The Brutality of the Berlin Wall
“Why Didn’t They Just Go Over It?”
A young boy asked this question at one of our events, recently.
The answer is: in the beginning they did. The ‘wall’ that divided Berlin wasn’t much to speak of when the first version – mostly barbed wire - was erected in 1961.
East Germans escaped by jumping over the wire – as East German border guard Conrad Schumann did in August 1961 - or out of apartment buildings along the Wall. East German authorities responded to the latter by removing the occupants and bricking up the windows, but not before Ida Seikmann became the first casualty of the Wall after jumping out of her third floor apartment. See the video below for what it was like in those early days.
In April 1963, 19-year-old East German army recruit Wolfgang Engels stole a Soviet armored personnel carrier and drove it straight into the Wall, getting hung up in the barbed wire. Border guards fired on him, but a West German policeman fired back and dragged Engels to safety in the West. Other East Germans escaped by tunneling under the Wall, taking a hot air balloon, using aerial wires, crossing through the preexisting sewer system (with the help of West German groups organized for the purpose), and flying over the Wall in ultralight planes. One light aircraft was later returned to the East Germans with ‘wish you were here’ painted on it.
One East German drove a sports car full speed through the early fortifications. Later, others escaped in vehicles modified to shed their roofs and windows when hitting the metal beams placed at checkpoints. The East Germans later put zig-zag entrances at the checkpoints to prevent this.
The Berlin Wall bulked up over the years and by the fourth iteration finished in 1980 featured high concrete walls, 116 watchtowers, anti-vehicle trenches, guard dogs, floodlights, and trip-wire machine guns. Smooth pipe at the top of the Wall made it more difficult to climb. There were 20 bunkers and hundreds of guards.
Finally – and the main reason people didn’t just ‘go over it’ – was the ‘death strip’. There were actually two parallel concrete walls up to 160 yards apart, with a clear field between them. Houses formerly in the death strip were torn down. Raked sand or gravel made footprints in the death strip easy to notice. There was no cover. The guards, ordered to shoot, had clear fields of fire. The wounded lay bleeding to death, Westerners unable to help them for fear of being shot themselves.
There were perhaps 5,000 escape attempts between 1961 and 1989. Estimates of the number who died trying to reach freedom range from 98 to over 200.