s radical student revolt.12
Before the Wall, there had been morale problems and desertions in the police and the army. It got no better after the border was sealed. Scores, and eventually hundreds, deserted to the West, often in pairs and small groups.
Some fled on the spur of the moment. One Grepo platoon commander, stationed on the suburban part of the border, who fled West with a comrade in December 1961, described the foxhole conversation that preceded the escape:
As we were lying there, he suddenly said to me: ‘What would you do if I were to clear off?’ My answer was: ‘Well, there’s only one thing I’ll say to you—as a Christian I can’t shoot at another human being.’ So straight away he said, ‘I’m clearing off. Do you want to come with me?’
After some hesitation, the platoon commander went with him. They made their way over the fence and through the barbed wire, hurling themselves on to the soaking ground whenever a searchlight swept the area. They stumbled into a garden on West Berlin soil and introduced themselves to the surprised householder, who gave them each a cigarette and called the police to come and fetch them.13
Things got so bad that a report to the Politburo suggested that there were young men who joined the border police precisely so that they could get close to the Wall and have the opportunity to flee. Supposedly unreliable types were dismissed from the border units in December, on account of close family contacts in the West, or criminal records, or subversive utterances such as ‘glorifying conditions in West Germany’. The mere fact of having visited West Berlin before 13 August was often enough, especially if it involved ‘going to the cinema there and attending dances’.14
After every major desertion, anxious discussions went on, trying to discern why this individual or group had ‘betrayed’ their duty. ‘West contacts’ were often blamed, plus seductive offers from the West’s ‘traders in human beings’.
In one case, a guard’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend, who lived in West Berlin, stood every day on her side of the border and pleaded with him to join her. Finally, he went ‘over the wire’. Contrary to their indoctrination, which explicitly forbade conversation with people on the Western side, other guards from the lad’s regiment had chatted to his girl across the border. They kept her informed about when and where he would be on duty. Among these young men, personal and group loyalty obviously took precedence over military duty. ‘His comrades,’ the investigation document concluded plaintively, ‘had not identified, in this harmless young girl, the class enemy’.15
Searches of young deserters’ rooms would reveal mind-warping audiotapes of Western rock ‘n’ roll, letters from friends in West Berlin or West Germany, or in one case tell-tale photographs of Elvis Presley plastered all over the bedroom wall.16
Sometimes, however, the weak links just couldn’t be predicted. Major Bruno Krajewsky was a senior officer of the East German Second Border Brigade. In fact, he was a very powerful man, whose signature could for years be found on disciplinary documents. A pre-war Communist and member of the SED, the major seemed the perfect, politically reliable People’s Policeman. Officially entitled ‘Sub-Departmental Leader for the Investigation of Special Occurrences’ he basically acted as his regiment’s troubleshooter and enforcer. It was Krajewsky they called in to investigate things that went wrong, including attempted desertions and successful escapes to the West. It was his job to write reports recommending disciplinary measures and proposing how further unfortunate incidents be prevented.
On 7 December 1962, however, the gamekeeper decided to turn poacher. In the small hours of a gloomy winter’s morning, the man who had spent the past couple of years doing nothing but checking for flaws in the border defences, appeared quietly on the dark eastern shore of one of the border lakes (the exact location is not mentioned) along with his wife, three children, and another family group. They all clambered silently into a boat and launched themselves across the lake.
Krajewsky had chosen this night not just for its midwinter darkness but because the lake was covered in thick, drifting fog. As the incident report commented:
K. knew his way around the border area very well and knew that our patrol boats were stuck fast because of fog-formation. In contrast to the Western patrol boats, they are (as he also knew) not fitted out with radar…17
The major, his family and friends rowed quietly—very quietly—across the lake through the fog and made it to West Berlin, where they reported to the astonished police. The Westerners thought nobody could get past the Eastern patrol boats. And perhaps the supposedly ultra-loyal Major Krajewsky was one of the few who could.
The report on this expert escape was forwarded to Chairman Ulbricht himself. It blamed the influence of Major Krajewsky’s wife, who had worked in the export department of a chemical works and got a bit too close to some Western clients.
Disappointingly, the big boss’s reaction goes unrecorded.
With the relatively simple passport-substitution route closed off by new visa regulations, and barriers everywhere strengthened against all but the very heaviest of vehicles, the numbers of escapes dropped, but they became ever more professional.
One route was the so-called ‘Scandinavian Tour’. This used rail connections that still ran from the Ostbahnhof in East Berlin to the Baltic ports of Warnemünde and Sanitz. From there ferries crossed to Denmark, which was NATO territory.
Couriers would supply escapers in East Berlin with non-German Western passports, plus tickets and travel documentation and even luggage, to make it look as if they were foreign travellers who had started out from Zoo station in West Berlin, then changed trains for Copenhagen. Escapers would mingle with the crowds on the platform at Ostbahnhof, exactly as if this were the case. Within a few hours they were safely in Denmark. From there they could easily travel to West Germany.
