The Berlin Wall snaking the city

The Narrow Escapes Across the Berlin Wall to Find Longing Liberty

Berlin Wall Snaking along the City
Berlin Wall Snaking along with the City – Credit: Wall Street Journal

The Berlin Wall was a barbed barrier to the flow of refugees to find liberty after World War 2. The Communist Government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was worried about the seemingly endless flow of refugees. Nearly 3 million young skilled workers, such as engineers, teachers, doctors, and nurses, had found a way to leave the GDR since the end of the blockage. Only in June 1961, around 19,000 people went to the west through Berlin. In July, 30,000 East Germans crossed the border, and in August 16,000 fled. The culmination point was that 2,400 defectors crossed the border in a single day.

Prior to the construction of the wall, residents on both sides of Berlin moved around freely enough. They traversed the border to visit, to work, to shop, to enjoy pieces of plays or the movies. Trains and subway lines ran back and forth. But, every kind of transportation or communication was locked down after the building of the wall and barbed barrier, except three checkpoints: Helmstedt, Dreilinden, and the center of Berlin. Diplomats and officials of the allied nations could enter or leave if they met the strict requirements of the German East.

The Berlin Wall (1961 – 1989)

Berlin Wall Between the East and West of Germany
Berlin Wall Between the East and West of Germany – Credit: War History Online

On August 13, 1961, East Germany decided to construct barbed wire and concrete to cease mass defections from East to West. The Berlin Wall served as an ugly symbol of ideological division by snaking through the city. It was almost 27 miles long and built with a barbed barrier, under the control of attack dogs, and with a threat of 55,000 landmines. Though the barrier almost lasted between 1961 and 1989, it could not retain a massive democratic movement. The huge escape of defectors showed the not-too-distant fall of the social German Democratic Republic.

Narrow escapes from the Berlin Wall

Right after building the border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR, the East Germans found the ruling government full of inhumanity and looked for a life of liberty. Although facing lots of threats, dangers, and death, Berliners tried any means to realize their willingness or dream to seek liberty at any cost. Some were lucky to have death-dealing narrow escapes from the current government to go to a country of liberty, while others lost their lives in a communist country.

Conrad Schumann

Conrad Schumann stands before the iconic photo
Conrad Schumann stands before the iconic photo. Credit: Mashable

Conrad Schumann was born in 1942 into a middle-class family that lived in farming. From childhood, his father trained him as a sheepherder to help the family to oversee a herd of 50 sheep. At the age of 19, he joined the army and was assigned as a border policeman. On the afternoon of August 15, 1961, as a head constable, he took a regular patrol right on the barbed barrier at Bernauer Straße. When the government decided to seal off the border on August 13, 1961, his unit was stationed on the sector boundary.

The most famous border-crossing

Conrad jumps over barbed wire to liberty.
Conrad jumps over barbed wire to get liberty – Credit: MutualArt

When the Berlin Wall began to be erected the day before, a low barbed barrier was put to mark the border. After a few days, Schumann took a patrol at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ruppiner Strasse and saw it was an opportunity for him to carry out his dream of changing life. At that moment, he felt restless, walked back and forth nervously, and ceaselessly smoked. Then, he took a glance around him to find if a border guard was watching him. He hesitated for a moment and decided to leap over the barbed barrier. Luckily, there was a group of journalists who were writing coverage of what had happened at the other side of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, they saw a young man in an army uniform jump over the barbed barrier.

Leap into liberty

In fact, Conrad’s border crossing was partly encouraged by the group of reporters on the side of West Germany. They paid attention to Constable Schumann Conrad for more than an hour as his behavior was a bit strange. Next, they shouted to him “Come over”, which gave him more courage. Right after landing in the territory of West Germany, he received the aid of the West Berlin police. Interestingly, the photographer, Peter Leibing, was standing near the wall at that moment. Immediately, he took a window of opportunity to capture the action of Conrad’s jumping over a barber barrier. This photo was featured in many magazines as a symbol of the cold war.

New life in West Berlin

Conrad Schumann stayed in the refugee camp in Marienfelde till the end of September. Then the West German government supported him in settling in a new house in Bavaria. He landed a job as a worker in the Audi plant. The picture of him leaping over a barbed barrier made him known not only in the city but also all over the world. However, it haunted him for the rest of his life, along with a lasting fear of the Stasi. He said in a press interview that he would never regret his escape from the Berlin Wall. But for some unknown reasons, he committed suicide by hanging from the limb of a tree in the middle of the summer of 1998. He passed away at 56 and was buried in the back of the house or the small garden in Kipfenberg in southern Germany.

Harry Deterling

Many Berliners made an attempt to flee East Germany via railroad, by individual escapes such as hiding in or on top of trains. But Harry Deterling, a train engine driver, made quite a different departure: a group escape. He found an opportunity to escape along a still-existing railroad line linking Albrechtshof station. Seeing the line had not been dismantled and the switches were still in operation, he discussed with his coal stroker, Hartmut Lichy, a plan to break out. Both of them asked their close friends and relatives if they wanted to join the trip.

The last train leaving the Berlin Wall

Last train from East Berlin into freedom
Last train from East Berlin into freedom – Credit:

Deterling decided December 5 was the starting day when he turned 28. He went with his wife and four children along with Lichy’s girlfriend; however, she missed the train full of risk. A day before, Deterling persuaded his boss to operate an extra locomotive to develop his technical skills. People in the know were present before 7:30 on the rail platform. 18 members of Deterling and his colleague got train tickets whose route would end at Albrechshof. On that night, when Deterling ran locomotive 234 onto a disused track, 32 people were on board. Some hapless passengers didn’t realize what was happening. Finally, Deterling chuffed the last station in East Berlin in front of the complete surprise of the border guards. The following day, the train line was destroyed immediately.

