7 Most Daring Berlin Wall Escapes
The 9th of November 2019 marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. Since its sudden erection on 13th August 1961, the barbed wire barrier put up by the East German government to stop their own people from getting to the West had expanded into the extensive ‘death strip’, consisting of two walls, anti-vehicle trenches, watchtowers, dog patrols and guards ordered to shoot potential escapees on sight.
Rather than risk this deadly obstacle course, some East Germans used a mix of cleverness, creativity and bravery to make it out in other ways. Here are some of the most daring success stories.
1. The Tunnel
Joachim Neumann was a 21-year-old engineering student who had escaped into West Berlin using a smuggled Swiss passport in 1961. He became involved with a group of university students digging tunnels underneath the Wall to help escapees to the West. In 1964 he and a group of students spent 6 months digging a tunnel – 12 metres deep and 145 metres long – from the cellar of a bakery in West Berlin that came up in a disused outhouse in East Berlin.
Between the 3rd and 5th of October 1964, 57 people, among them Joachim’s girlfriend Christa, escaped through the tunnel, making it the single most successful escape route into West Berlin. The tunnel was finally betrayed, however, and as the last of the escapees were making their way into the tunnel, they were fired upon by East German secret police. The escape helpers shot back. A young border guard, Egon Schulz, was shot and killed. His death provided helpful propaganda for the East German authorities about the ruthlessness of those who wanted to leave the GDR. Only after reunification, when the Stasi files on the event were made public, did it emerge that Egon Schulz had in fact been shot accidentally by one of his own colleagues.
Digging tunnels proved to be something of a penchant for Neumann, as he was later a head engineer during the construction of the Channel tunnel.
2. The Zipline
Heinz Holzapfel worked at the Haus der Ministerium: a six-story government administration office which stood unusually close to the Berlin wall. On 28th July 1965 he came into work, bringing his wife Jutta and 9-year-old son Günther with him. The three of them waited in a toilet until everyone had left for the night, then came out onto the roof of the ministry building. From there, Heinz threw a hammer attached to a wire over the Wall to West Berlin, where his friend and brother were waiting with their car. They secured the wire to the car, while Heinz attached the other end to the roof. One by one they ziplined down the wire to safety in West Berlin, using harnesses they had made at home. The East German border guards deployed to shoot those trying to escape later reported that they had witnessed the whole event, but had mistaken the escapees for East German spies being sent into the West on a secret surveillance mission.
3. The Tank
Rather than trying to go over or under the Wall, Wolfgang Engels decided the best way to get to the West was to go right through it. The 19-year-old was working as a civilian chauffeur for the army, so was in a position to get close to a group of tank operators, who showed him how the vehicles worked. On the 17th April 1963 he stole a Soviet tank and tried to smash through the Berlin Wall to the West. Even the 9-ton tank couldn’t break cleanly through to the other side, however, and the vehicle got stuck with its doors opening onto the East. Engels climbed out and immediately got caught in the barbed wire on top of the Wall. An East German border guard arrived on the scene. Engels shouted out “Don’t shoot!” - then felt a bullet ripping straight through his torso. The commotion caught the attention of West Berlin police, who began to return fire, giving Engels cover to fall into the West, where he was dragged into a bar, bleeding heavily. Seeing the western brands stocked on the bar, Engels realised he had succeeded. He tried to order a cognac to celebrate, but was instead taken to hospital where he made a full recovery.
4. The Convertible
Heinz Meixner and his fiance Margarete decided they would have a happier life in Heinz’s native Austria. As an Austrian, Heinz was allowed to cross into the West, but Margarete did not have permission to leave the country. When passing through Checkpoint Charlie, Heinz managed to measure the height of the metal barrier which dropped down in front of vehicles as drivers’ IDs were checked. Then he scoured car rental outlets in West Berlin. He rented an Austin-Healey Sprite and drove it back across the border to East Berlin and Margarete. Early on 5th May 1963 he returned to Checkpoint Charlie with his fiance hiding in the back seat and her mother curled up in the boot, surrounded by 30 bricks in case the guards started to shoot. Heinz had removed the windshield and let air out of the tires to make the car as low as possible. When the guard asked for his ID he ducked his head, floored the accelerator and sped under the barrier into the West.
5. The Trojan Cow
If you had the money it was possible to pay Western people-smugglers to get you out of the East. They could provide fake IDs, or, naturally, conceal you in the hollow body of a model cow. East Germans paid 1000 Deutsche Marks to be hidden inside the cow, taken from a display window. They would then be driven through East Germany over the border into either West Germany or West Berlin. If the vehicle was searched, guards would be told the boxed cow was simply a display item being moved. The plan was successful twice, but on 7th July 1969 the border guards were tipped off, and the would be escapee and two helpers were sent to prison.
6. The Tightrope
Horst Klein had been banned from performing as a trapeze artist in East Germany because he had been classed as ‘anti-communist’. Unable to imagine a life without performing freely, he put his skills to use in escaping. He climbed an electricity pole with a cable spanning the wall, then pulled himself along underneath it with his hands. It was January, and by the time he had inched down the wire and was hanging over the West, he had lost all feeling in his hands and fell into the West, breaking both his arms. Not the acrobat’s most graceful landing, but a success nonetheless.
7. The Strip Club Membership
In the 1960s some members of the Munich Playboy club carried membership cards bearing the letters ‘CD’, standing for ‘Confédération Diplomatique’. They had been designed for members to impress women, as they were similar to diplomatic ID cards, on which CD stood for ‘Corps Diplomatique’ (member of the diplomatic corps). Dieter Jensch noticed the similarity when visiting a bar in Munich, and got a card of his own. On his way into the GDR he decided to test out just how realistic these joke cards were, and flashed the card at a border guard. At first the guard was confused, but waved Jensch all the same. When he returned to the border to cross back in the West he was accompanied in his car by several East Germans. Again, the guard waved through the car, even apologising for the wait. Over the next 12 years Dieter was involved in distributing 500 fake diplomatic IDs to East Germans.