The ‘Scandinavian Tour’ ran successfully for a few months before being betrayed by a Stasi agent codenamed ‘Franz Fischer’ who had successfully gained the trust of the ‘Girrmann Group’, even operating successfully as a courier. Escapers and couriers arrested on that last ‘tour’ ended up with heavy jail sentences. The Stasi agent who sealed their fates was an affable Greek medical student at the FU named Georgis Raptis. This revelation, decades later, astonished all who knew him. For years afterwards, Girrmann had continued to describe the Greek as ‘a terrific guy’.18
With all the relatively easy ‘passport routes’ now closed, the time between summer 1962 and summer 1964 was the era of the tunnellers. The underground routes were expensive, labour-intensive, and dangerous for other reasons apart from the usual ones. The Wall crossers risked being shot as they fled. The swimmers of lakes or canals ran the extra risk of drowning. The tunnellers, however, risked live burial. The sandy Berlin sub-soil was fairly easily workable, but liable to crumble. And if an inadequately supported tunnel collapsed or subsided, even if the tunnellers survived, there would be tell-tale sinkage and slippage on the surface that would mean instant discovery by vigilant border patrols.
There were two main kinds of tunnel. The short, shallow and narrow one, which could be dug in a few days, and the longer, larger, deeper, more durable one.
The first kind was favoured by Harry Seidel, a former East German champion cyclist who had left for the West after being forced to take performance-enhancing drugs. Seidel developed a passionate loathing of the regime he had abandoned. He was in the West when the border was sealed, but returned through the wire several times in the weeks after 13 August to get family and friends out. After being arrested on the border, and then escaping, Seidel decided to build tunnels instead.
A colourful and charismatic character, super-fit, strong and courageous, the then 22-year-old Seidel was a true working-class East Berliner. He enjoyed strong personal contacts with people on the other side of the border, which made finding would-be escapers easier and theoretically more secure. He quickly became famous for his exploits—and would pay a very heavy price.
On Monday 11 June 1962, Harry Seidel finished digging a tunnel from the Heidelberger Strasse in Neukölln (West) to the Elsenstrasse in Treptow (East). It was only 80 cm. (2' 7") across, just wide enough for an average human being to squirm through. The project was an act either of extreme courage or extreme foolhardiness.
Close by, on 27 March, Seidel and his team had dug another tunnel which was discovered by the Vopos. He and a helper, Heinz Jercha, emerged on the other side into a trap. The Vopos opened fire. Jercha got a bullet in his lung. Pushing the gasping Jercha ahead of him, Seidel frantically pushed earth into the tunnel entrance to block it. By the time the border police managed to find and reopen the tunnel, both men had made it back to the West. Sadly, attempts to staunch internal bleeding failed. Heinz Jercha died before expert medical help could arrive.
Undeterred, Seidel returned to the area in June. He set up his headquarters in the cellar of a pub on the Western side, and it was from here he began burrowing at a depth of two to three metres (six to ten feet), just above the water table, shovelling the sand into a bag crammed into the space beside him. When the bag was full, he would push it back to a helper, who ferried it back to the cellar for storage.
Seidel relied on the smallness and relative shortness of the tunnel (between twenty and thirty yards) for safety. He used no prop supports, nor was there any lighting. There was not enough oxygen down there to feed a lit candle. What fresh air existed in these cramped conditions was provided by the blast from a vacuum cleaner. To make sure the tunnel would hold, Seidel had a trailer loaded with coal run over the first part of its route to see if it showed any signs of collapse. It didn’t—and according to Veigel, who worked with him on several projects, none ever did.
Once Seidel had broken through, into a private house on the Eastern side, the escapers could begin their journey. The conditions must have been unspeakably claustrophobic, the air foetid, but in the end fifty-four human beings made it through this single tunnel. Seidel’s engineering proved remarkably sound—when, forty years later, building workers rediscovered the Neukölln—Treptow tunnel, journalists and other sensation seekers could still poke their heads in and see where it led.19
Seidel, in his short but spectacular career, brought at least two other groups out. Then, in November 1962, he was betrayed and arrested. The East German state decided to make an example of him. He was the athlete-hero, nurtured by the Communist system, who bit the hand that fed him. Or such was the regime’s view. The notorious East German Justice Minister, Hilde Benjamin (known as ‘Red Hilde’), originally proposed the death penalty for Seidel, but was overruled by colleagues nervous about international reaction. At his trial the state demanded ‘only’ life imprisonment. Seidel served four years before being freed as a result of a deal between East and West, but that was in the future.
The more elaborate tunnels, bigger and sturdier, took a lot longer and were more expensive. The 28 June 1962 tunnel between Sebastianstrasse (West) and Heinrich-Heine Strasse (East) took fifty days to dig. Many of the tunnellers were men who had wives and families in East Berlin and were desperate to get them to the West. This was a labour of love. They were betrayed by a Stasi double agent, a 24-year-old with the codename ‘Pankow’, who had insinuated himself into the scene by claiming he wanted to rescue his own wife, who lived in the East. This claim was literally true, except that rather than waiting anxiously for rescue she was enjoying the benefits of ‘Pankow’s’ Stasi salary, paid in West marks.
The Stasi had known about the tunnel for three weeks before its builders broke through to the Eastern side. In an elaborate ‘sting’ operation, a number of escapers and three of the tunnellers were caught. One of them, 22-year-old Siegfried Noffke, who really had wanted to bring his wife to the West, was shot when a Stasi man panicked. Noffke was interrogated by the Stasi as he lay desperately wounded on the floor of the basement in East Berlin, and died on the way to hospital.
