6 ways East Germans escaped the grip of Communism

At the end of World War II, Germany was divided in half, leaving West and East Germany. The West was controlled by NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations controlled the East. The former capital of Berlin was torn in two, split between communists and capitalists.

As you might expect, life under a communist regime is hell and people were looking for a way out. After the Berlin Wall and Inner German border (IGB) were created and heavily guarded, only an estimated 5,000 escapees managed to sneak out and into the freedoms of Western civilization throughout the 28 years of the Wall’s existence.

1. Trains

In the early days of the Cold War, defecting wasn’t that difficult. It was estimated that, before the Berlin Wall and the IGB were erected, nearly 3.5 million East Germans defected to West Germany. Legal loopholes, a lack of physical borders, and little effort to keep East Germans meant that all it took to get away was to hop a train.

All of this changed on August 13th, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. By August 24th, the order was given to kill anyone attempting to leave East Germany.

East German Train

The fact that so many people risked certain death to leave a Communist regime kinda proves it’s a sh*t system. (Courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

2. Wearing uniforms

One of the most iconic images of the Cold War was captured when an East German Soldier, Conrad Schumann, leaped over concertina wire on August 15th, 1961 as the Wall was being created.

It was also common to find guard and Soldier uniforms in East Berlin black marketplaces.

Jump to freedom statue

Schumann’s escape has since become synonymous with the era of German history. (Courtesy Photo)

3. Counterfeit passports

Speaking of black markets, special passports that allowed access past guards were also forged. There were certain citizens that were authorized to cross the border, legally, for various reasons. While actual passport holders were required to come back by nightfall, escapees with a fake passport and little interest in returning to a Soviet sh*thole said, “scheiß drauf” and never returned.

When Communists realized people were openly spending foreign money in 1979, black markets boomed because capitalism, uh, finds a way. Fun fact: an East German diplomat passport looked much like a Playboy Club: Munich membership card. If you placed your thumb over where the Playboy Bunny logo would be, you could sneak in.

East German Passport

Playboy saves the world, time and time again. (Courtesy Photo)

4. Jumping from high buildings

Many options for avoiding the Berlin Wall, such as passage through the Spree or Havel Rivers, were downright dangerous. While the guards would detain or shoot as you tried to sneak across the Wall, you ran the risk of drowning if you opted for a river crossing. In fact, many people drowned in escape attempts, but that wasn’t as dangerous as this option.

There were many tall buildings located near the Wall. Escapees would climb up to the highest floor needed and, boldly, jump. Many survived, some were wounded, but others weren’t as lucky.

As the years went on, the Wall grew, making this passage impossible.

you are now entering the french section

“You are now entering the French Section.” (Courtesy of German Federal Archives)

5. Tunnels

The largest mass escape from East Berlin was when 57 people made their way through a tunnel, aptly named afterwords, “Tunnel 57.”

The tunnel systems were elaborate and ran deeply underground to prevent detection.

Berlin tunnels

Shawshank Redemption has nothing on these East Berliners. (Courtesy of German Federal Archives)

6. Hiding in trunks

The final illegal journey from East Germany to the West was done by an American man who smuggled a father and his little girl in his vehicle just days before the Wall fell. Their story was shared with National Geographic in the video below.

(National Geographic)