Deterling’s happy birthday present: freedom

Harry Deterling and his family
Harry Deterling and his family – Credit: The 60’s at 50

Thanks to Deterling’s daring, well-organized plan, five entire families arrived in the West safely. For Deterling, the escape from the barbed barrier in East Berlin was a true birthday gift. At the refugee station, his wife celebrated his 28th birthday at the Marienfelde refugee camp with his companions. At the birthday party, Harry got a birthday kiss from his 24-year-old wife, Ingrid, who saw a bright future for her children in the path of education.

Wolfgang Engels

East German solder Wolfgang Engels
East German soldier Wolfgang Engels – Credit: Local Germany

Wolfgang Engels was born into a communist family in 1943 in Düsseldorf, Germany. When he grew up, his mother took him to East Germany after World War II. Under his mother’s teaching, he was willing to serve in the Army of the German Democratic Republic or East Germany as he believed in the new ideology of the political system. Later, he realized what he believed in the government was totally wrong or he stayed on the wrong side. As a result, he hatched the idea of deflection from the Berlin Wall.

Smashing a concrete barrier with a tank

Engels used a tank to smash a concrete barrier..
Engels used a tank to smash a concrete barrier – Credit: Wikipedia

As he was a soldier building the Berlin Wall, the pressure of escape was getting to him. Coming up with an idea of border-crossing by a tank, he made friends with some tank workers by letting them use his vehicle for a spin. In return, they helped him drive a PSW 152 six-wheeler and instructed him how the engines worked. When mastering the operation of a tank, he was confident to await the crews to go for lunch in a shop at the end of a street. Thanks to a large amount of military traffic at the time, one more vehicle didn’t get attention from other soldiers when he steered it to the east. Despite the vehicle’s momentum, he couldn’t break through the wall, which was still, at that time, a single-layered block with a height of nearly three meters.

The escape from the Berlin Wall

Unfortunately, Engels’ tank didn’t make a full hole in the Berlin Wall and was stuck in his tank — and stuck in the Berlin Wall. The East German soldiers in stories poured out and began to shoot at his tank and himself. He shouted not to shoot but they kept on opening fire. Leaving the relative safety of the tank, he climbed away. Unluckily, he was shot once in the back and once in the hand. The second bullet went through his hand, in, then out. Finally, the West German police from the other side fired back at the Eastern border guards, covering Engels’ escape.

In reality, a group of customers in a nearby bar saw him border-crossing and helped pull him out of the wire barricade into the freedom of West Germany.  They made themselves like a human ladder to carry him over the wire. Then, they took his unconscious body into a bar to wait for an ambulance.

Hot air balloon escape

Hot air balloon escape from East Germany
Hot air balloon escape from East Germany – Credit: The Sun

A brightly colored hot air balloon escape was carried out by two young families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels. It’s a unique, unexpected idea that no East Berliners had ever thought of, which didn’t get attention from East Germany at the moment. Wetzel worked as a driver for a furniture and construction materials company. He got bad marks against him in the eyes of East Germany as his father had illegally gone to West Germany. Thus, Wetzel had no opportunity to join the Communist Party. In addition, the GDR denied Wetzel’s request to pursue physics after completing high school.

After that, he had no choice rather than to study forestry, bricklaying, and truck driving to earn his livelihood when going into the world of reality. His passion for physics partly encouraged him to leave for West Germany and provided him with technical knowledge. To appease his desire for the sciences, he played around with machines for his pastime. In 1974, when meeting Peter Strelzyk, both of them decided to work together as a self-employed electrical group.

The science behind the balloon

In 1978, Wetzel’s sister-in-law gave him a magazine that included an article about the International Balloon Festival in New Mexico. Seeing colorful photos of hot air balloons, he came up with the idea of going to West Germany by hot air balloon. With such an idea, he immediately discussed Strelzyk with the plan of producing a hot air balloon. The science of hot air balloons is that air inside a balloon is heated by a burner, and the balloon will rise. It is attached to a basket at the bottom to contain passengers and the burner and floats in the direction of winds.

They bought a propane gas fire burner to fuel the balloon, and some stovepipes of 12 centimeters in diameter to connect to a gas cylinder, and added a hose, valve, and nozzles. Next, some of them went to different stores to buy materials for a basket. The East German government noticed if they purchased a large number of materials in the same place. On April 28, 1978, they went to the opening of a forest to test their product, but nothing happened.

Tried again

They knew miscalculation as the fabric was porous, letting the air escape. Air-proofing chemicals made the balloon heavier. Then, they decided to burn it down to erase all traces of air escape. In the following attempt, Wetzel and Strelzyk had more experience and in-detailed calculation. They prepared a suitable quantity of gases as well as the size of a balloon, particularly powerful enough to float 8 people. Until Sept 15, they started their journey as the forecast of the day seemed perfect. Again, the flight didn’t happen smoothly.

When Wetzel and Frank cut the anchor ropes at opposite corners, their action took place at the same time, making the balloon tilt into the flaming burner. As a result, the fabric got fire. They used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. The balloon rose to the sky at an altitude of 2,000 meters and winds reached 50-km-per-hour. The problem was that they had no means to steer the balloon. And their destiny was at the mercy of the wind. Finally, the balloon landed in the woods as it was out of gas. They walked south and spotted a power plant in West Germany.





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