The Westerners soon decided to arm themselves on a routine basis. These young men, often with good reason to hate the Communist regime, saw no reason why they should just surrender or let themselves to be slaughtered. The trouble was, their weapons were usually illegally held, and while in the early days the West Berlin and even the Allied authorities turned a blind eye, they would be forced to disown the escape organisers if anything shocking occurred.
There followed a sort of arms race. Siegfried Noffke died because a Stasi operative, waiting at the exit of the betrayed 28 June tunnel, had panicked. The reason, in turn, why the Stasi man lost his nerve was probably because of an incident that had occurred ten days earlier, on 18 June 1962, not far from Checkpoint Charlie.
Border guards went on alert when they noticed unusual activity on the Western side. Cameras were being set up on the roof of an office complex belonging to Axel Springer, the Western media mogul, which was situated directly by the Wall. TheVoposconsequently spotted a suspicious-looking group about to enter a building on the Eastern side. The suspects—a man, two women and a child, the report later claimed—ignored calls to present themselves for a document inspection. As the guards approached, the man pulled a gun from his coat and fired. He hit one of the East German patrolmen, twenty-year-old Private Reinhold Huhn. The fugitives then quickly disappeared into the building. Later the Vopos discovered the entrance to a tunnel, through which the gunman and his companions had escaped to the West.20
The successful escape group in fact consisted of a man, a woman, and two children. Rudolf Müller, who had shot Huhn, was the husband of the woman and the father of both children (one of whom the Vopos must have mistaken for an adult woman). Müller had dug the tunnel from within the grounds of the Springer building with the aid of his three brothers and other friends and family members. What the East German report also does not mention is that another group of escapers had been arrested at the time they first challenged Müller and his family. On the other hand, Huhn had not actively threatened or pointed a weapon at Müller. He had simply demanded he identify himself.
The unlucky Private Huhn was immediately transformed by East Berlin into another martyr. The Jerusalemer Strasse, where he had been killed, was renamed the Reinhold-Huhn-Strasse, and schools, factories and other institutions were also dubbed in his honour. He was buried with full state honours in his Thuringian home town.
The East German state’s campaign was aided by the fact that the fiercely anti-Communist Springer, and possibly Western intelligence, may have been involved in Rudolf Müller’s escape project. The media had been forewarned. Hence the cameras that appeared on the rooftop of the Springer building before the escape.
The case of Reinhold Huhn became a cause célèbre of the Cold War. It was claimed by the West Berlin authorities, and widely believed in West Germany, that Huhn had been killed by a bullet from one of his own comrades. Interviewed shortly after returning safely to the West, Müller none the less admitted having fired his pistol at least once.21 Even those who—rightly in view of ballistic evidence that later came to light—acknowledged that Müller shot Huhn, argued a case for self-defence.
But again the question appeared: where did Müller get the gun? According to Allied occupation law, which remained valid in West Berlin, unauthorised possession of weapons by German civilians was a serious crime—technically, in fact, punishable by death. Was the serious offence of illegal gun ownership and use justified under such circumstances? At the height of the Cold War, most people on the Western side thought so, but this was not a morally straightforward case.22
As the summer of 1962 wore on, whatever scruples observers may fleetingly have harboured were effectively neutralised by the most clear-cut and cruel atrocity of the Wall’s entire existence. The killing of Peter Fechter.
The East German regime anticipated the first anniversary of the Wall with deep misgiving. A state of ‘heightened alert’ was enforced among the border troops on 13/14 August 1962. On the day itself, there were a number of political meetings in West Berlin, accompanied by noisy and sometimes violent protests by mostly youthful crowds of up to 1,500 ‘hooligans’ (as the East Germans always referred to Western demonstrators). The West Berlin police was ordered not to let such crowds within twenty yards of the border. None of the events got seriously out of hand.23
The real crisis came four days later, on 17 August.
Peter Fechter, eighteen years old, belonged to a circle of rebellious Eastern teenagers, who decided they would make a mass break-out to the West. As the planned day approached, predictably, most lost their nerve and dropped out, leaving just Fechter and a close friend.
Having dodged the guards who patrolled the restricted area behind the sector border, the two young men found themselves, early on the afternoon of 17 August, hiding in a disused building near the Wall. This was now a much more formidable barrier—or set of barriers—than it had been a year earlier. They were in sight of Checkpoint Charlie, the famous American border post.
Gathering their courage, they finally left cover and made their high-risk dash. As they mounted the first wire barrier on the Eastern side, his friend going first and Fechter following two or three yards behind, border guards opened up with automatic weapons from a distance of around fifty yards. They ran on. His friend reached the final eight-foot-high wall that marked the border with the American sector, managed to scale it, and vaulted over with bullets thudding into the cement inches from him. He made it safely to the West with some superficial injuries.24
Peter was not so lucky.
As he tried to follow his friend over the final barrier, Fechter was hit in the leg and slid back into no man’s land. There he lay, moaning and crying for help, at first loudly, then in an increasingly weak and desperate voice.
The bullet in his leg had severed an artery. A heart-rending photograph shows the teenager sprawled, half dead, in his tight jeans and with his fashionable little quiff still intact, motionless and with blood—his life blood—seeping into the ground.
