Defying the Berlin Wall

The story of Dieter Wohlfahrt…

dieterOne of the purposes of this blog is to remember noteworthy lives of years gone by who have shown great talent or great courage whilst never reaching the heady heights of world renown. I suppose that as I get older I view life and the lives of others in a more balanced and reflective way and feel a greater sense of despair when lives are lost at the behest of those we elect or who are thrust upon us.

The Cold War is often seen in its most simplistic terms, a cold, dangerous stand-off between the two great superpowers which included the fall of the Berlin Wall. I say ‘fall’ because little, these days seems to be made of its construction and the lives of those living on its East side as well as the impact it had on friends and family living on the immediate opposite side of it. It was a ‘war’ and a period where little is made of the human casualties be they deaths, life changing physical and mental illnesses, heartbreak or shattered loyalties. This ‘war’ had them all.

This is the story of one of those casualties and I suppose this one small, solitary image of Dieter Wohlfahrt exemplifies my sentiments of remembering those whose life story has been compacted into one passport sized photograph.

As soon as the realisation of the size and nature of the Berlin Wall dawned upon the residents of both East and West Germany so began plans to escape from it. Some of the ideas were ingenious, most were incredibly brave or foolhardy depending on ones point of view but escape from the East was a non-negotiable dream for men and women of all ages and the risk, however great was a risk worth taking. In the last four months of 1961, according to official Stasi figures there were a total of 3,041 arrests for attempts to escape to the West. Most of these came via attempts to escape on foot with a combined 18% using cars or trains to get across. The remaining arrests came from failed escapes via means of the waterways including rivers, canals and lakes. The last remaining few were caught crawling through the city’s sewerage system.

Groups of volunteers dedicated to aiding those wishing to escape were soon drawn up, secrecy was paramount. The East German police and secret service were masters at turning the people against each other and the Stasi had an unlimited supply of watchers and informants. So when a couple of enterprising young men found an escape route via a sewer they wasted no time in organising false documents, transport and changes of clothing for those crawling through the worst imaginable debris. These sewers were fitted with numerous metal grilles, a product of the 1950s when smuggling cigarettes, alcohol and other luxuries between sectors was commonplace and lucrative for street gangs on both sides. Whilst the entry and exit points had been established young boys were enlisted to crawl up to each grille and hack-saw their way through each of them whilst under the constant threat of discovery by both sets of police.

Once the sewers were ready so began the escapes and those looking to flee West were told at the very last moment of the plan and time of extraction. Dieter Wohlfahrt, a twenty year old Austrian showed courage beyond his years by volunteering to drive a car up to the manhole cover as a way of blocking its view before hiding in the abandoned factory site, waiting to close the cover after the last of the escapees and driving the vehicle away again. As an Austrian national he was allowed to stay on the East side longer than a West German and so most nights he would park the car somewhere out of the way after midnight before crossing the border on foot. It was incredibly dangerous work. Four nights and 134 escapees later and the operation was blown. Whether or not they had been informed upon or the security services had been particularly vigilant remains unclear but by the fifth night the game was up. Wohlfahrt, however, lived to plan another escape.

December 9th 1961, Wohlfahrt and a group of friends are at the border crossing at Staaken. The mother of one of the group wants to escape and so they begin to cut through two barbed wire fences but the plan and the young men have been betrayed and they are met by armed border police. Dieter Wohlfahrt is shot in the chest, the bullet does not kill him instantly and the guards leave him for an hour, slowly bleeding to death whilst helpless police and security personnel from the Western side look on, not daring to enter the no-go area.

Wohlfahrt’s death and the chosen means of escape signified the beginning of a realisation that the days of tunnelling were over and the only alternative was to run the gauntlet that was breaking through or over the wall and fences. In turn it would herald the shooting of those so desperate to flee a regime by what was the most hazardous methods of them all. Wohlfahrt died in the very prime of his life, at least 134 people owe him the greatest debt of their lives and they do so in an era when bravery was, quite simply, braver and those committing it or receiving it did so in a dignified yet barely acknowledged way. Wohlfahrt did it because he believed it was the right thing to do and I write this remembrance of him with the same sentiment.

Dieter Wohlfahrt 1941-1961


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