Ida Siekmann had been holed up for days. Nine days earlier, workers had sealed the border to her country by dead of night. Three days earlier, the front entrance to her apartment had been blocked off by police.
She had committed no crime, but Siekmann was in the wrong place at the wrong time: August 1961. Her apartment building was located in what had become East Berlin, while the street, including the sidewalk in front of her building entrance was now part of West Berlin.
Siekmann wanted out, so she took a chance. She shoved her bedding and other possessions out of her window and jumped. She died on the way to the hospital. She had just become the first fatality of the Berlin Wall.
Between 1961 and 1989, thousands of East Germans made risky border crossings. Around 5,000 of them crossed over the Berlin Wall at great personal risk—and their attempts to do so ranged from sneaky to suicidal.
German Democratic Republic officials decided to close the Berlin border for good in 1961, spurred by a spate of defections from refugees who used Berlin’s relatively permeable border to escape East Germany. By August 1961, when officials abruptly sealed the border, up to 1,700 people a day were leaving through Berlin and claiming refugee status once they reached the west. On the night of August 12-13, 1961, workers erected barbed wire and temporary barriers, trapping East Berliners.
As Barriers Intensify, So Do Escape Efforts
At first, people used structures like Siekmann’s apartment building to escape west. These border houses had doors and windows that opened into West Berlin, and people used those buildings to escape. West German emergency personnel and others waited on the west side and helped people as they climbed through windows or jumped off of roofs. Soon, though, East German troops forced residents to move and sealed the apartment buildings along the border.
They soon erected a more permanent barrier through Berlin. The 27-mile-long wall was actually two walls with a no-man’s-land known as the “death strip” in between. Armed with landmines, attack dogs and barbed wire and regularly patrolled by East German troops ready to shoot and kill any would-be escapee, it intimidated most East Berliners into staying put.
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But some were determined to leave at any cost. Two days after the wall was built, Conrad Schumann, an East German border guard, was photographed leaping over barbed wire toward freedom. Train engineer Harry Deterling stole a steam train and drove it through the last station in East Berlin, bringing 25 passengers to the west and prompting big changes to the railroad lines. And Wolfgang Engels, an East German soldier who had helped build the barbed-wire fences that initially separated both Berlins, stole a tank and drove it through the wall itself. Despite getting caught in the barbed wire and shot twice, he managed to escape.
Dozens Cross the Border in Tunnels
Tunnels were another daring mode of escape, and people on both sides attempted to dig them. Many were left unfinished when their makers were ratted out; others failed because of difficult conditions. But a few were successful.
In 1962, a group of West German students assisted by an East German refugee received funding from NBC as they built a 131-foot-long tunnel beneath a factory. As part of the deal, NBC planned to broadcast a special about the tunnel and escapees. Twenty-nine people escaped through it before it was discovered. The subsequent NBC News' documentary, "The Tunnel," was originally scheduled to air on October 31, 1962 but the air date was postponed after NBC came under pressure to not escalate tensions with the Soviet Union after the Cuban missile crisis.
Another student-dug tunnel sparked the most successful escape attempt in the wall’s history—57 people escaped over the two days it was open. The well publicized escapes so shook East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, that they installed listening devices across the death strip and monitored the ground for tunneling activity 24/7.
Desperation drove creativity as others tried to get over the border. Hartmut Richter swam across the cold Teltow Canal that separated the East German region of Brandenburg from West Berlin. It was a four-hour ordeal—and then he returned again and again to take friends west in his car trunk. Acrobat Horst Klein got over the border on a tightrope; Ingo and Holger Bethke used a complex zip line, then flew ultralight planes back over the wall to pick up their brother, Egbert.
Deaths at the Berlin Wall
But others weren’t so lucky. According to the Berlin Wall Memorial, 140 people died at the Berlin Wall or were killed there in connection with the border. Another 251 travelers also died during or after passing through border checkpoints. And “unknown numbers of people suffered and died through distress and despair in their personal lives as a consequence of the Berlin Wall being built.”
Ingenuity and desperation drove individuals and small groups to make their escapes, but it would take a massive movement to bring down the wall itself.
In August 1989, the Spitzner family became the last East Germans to escape across the wall. Three months later, massive pro-democracy protests and confusion among East German officials prompted a rush on the border and the wall that had divided Berlin for nearly 30 years. The wall was finally breached on November 9, 1989, and Germany reunited in 1990.