An angry crowd of West Berliners quickly gathered. No one arrived from East or West to save the wounded escaper. The Easterners would later claim that, with the deaths of Privates Göring and Huhn still fresh in their memories, they feared being shot by hotheads on the Western side. The Western police, meanwhile, were under strict orders not to trespass on to Eastern soil.
The GIs from Checkpoint Charlie also did nothing. One of them was reported to have shrugged and said: ‘Not our problem’. His alleged remark would be endlessly quoted and become a source of increased anti-Americanism in West Berlin and West Germany.
Peter Fechter was unconscious and may have already died by the time a senior East German officer arrived and galvanised the guards into action. Fechter was manhandled from the scene. An unsuccessful attempt was made to obscure the operation from Western observers by means of a smokescreen. Another photograph, taken from the West, shows an East German soldier, part of the furtive little cortège, as he turns to glare into the Western photographer’s lens, his face a strange combination of fear, shame and defiance. Peter Fechter was pronounced dead on arrival at the police hospital a few minutes later. Around an hour had passed since he was shot. The patrol commander and two of his men were granted bonuses for their achievement.
The Fechter tragedy was followed by the most violent demonstrations since 13 August 1961. Every morning, a Soviet bus entered West Berlin, carrying the soldiers who mounted guard at the Soviet War Memorial, a few hundred yards inside the British sector from the Brandenburg Gate. On 18 August, a large crowd blocked their way and began to stone the vehicle. The Soviets threatened to open fire on the rioters. The West Berlin police were forced to disperse the crowd with water cannon. After the demonstrations against the Soviet honour guard had continued for three successive days, the British provided a military escort.
Here were the makings of an international crisis. East German brutality, Russian pride, and West Berlin anger. In Washington, Kennedy discussed the situation with his National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy. They agreed to look into the possibility of providing first aid for cases such as Fechter, but there was the problem of encroaching on East German/Soviet territory in order to do so. The feeling was therefore that they ‘just had to ride this one’. There was irritation, as usual, with the West Berliners, who were ‘of course…not very generous…to us’. The priority was to stop it all blowing up into a confrontation.25
The East German authorities had rewarded those responsible for killing Fechter. None the less, they were appalled at the bad publicity, and steps were quickly taken to avoid such incidents in future. These steps did not stretch to a ban on shooting to kill, but they did include new standing orders for the patrols of the First Border Brigade, on whose patch the Fechter killing had occurred. Communications between individual patrols and brigade HQ were to be improved (so perhaps the fatal inaction after the Fechter shooting was in part due to failures in the chain of command), and above all measures were taken to ensure that the sighting, apprehension or shooting of any fugitives occurred in the parts of the border defences preceding the actual barrier Wall with the West.
The public and agonising nature of Fechter’s death left the GDR authorities seriously rattled. It led within days to instructions that
violators of the border who are wounded as a result of the use of firearms, are to be recovered immediately and without delay [emphasis in the original] and transported to the hinterland for first-aid treatment, so that this is not visible on the enemy side.
The number of paramedical teams on the border was to be increased and stretchers kept ready, one for each section of the Wall. Plans were drawn up so that any wounded escaper could be transported to hospital by the quickest and shortest route.26
In Peter Fechter, the Berlin Wall had found, not its first, but perhaps its greatest martyr. This was a shame from which the East German regime never quite recovered, despite its best, most cunning propaganda efforts.
If the Springer media empire had indeed become involved in helping with the costs of the 28 June tunnel (as well as providing a safe location for its entrance), its role was to be trumped a few months later by the American broadcasting giant NBC. The network agreed to actually finance an entire escape tunnel in exchange for the exclusive film rights. It paid DM 50,000 ($12,500 then or roughly $100,000 in today’s purchasing power) to a group of tunnel builders including yet another colourful, complicated figure of the escape movement, Hasso Herschel.
Herschel, born in 1935 in Dresden, was a brawny, bearded adventurer and, like Harry Seidel, a champion athelete. In Herschel’s case the sport was swimming, but his background was otherwise very different. Seidel’s anti-Communism developed slowly, while Herschel had always been rebellious, running into problems with the East German authorities in his mid-teens. In 1953, he was arrested for participating in the June riots. Refused higher education because of his anti-Communist politics, like Rudi Dutschke he travelled to West Berlin to take his school-leaving examination. Back in the GDR, he was arrested in 1956 for possession of items such as a camera, a telescope and a typewriter purchased in West Berlin. He served four years in prison for breaking the ‘law for the protection of inner-German trade’. Herschel would later admit to being active as a minor agent of West German intelligence.27
After his release in 1960, having persuaded the authorities that he was a changed man, Herschel became a trainee engineer for the East German railways. But in October 1961, he crossed into West Berlin with a forged Swiss passport.
Herschel enrolled at university in West Berlin, but his main priority was to get his sister and her baby daughter to the West. He decided not to shave until he had managed to help them escape, and in consequence sported a beard of Old Testament proportions. It made him an instantly recognisable figure on the escape scene.
