“As a child, you love what you know. Not what grown-ups or strangers think is beautiful; no, you simply love what you know. You’re glad to know something. And this gladness sinks into your bones, is transformed into a feeling of being at home. As for me, well, I loved this ugly, purportedly gray East Berlin that had been forgotten by all the world, this Berlin that was familiar to me and that now—at least the part where I grew up—no longer exists.”
We’re out until January 5, but we’re revisiting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. Check out this post on a childhood in East Berlin, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and others. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Berlin is commemorating that momentous event with a stunning trail of 8000 large illuminated balloons set up along the former course of the wall. Entitled Lichtgrenze, or “Border of Light”, this beautiful and poignant installation was created by the WHITEvoid design studio and film studio Bauderfilm with the help of Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH.
The radiant white balloons stand at the same height as the infamous wall, which divided the city of Berlin for 25 years, from 1961 to 1989. The installation travels a 15 kilometer (~9.5 mile) stretch of the once 140 kilometer (87 mile) long wall, which completely encircled the western half of the city. To symbolize the wall’s collapse, the balloons will be illuminated on November 7th and released into the air on the evening of November 9th.
Today we’re going to talk about Joachim “Total BAMF” Neumann, who in 1963 was an East German university student who was determined to get over to the West. He had a family, a long-term girlfriend named Christa Gruhl, and plenty of friends - but none of that mattered when freedom was only a wall away.
So we’re going to start of this tale by saying that he DID make it over to the West - very easily, actually. In 1963 he borrowed his Swiss friend’s passport and simply went through customs with it. He faked his Swiss accent by not talking at all, and acting like an angry tourist who hated Germany (so, basically, any Swiss person), and communicated through an upturned nose, grunts, and arrogant scoffs. The border guards had no reason to believe he WASN’T Swiss, and let him through.
This was amongst the first instances of someone ‘Swissing their way to freedom’.
Cool. So Neumann was in the West! Freedom! Capitalism! Coca-Cola! 60’s fashion! What else could a person want?
Well he realized that he had left behind like, everyone he loved, and devised a plan to get THEM over as well, that didn’t involve Swiss grunts and borrowed passports. So if you can’t go through it, and you can’t go over it, what’s the next step?
Go under it, of course!
He assembled a team of other West German university students who wanted to breach through the wall, and they decided they’d just fuckin’ dig right under it. Neumann was a civil engineer student, because of course he was, and led the expedition with more than a dozen others.
While their classmates played Ultimate Frisbee and cried over final exams, or whatever West German university students did back then, Neumann and his buddies slept in an abandoned bakery in week-long shifts, using buckets of water to wash off the dirt and grime.
The tunnel itself was later called “Tunnel 57,” because this is the Hunger Games, was 11 metres deep underground, with just enough room for a single person to crawl through on their hands and knees. In fact, the students didn’t even know if, when they broke ground on the other side, they’d be in the East. They just bullshitted it, for the most part.
We’re dealing with University students, remember. They don’t know any other way.
Digging took five months, and when they emerged on the other side, they had actually broken ground in an old outhouse in East Germany, meaning that not only had they bullshitted the entire thing, but upon receiving the final grade it was a 100% mark with extra credit thrown on top.
On 3 October 1964 the tunnel was ready for passengers. They told their friends, relatives, loved ones, everyone - the password was “Tokyo”, and it was your passport to the other side.
Neumann’s girlfriend Christa was in prison during all of this, arrested for trying to flee earlier through other means, but she had been released early on the day of the tunnel’s opening and was able to make it through the next day.
The second night of the tunnel’s operation, nearby border guards noticed something wasn’t quite right, and soon the operation was discovered. In the following discovery, there was a small shoot-out between a few diggers and guards, and one border guard ended up dying. The tunnel was destroyed, but not before 57 East Germans ended up on the other side to freedom - the tunnel’s namesake.
Neumann and his girlfriend reunited, were later married, and remain so today! One of the diggers became an astronaut, and another continued to smuggle people across the border for decades.
57 people escaped through the tunnel in two nights - over 1/5th of the total amount of escapees who left via tunnels in over 30 years of the wall’s history.
In the photo above, a woman crawls through Tunnel 57 on her way to West Berlin, photographed by Hans-Joachim Tileman
ALRIGHT, so these next few “History in Gifs” will be looking at a particularly fun subject that I like to delve into: AMAZING BERLIN WALL ESCAPES. People got very creative and desperate when getting over the Wall; whether it was forging documents, tricking guards, lying to the government, or straight up trying to climb over the damn thing, an estimated 5,000 people escaped to the West through the Wall.
I’m going to cover some of the greatest of those 5,000 escapes.
First up is the story of Wolfgang Engles. As a teenager, he worked as a driver for the East German Army. You can probably, already, see where this is going.
Teenager + “driver” + reckless ambition = a story to tell
He grew up with a very staunch Socialist background, whose mother worked (secretly) for the Stasi. In 1961, he actually arrived in East Berlin for the first time when he was tasked to help build the wall.
This story takes place two years later, in the spring of 1963. Disillusioned by the blind patriotism of “The Party” that many of his associates had, he hatched a thorough, foolproof plan to escape:
Drive a goddamn tank through the wall.
There is literally no way this plan could go wrong in any sense.
Being a driver for the Army made it a little bit easier for him. A few days before 1 May (Labour Day), he saw that a bunch of army dudes had just left around a few brand new armoured vehicles, in preparation for the annual May Day parade.
He got the guys to teach him how the tanks drove (probably with liquor) and then - he put his plan into motion.
On 13 April 1963, waiting until the army crews went to lunch, Engles got into one of the cars and went on the most epic joyride of his life. Nobody noticed the random tank driving through, because this was East Berlin and that was just an average Tuesday.
On the way he offered a few bystanders a ride - “I’m leaving for the West, who’s coming?” were his famous words, and they were met with famous looks of “what the fuck?”
“Weird guys in tanks” are the same as “weird guys in windowless vans” in the GDR
WHEN HE REACHED THE WALL, despite revving up the engine and going the whopping 15 miles per hour speeds those things probably reach, he couldn’t break through straight through, and there was still a layer of solid concrete between him and freedom.
By this time of course, Border guards had heard reports of “holy shit some fuckbag just tried to drive a tank through the fucking wall” and went over to check it out.
The tank was stuck, but Engles wasn’t - he climbed out of the tank and proceeded to just climb over the rest of the fucking thing, because there was no way he was going to just stop now, god damn it!
Border guards were shooting at him, and at the top of the wall was a lovely boquet of barbed wire to greet him.
While this was going on, West German border guards were watching the scene unfold (popcorn in hand, probably), and, like cheering on their favourite reality TV star, fired back at the East Germans to cover for him and distract the guards. It was like an epic shootout, except with a stalled tank, a shitty wall, and a bloody teenager.
Back on the West, there was a bar nearby. A few people (“Half of them were plastered,” Engles would later report) came out and saw the scene - the gunshots, the bloody kid dangling from the barbed wire, the tank - and decided that this shit was too epic to pass up.
“wwe gotta go help…the kid…with the thing… ‘n the guns…”
They rushed over, formed a human ladder, and got the kid down. They took him back to the bar where the owner closed up shop, and they proceeded to tend to his wounds.
Engles was out, but not for long - when he awoke, he claimed that he knew he was safely in the West when he saw all the varieties of Western alcohol on the shelves.
The first thing he asked for was a cognac or a beer.
In the image above, East German officers congregate around the tank Engles smashed through the Berlin Wall.