Although the East German government fortified the barrier with everything from watchtowers to guard dogs to beds of nails, a few people managed to slip over the border in amazing ways.
1. On a Tightrope
East German acrobat Horst Klein made one of the most daring escapes over the wall in early 1963. Thanks to his acrobatic skill, Klein was able to turn an unused high-tension cable that stretched over the wall into his route. He moved hand-over-hand while dangling from the cable 60 feet over the head of patrolling guards, then when his arms became fatigued, he swung his whole body up over the cable and inched his way along. Klein’s dismount wasn’t particularly graceful – he fell off of the cable – but he landed in West Berlin.
2. Down a Zip Line
On March 31, 1983, friends Michael Becker and Holger Bethke took Klein’s idea one step further by letting gravity do the heavy lifting for them. The pair climbed to the attic of a five-story building on the eastern side of the wall and fired an arrow tied to a thin fishing line over a building in West Berlin. An accomplice grabbed the arrow and reeled in the line, which was connected to a slightly heavier fishing line, then to a quarter-inch steel cable. Once the steel cable was attached to a chimney on the western side of the wall, Becker and Bethke zipped across the quarter-inch cable using wooden pulleys.
3. Without a Windshield
When Austrian lathe operator Heinz Meixner pulled up to Checkpoint Charlie on May 5, 1963, something must have seemed odd about his red Austin Healey Sprite convertible. Namely, it was missing its windshield. (A closer inspection would also have revealed that his mother was hiding in the trunk.) When the East German guard directed Meixner to pull over to a customs shed, Meixner instead floored the accelerator and ducked. His tiny car slipped right under the three-foot-high barrier dividing the East from the West.
4. With a Passport from Hef
A 1986 Los Angeles Times piece by Gordon E. Rowley described Meixner’s driving escape, but it also detailed a decidedly low-tech method of crossing the border. According to Rowley, some border crossers simply approached the guards and flashed their membership cards for Munich’s Playboy Club. The cards so closely resembled diplomatic passports that the guards often waved them through.
5. On a Speeding Train
These clever escapes all worked, but in the wall’s early days, brute force was an option, too. In December 1961, a 27-year-old train engine driver named Harry Deterling piloted what he dubbed “the last train to freedom” across the border. Instead of slowing down his passenger train as it approached the fortifications, Deterling throttled it up to full speed and ripped through the wall.
The train skidded to a stop in West Berlin’s Spandau borough, allowing Deterling, seven members of his family, and 16 other people aboard the train to remain in the West. The train’s engineer and six other passengers chose to return to East Germany.
6. In a Hot Air Balloon
The escape orchestrated by Hans Strelczyk and Gunter Wetzel in 1979 sounds like it came straight out of a comic book. Strelczyk, a mechanic, and Wetzel, a mason, used their mechanical know-how to build a hot air balloon engine out of old propane cylinders. Their wives then pieced together a makeshift balloon from scraps of canvas and old bed sheets, and on September 16, 1979, the two couples, along with their four children, floated up to 8,000 feet and drifted over the wall to freedom.
7. In a Well-Aged Tunnel
In May 1962, a dozen people escaped from the East by way of Der Seniorentunnel, otherwise known as “the Senior Citizens’ Tunnel.” Led by an 81-year-old man, a group of senior citizens had spent 16 days digging a 160-foot-long and 6-foot-tall tunnel from an East German chicken coop all the way to the other side of the wall. According to one of the diggers, the tunnel was so tall because the old men wanted “to walk to freedom with our wives, comfortably and unbowed.”
8. In a Uniform
Movies tend to portray East German border guards as soulless automatons who were dead-set on keeping everyone on their side of the wall, but many of the guards were just as desperate to escape as their fellow East Germans. One perk of being a border guard was that a soldier could simply wander over the border to freedom, and a lot of them did. Over 1,300 made the jump in the first two years of the wall’s existence.
The most famous of these escapes was made by 19-year-old guard Conrad Schumann on August 15, 1961, just the third day of the wall’s construction. Since the “wall” was really just piles of barbed wire at that point, Schumann jumped over the wire in his uniform while toting his machine gun. A photographer caught Schumann’s flying leap, and the jump to freedom became an iconic Cold War image. Schumann eventually settled in the southwestern state of Bavaria and worked as a machine operator. He committed suicide in 1998.