In 1962, Herschel was introduced to two Italians also studying in West Berlin, Domenico (‘Mimmo’) Sesta and his friend Gigi. Mimmo and Gigi had known each other since high school in Italy. Both were now students at the FU—Mimmo, of construction engineering, and Gigi, of graphic art—and since the border closure had become marginally involved in escape projects. Mimmo had a German girlfriend, Ellen. Their closest student friend, Peter, married with a child, had been trapped in East Berlin by the Wall. They decided to get him out, and found a factory building in a side-street just off Bernauer Strasse that would suit the start of a tunnel. A similar search in East Berlin, aided by introductions from Peter’s circle of friends and family, supplied a convenient basement a hundred yards or so on the Eastern side.
The Italians and a few friends began to dig ‘Tunnel 29’ in May 1962. At first the going was very tough, because just here the ground was mostly clay. They could only pray they would soon get through to easier sandy terrain. However, progress remained slow. They found themselves short of both of muscle and money.
The first problem, of finding labour for the project, was relatively easily remedied. University friends brought them into contact with Hanno Herschel, who, despite his rigorous anti-Communist opinions, at first sight reminded Mimmo of Fidel Castro. The Italians were impressed by Herschel’s optimism and lack of self-pity, despite the four hard years he had spent in an East German jail.28 Even more impressively, Herschel came with a circle of his own. They also recruited the members of a group who had attempted a tunnel further north at Wollankastrasse. It had suffered from subsidence, betraying their route and almost burying them alive.
Money was a more difficult issue. They needed materials for shoring up the tunnel, which was to be almost 150 yards long. It was also conceived as a substantial and fairly roomy route that might, with luck, be usable for more than one escape project. All of this did not come cheap.
The money problem was solved in June in spectacular fashion. Hearing that a local film company was making a drama about a tunnel between East and West, they approached them and suggested someone might want to film a real escape. From there, one thing led to another. After arguments and contractual problems—they needed a substantial sum ‘up front’ so that they could finish the actual dig—a deal was done with the American television network NBC. Apart from the production team in Berlin, only NBC’s president in New York and his assistant knew the details. With an advance payment of DM 50,000, the tunnellers’ problems were over. Their financial ones, at least.
A total of forty-one different tunnellers, mostly students, took part in the excavation. The organisers piped in air and provided tools and food—even an underground rest and dining area—for the tunnellers.
The work was interrupted by severe flooding and took until September 1962. Once they were through to the East and digging beneath territory where the Vopos and the Stasi were active, dangers increased. They faced ‘an unpleasant surprise’, especially if the East Germans put listening equipment in the basements of houses on the border. They tried to minimise the noise, but this was always a potential hazard.
So was the possibility of betrayal. With so many involved, there was always the danger that Stasi spies would infiltrate the operation. One day, two men appeared and introduced themselves as Rolf and Dieter. The pair both had partners in the East, they said, and wanted to bring them over. Dieter even had a child. They had borrowed money and tried to dig a tunnel of their own with hired help, beginning in a deserted bakery just up the street. However, the task had proved too much. Looking around, they had chanced on Mimmo and Gigi’s tunnel.
The Italians and Herschel, who had now become joint project boss, decided there was something not quite right here. Rolf seemed OK, but they had doubts about Dieter. They agreed to let them join in, but under strictly controlled conditions.
Only after the Wall came down would they discover that it was, in fact, Rolf who had been the Stasi informer. His reason was quite straightforwardly emotional. He did in reality have a girlfriend in the East, whom he desperately wanted to help to escape. TheStasi picked him up when he was visiting her, put him in solitary confinement, and threatened him and the girl with long jail sentences if he did not agree to infiltrate and betray the escape movement.
The tunnellers had the wrong ‘guilty man’, but the effect was the same. In order to neutralise Dieter, they kept him and Rolf slightly apart from the others, and secretly changed the tunnel’s destination.
They had discovered another suitable basement, closer to the Wall—so much closer that by this time the tunnel had already passed it. They left Dieter and Rolf in their belief that the tunnel was going on to its original destination, in the Rheinsberger Strasse, while making plans within their trusted inner circle to break into the alternative one in Schönholzer Strasse.
On the all-important day of the breakthrough, Rolf and Dieter were put under guard and confined to the antechamber. Escapers on the Eastern side would be given the address in Schönholzer Strasse, but the Stasi, if they were being kept informed by a traitor, would continue to await a breakthrough in Rheinsberger Strasse.
The escape itself was a sophisticated operation. With the help of NBC, they obtained short-range radios to communicate with each other, including the helpers at the Eastern entrance. The escapers would come through in timed groups. Mimmo’s West German girlfriend, Ellen, agreed to act as courier, appearing at various prearranged rendezvous in that part of East Berlin to alert the groups of escapers that the operation was ‘on’. This she did by coded messages. She herself would know by a white sheet hanging from a window on the western side of the Bernauer Strasse, also visible from East Berlin side, whether there were any problems in the tunnel. Several very tense hours passed until everyone got through. Ellen herself returned to West Berlin via the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, like any normal tourist.
In some of the most moving and dramatic film footage of the Cold War, the NBC team filmed helpers advancing through the tunnel and then bringing the escapers to the West. The tunnel had sprung a slow leak after the breakthrough into the Schönholzer Strasse basement, so that the floor of the escape route was wet and muddy. One young woman—determined to arrive in the West looking her best—crawled through the sludge in a Dior dress.
