May Day was a big deal in East Germany. As a matter of fact, it was a big deal in all of the Communist Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War era. It was, after all, a day for celebrating workers around the world. Since Communist countries were supposed to be a worker’s paradise, it stands to reason they would take a day off from shooting dissenters and waiting in lines to watch a few parades.
And those parades were lit.
It was because everyone was preparing for May Day that Wolfgang Engels was able to escape from East Germany.
The wall began construction in 1961.
Engels was born in 1943 in Düsseldorf, Germany (what would have been West Germany just a few years later), but his Communist mother took him to East Germany after the end of World War II. As a young man, he was drafted into the Army of the new German Democratic Republic, what we know as East Germany.
The young soldier was a believer in the new ideology as a young man. He called his upbringing “thorough” and “socialist” and noted his mother even worked for the Stasi. It wasn’t until much later in his service that someone managed to convince him that things were not all they were made out to be.
But one of his first assignments as a newly-minted East German was to help build the Berlin Wall.
A Soviet-built East German BTR-152, like the one Wolfgang Engels drove through the Berlin Wall.
He soon felt terrible about what the wall became. Not just the barrier between the Iron Curtain and Freedom, but a symbol of the ideological struggle of the Cold War — and he was on the wrong side. The GDR was not the Germany he thought he knew.
After two years, the pressure was getting to him. Suddenly, well before his defection, he was accused of trying to cross the border illegally. He and two friends were looking for a concert in a cafe near the border wall. The group was found and unable to explain, to the guards’ satisfaction, what they were doing and so they were manhandled and mistreated. It drove the reality of East Germany home to him.
In reality, the thought of crossing the wall hadn’t occurred to him until his East German superiors put the idea in his head. But attempting to flee came with a stiff fine, two years’ jail time, and maybe even a bullet to the head. Still he remained determined — and even asked random passersby to come with him, but no one took him up on the offer.
His plan to escape was simple enough. He would steal an armored personnel carrier, drive to the most famous wall in the world (at the time at least), and then drive right through it. That’s exactly what he did, but it was nice of him to stop a couple of times and ask if anyone wanted to come.
The armored personnel carrier came from the preparations being made for the upcoming May Day parade. It was a BTR-152. A six wheeled, Soviet-built vehicle whose top could open upward, luckily for Wolfgang Engels. When the workmen went off to lunch, Engels started up his new vehicle, garnering little notice in a military-run city.
He had roughly 100 meters — the length of a football field — to gather enough velocity to crash through a single layer of cinder blocks less than ten feet high. Unfortunately, Engels’ APC didn’t fully penetrate the Berlin Wall and he was soon stuck in his vehicle — and stuck in the wall. East German border guards began to open fire on the BTR-152 and Wolfgang Engels. He decided it was time to book it.
He left the relative safety of the vehicle and tried to climb away. Ensnared in barbed wire, he was shot at close range while attempting to flee. Twice — once in the back and once in the hand. The second bullet tore through his body, in then out.
Luckily for him, West German police officers from a nearby watchtower fired back at the Eastern border guards, providing much-needed cover and time for Engels. But really, it was time enough for a group of revelers at a nearby bar to come out and help pull him out of the wire and into the freedom of the West. They formed a human ladder, freed him from the wire, and brought him over. They carried his unconscious body back to the bar, closing up the blinds.
“I came to on top of the counter,” he says. “When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it.”
He ordered a cognac.
Wolfgang Engels was sent by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he recovered from a collapsed lung for three weeks.
He wouldn’t see his mother again until 1990, after the fall of the wall. He learned the East Germans were planning to abduct him and charge him with desertion before the wall fell. As for the soldier who shot him, Engels is just grateful he didn’t turn his AK-47 on automatic.