The escapers arrived covered in mud and sand, overwhelmed by a mix of happiness, relief and shock. They wept and they laughed. Rolf and Dieter were held until all the escapers—Peter and his family, Herschel’s sister and niece, and the other fugitives, twenty-nine altogether—were safely through.
Then, and only then, was Rolf permitted to inform his girlfriend and Dieter’s wife of the plan. Both women, along with Dieter’s baby son, hurried to the Schönholzer Strasse and came through later that night. Rolf and Dieter disappeared almost immediately and the tunnellers never saw them again. Rolf knew all about the long reach of the Stasi and its unforgiving view of those who broke agreements.
There was just one disappointment. A water pipe had cracked during the breakthrough into the Schönholzer Strasse. The tunnel, which they had intended to keep using for some time, filled with water and had reluctantly to be abandoned.
DM 20,000 of NBC’s money was spent on the actual tunnel. The rest was shared between the two Italians and Hasso Herschel. The sums of money involved, and the publicity provided by the NBC film, caused great controversy in the escape movement. The film accelerated the polarisation between idealistic volunteers and hard-headed, though not necessarily dishonest, professionals.
At the time, this split was not yet clear. While the Mimmo-Gigi-Herschel team were digging the final yards into East Berlin, a newspaper cutting of the dead Peter Fechter was fixed to the basement wall, just by the entrance, so that every digger beginning his shift would be reminded of why he was putting himself through this.29
For his part, for the next few years Herschel continued to organise escapes, and he took money from the escapers and their relatives in the West. He made a business out of it. But he delivered what he promised. And as for the money, when Burkhart Veigel decided to incorporate a compartment for refugee-smuggling into an American Cadillac, and he ran low on funds, it was Herschel who helped him out.
As 1962 became 1963 and then 1964, the tunnelling continued, but outside in the wider world things were changing. The crisis atmosphere that followed the building of the Wall slowly gave way to a kind of sullen acceptance.
After incidents such as the shooting of Private Huhn, the Allies began to put pressure on the West Berlin authorities to crack down on the rescue organisations. The final straw—and arguably the end of the ‘heroic’ period of escaping—came in the autumn of 1964 with the ‘Tunnel 57’ incident.
‘Tunnel 57’ was built by a man named Wolfgang Fuchs, who had himself escaped from the East with his wife and child shortly after 13 August. Fuchs, like many escaped Easterners a passionate anti-Communist, dedicated himself to helping others reach the West. For his big tunnel project, three years later, he made careful plans, raised money, and gathered a group of enthusiasts, mainly students from West Berlin, who were keen to help. He also hired a mining engineer to make sure the tunnel was properly shored up.
Fuchs’s project seemed to be the consummation of all the technical and organisational developments since 13 August. Like the ‘Tunnel 29’ group, he solicited money from media organisations to help with up-front costs, including DM 15,000 from German journalists, $2,000 each from the French magazine Paris Match and the London Daily Mail, and a price of $370 per picture from the press agencies AP and UPI. Only recently has it also become known that Fuchs received DM 30,000 from a secret fund controlled by the Bonn ‘Ministry for All-German Affairs’. The money was channelled through a student group connected with the ruling CDU party.30
Work began in the spring of 1964. Fuchs’s team went under the Wall from a damp bakery cellar in the French sector, near the Bernauer Strasse, and dug 150 metres under the border to the bathroom of a flat in a block in the Strelitzer Strasse. The spacious tunnel was completed after seven months of back-breaking work. The metre-wide opening in the bath-room floor on the Eastern side was concealed by a packing-case, which could be pushed aside to enter the tunnel.
Many of the escapers were from provincial East Germany. The first of them were summoned by a telegram that informed them: ‘Aunt Emma dead stop expecting you immediately stop Gisela’.
At Friedrichstrasse station they were met by a courier, with whom they exchanged a password. They were escorted to the Strelitzer Strasse. There the courier got in contact via walkie-talkie with an observer on the Western side, who was watching the guards’ movements at the Wall. They waited anxiously for the moment when they could enter the building where the tunnel entrance was situated without being observed.
The route was known as ‘Tunnel 57’ because of the number of people who escaped through it. Like the September 1962 tunnel, it was supposed to provide a semi-permanent escape route that could be used over a long period of time.
However, its use came suddenly and disastrously to an end. Shortly after midnight on 5 October 1964, a party of helpers from the Western side surfaced in the courtyard of Strelitzer Strasse 55. They were confronted with two desperate-looking men who begged to be allowed to go West. When the helpers agreed, the men said they had to fetch a comrade who was waiting outside. No sooner had they left than a group of armed Grepos and soldiers appeared. ‘Tunnel 57’ had been betrayed.
The West Berliners retreated to the tunnel entrance. One of the armed tunnel guards, Christian Zobel, fired a number of shots to cover their flight, and the East Germans fired back. In the darkness and the confusion, one of the East Germans was hit and tumbled to the ground.
The Vopos pursued the West Berliners into the tunnel. Shots were again exchanged, but all the Westerners made it back to the French sector.
The man Zobel hit had died of his wounds. He was not a border guard but a regular soldier by the name of Egon Schultz, and he left behind a wife and children. Zobel himself was plagued by conscience about the death, and others shared his discomfort. Only after 1989, when the world gained access to East German government reports from the time, was it revealed that Schultz had, in fact, been killed by his own comrades. Zobel had indeed wounded him in the shoulder, and he fell to the ground, but it was East German bullets that actually killed Schultz—as he struggled back to his feet.
The East Germans nevertheless made Egon Schultz another ‘martyr’ to Western thuggery. They waged a long campaign to have his ‘murderer’ turned over to GDR justice.
Nineteen sixty-four was not 1961. The East German propaganda campaign achieved some success. The shooting led to widespread disquiet and to a campaign on the Western side against confrontational escape projects, where weapons might be used. There was suddenly talk of the money that had changed hands, of mercenary motives on the escape helpers’ part, and of careless use of firearms. The newspaper and magazine articles were no longer so flattering. Fuchs, it was claimed, had made ‘hundreds of thousands of marks’. The two Italians who had been paid by NBC for ‘Tunnel 29’ the year before had been able, one source claimed, to buy a hotel on the proceeds. Tunnel guards were portrayed as gun-toting toughs.
The tunnelling teams were no longer the darlings of the Western media. They learned—as one of them put it—‘for the first time…the meaning of character assassination’.31
It was also clear by this time that the escape organisations themselves were heavily infiltrated by the Stasi. The rate of betrayals and subsequent arrests of escapers and helpers was becoming too great to justify the benefit.
Indirect methods were called for, and they were found.
The reinforcement of the Wall was also a response to numerous spectacular escapes by individuals.
There was still room for individual enterprise. In 1962 Hans Meixner was a 21-year-old Austrian student in West Berlin. His foreign nationality enabled him to visit East Berlin much more freely than a West German or West Berliner.
Invited to a wedding in the East, Meixner met Margit, a young woman who worked as a clerk for the East Berlin city government. They fell for each other. Being optimistic young people, they applied for permission to marry and for Margit to join Hans in the West. The request was unsuccessful. As were successive, increasingly desperate pleas to various GDR authorities.
Luckily Hans was able to drive into East Berlin whenever he wanted. Returning from one such trip in the spring of 1963 via Checkpoint Charlie, he saw how a young woman in a sports car was given a hard time by the Grepos. Her vehicle was so low-slung that when she accidentally let go of the handbrake the sleek vehicle almost slipped under the heavy wooden barrier blocking the exit to West Berlin.
The incident set Meixner thinking. On his next trip, he managed to mark the exact height of that barrier. He then set about looking for a car that would go under it, if only by a couple of inches. Finally he found one—a British Austin Healey Sprite. As a bonus, it had a detachable windscreen.
Meixner rented the Sprite for a week, tested it on the East Berlin run and confirmed that without the windshield it could pass beneath the barrier pole. He practised for hours on an empty lot in West Berlin, swerving between oil drums and round piles of bricks, to simulate the four-feet-high walls placed at intervals across the road at Checkpoint Charlie, just before the crucial final barrier. Once through the border inspection on the Eastern side, cars still had to slow right down and weave in and out of these obstacles. Then, of necessity going slowly, they reached the horizontal barrier. Only once this was raised by the Eastern border guards and the car was actually in West Berlin proper could the driver accelerate away at normal speed.
When Meixner finally satisfied himself that he could perform this ‘slalom’ manoeuvre at speed, he drove over to East Berlin. He spent the daylight hours instructing Margit and her mother, who was coming with them, on what to do. After dark, he squeezed first his fiancée and then her mother into the space behind the seats. It was unnecessary that their presence withstand an inspection—only that they not be visible to the casual eye. Finally, he drove back to Checkpoint Charlie.
The little sports car was routinely waved into the inspection bay at the barrier. Meixner braced himself. He had already removed the detachable windscreen. He remained outwardly co-operative until the last moment—and then suddenly hit the accelerator. Instead of entering the bay, Meixner spun the wheel to the left and headed for the concrete obstacles.
Despite frantic shouts from the guards, Meixner swung his way among the barriers, left and right. Luckily both the car and its hidden cargo stayed in one piece and on course. He emerged safely—his worry had been that he might meet a car coming the other way—and accelerated towards the heavy barrier, which funnelled into a final, buswidth concrete-walled conduit leading into the West. It was the last test. He held the steering wheel steady, pointed the car at the barrier and pushed the accelerator to its limit, then ducked. The Austin Sprite passed beneath the barrier with just a crucial couple of inches’ clearance.
Within seconds, Meixner was through into West Berlin. No time for the guards to open fire.
The astonishing break-out by the young Austrian and his two passengers was one of the most famous individual escapes of the time. And like most such feats, its very success ensured that no one could repeat it. Within days, the East Germans had placed double metal barriers across the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint so that no future escaper could pass through, no matter how low-slung their vehicle.
More common than such spectacular but idiosyncratic stunts was the building of secret compartments into trucks and regular cars, in which passengers could be smuggled to the West. Those driving back into West Berlin from the East were automatically required to open up their car boots and bonnets. A compartment had to be fitted out so that only a thorough inspection, if necessary a dismantling of the entire vehicle, could be guaranteed to find the concealed fugitive. In Burkhart Veigel’s converted Cadillac (which was painted a different colour and provided with different plates and licence documents for each trip) the secret compartment could be opened only by a complicated process involving button-pushing, lever-pulling, opening the front driver’s door at an angle of thirty degrees—and tuning the radio to an exact, pre-programmed frequency. The area between the dashboard and the engine was a favourite, as was that behind or under the rear seat. In the end, the success of such methods brought on the use of X-ray devices.32
By autumn 1964, the border barrier that divided Berlin was generally known as ‘the Wall’. This was not entirely accurate. There existed, in fact, a total of just fifteen kilometres (less than ten miles) of wall in Berlin, mostly consituting the city-centre sections.
There were 165 guard towers, in the early years constructed of wood, and 232 bunkers and firing/observation posts. The other 130 kilometres of barriers, including those bordering on the provincial GDR, consisted basically of barbed-wire fencing. The border strip was not yet comprehensively covered by searchlights, nor was the access road parallel to the strip continuous. The use of mines and self-triggering shooting devices, which killed and maimed many on the so-called ‘inner-German border’ between the Federal Republic and the GDR, was forbidden in Berlin for fear of international protests.
All the same, even before further major engineering work was undertaken in the mid to late 1960s, the ‘Wall’ (even if it was mostly still a fence) constituted a formidable barrier, one that even professionals found it hard enough to get the better of. And, as it got harder, so the price of going West went up.
The unhappy ‘Tunnel 57’ of October 1964 was probably the last ‘not-for-profit’ escape project in which refugees were not expected to pay. Thereafter, money was asked for and given.
Hasso Herschel, in his benign enough adventurer’s way, was a symbol of the new, profit-based escape fraternity. Whether it was a matter of digging a tunnel or converting a car to carry hidden passengers, escape was becoming a time- and capital-intensive process.
Slowly, the student idealists and the passionate anti-Communists started to charge an economic rate for their services, or they gradually left the scene. Burkhart Veigel continued until 1967 and then returned to his medical studies. After qualifying, he decided to put some distance between himself and the Stasi, and left West Berlin for Stuttgart in West Germany, where he built up an outstanding reputation as an orthopaedics specialist. Reinhard Furrer, another prominent escape helper who had been involved in the ‘Tunnel 57’ incident, resumed his scientific studies. He gained a physics Ph.D. and in 1985 enjoyed the distinction of becoming West Germany’s first astronaut, launched into space aboard the US space shuttle Challenger.
Travelling between East and West Berlin with a fake Western passport—a means by which thousands had come West during the first months of the border closure—had within a couple of years become very difficult indeed.
One solution was provided by the readiness of Third World (especially Middle Eastern) diplomats based in East Berlin to bring escapers to the West concealed in their cars. Diplomatic privilege meant that cars bearing the ‘CD’ plates of countries the East Germans considered friendly were rarely searched. But the services of such flexibly inclined envoys did not come cheap. Another reason why during the 1960s the average escape fee doubled to between DM 10,000 and DM 15,000.
Another solution—espoused by Burkhart Veigel once he had converted his Cadillac—was to bring escapers out, not through the Wall inside Berlin, but via other ‘socialist’ states such as Hungary, Czecho-slovakia and Yugoslavia. The borders between these countries and the Western states adjoining them were well guarded, but with nothing like the paranoid thoroughness of the borders between the two Germanys and the two Berlins. West German tourists passed to and fro fairly freely. The escaper would travel to Prague or Budapest, meet his or her escape helper, be concealed inside a vehicle and transported across the border, usually into Austria.
Klaus Schulz-Ladegast had been picked up by the Stasi four days after 13 August 1961 and imprisoned at the Stasi jail in Hohenschönhausen and later the notorious Bautzen prison. He was released after four years, married, and found a job. But any romantic feelings he had once harboured for the East were long gone. He had now decided to go West and was simply awaiting his opportunity.
Unwilling to risk the Wall, Klaus entered into a contract with a professional escape organisation, which specialised in getting people out through ‘the socialist abroad’, as the other Communist countries were known. Klaus and his wife made their way to Czechoslovakia. At a village near the Austrian border, they met up with one of the organisation’s representatives, a bluff, far-from-idealistic truck-driver type.
The deal was simple: the thousands of marks that this operation cost would be repaid by the escapers once they were in West Germany and earning hard currency. It was a very similar deal to that demanded by the ‘traders in human beings’ who operate between the Third World and Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Then as now, such organisations had ways of ensuring that escapers held to the deal once they were safely in the West.
Klaus’s wife went first, stuffed into a compartment inside an old Mercedes. The driver took her across the border to Austria, then returned for Klaus. Klaus was likewise pushed into this cramped space for what he hoped would be a short trip. His hopes seemed to be fulfilled, but just as Klaus thought they must be near the border, the driver turned off the main road. Klaus froze. Had he been betrayed? It was not unknown for escape organisers to sell their charges to the Stasi. The car stopped. Klaus heard the driver leave. When he returned, some while later, his sweating passenger heard several heavy objects being dumped into the boot of the car. Then the penny dropped. The objects were cases of beer. Booze was, of course, cheaper in ‘socialist’ Czechoslovakia than in capitalist Austria…
A little later, they passed safely over the border. Klaus was reunited with his wife. That evening, the young couple strolled through the Austrian border community where they would stay overnight before travelling to West Germany. They ate the first meal of their new life and took the chance to see their first Western film.
The movie being shown at the town’s cinema that week was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.33