Article
Günter Zint
Escape to Freedom

A story of one teenager’s attempt to get across the Berlin Wall

By Kristin Lewis
From the April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to read a true story about the Berlin Wall and write an article explaining why the Berlin Wall is important to remember

Lexiles: 750L, 930L
Other Key Skills: literary devices, author’s craft, text structure, key ideas, text features

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As you read the article and study the images think about how the Berlin Wall affected the people of Germany. 

Every muscle in Hartmut Richter’s body ached. He’d been in the cold water for four agonizing hours. His body temperature had plummeted dangerously low. Now, to his horror, he found himself trapped in the water by a wall of razor-sharp barbed wire.

Precious seconds ticked by. The area was crawling with guards carrying machine guns. Some had snarling dogs at their sides. If they caught Hartmut, he could be thrown in prison—or worse.

These men were trained to shoot on sight.

Hartmut grabbed the wire with his bare hands. He began pulling it apart, hoping he could make a hole large enough to squeeze through.

Hartmut Richter was not a criminal escaping from jail. He was not a bank robber on the run. He was simply an 18-year-old kid who wanted nothing more than to be free—to listen to the music he wanted to listen to, to say what he wanted to say and think what he wanted to think.

And right now, Hartmut was risking everything to escape from his country and start a new life.

Every muscle in Hartmut Richter’s body ached. He’d been in the cold water for four hours, and his body temperature had dropped dangerously low. Now he was trapped in the water by a wall of razor-sharp barbed wire.

Precious seconds ticked by. The area was crawling with guards carrying machine guns. Some had snarling dogs at their sides. If they caught Hartmut, he could be thrown in prison—or worse.

These men were trained to shoot on sight.

Hartmut grabbed the wire with his bare hands and began pulling it apart, hoping to make a hole large enough to squeeze through.

Hartmut Richter was not a criminal escaping from jail or a bank robber on the run. He was just an 18-year-old kid who wanted to be free—to listen to the music he wanted to listen to, to say what he wanted to say and think what he wanted to think.

And right now, he was risking everything to escape from his country and start a new life.

A Bleak Time

Hartmut Richter

Hartmut Richter

Hartmut was born in Germany in 1948. He lived near the capital city of Berlin with his parents and younger sister. This was a bleak time for his country. Only three years earlier, Germany had been defeated in World War II.

During the war, Germany had invaded nearly every other country in Europe. It had carried out the Holocaust, systematically murdering 6 million Jewish people. Germany was deeply shamed by the horrors the country had unleashed on the world.

The war had left much of Germany in tatters. Cities had been bombed into ruins. Buildings and streets were pocked with holes from bullets and grenades. Many people were struggling to feed and house themselves.

It was during these brutal postwar years that Germany became caught up in a struggle between the two strongest countries in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union (which included modern-day Russia).

This struggle would divide Hartmut’s country—and the world—for decades. 

Hartmut was born in Germany in 1948. He lived near the capital city of Berlin with his parents and sister. This was a bleak time for his country. Three years earlier, Germany had been defeated in World War II.

During the war, Germany had invaded nearly every other country in Europe. It had carried out the Holocaust, systematically murdering 6 million Jewish people. Germany was deeply shamed by the horrors the country had unleashed.

The war had left much of Germany in tatters. Cities had been bombed into ruins. Many people were struggling to feed and house themselves.

It was during this time that Germany became caught up in a struggle between the two strongest countries in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union (which included modern-day Russia).

This struggle would divide Germany—and the world—for decades. 

The Cold War

The struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became known as the Cold War. This Cold War was not fought with bombs and armies. It was fought with fear and threats.

During this period of tension, both nations vied for power and control across the world. This struggle would go on for more than 40 years.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union sent spies to each other’s countries to steal secrets. They competed to make the deadliest weapons, filling up warehouses with bombs more powerful than anything the world had ever seen. They told stories that vilified each other.

Around the world, fear simmered that these hostilities would erupt into all-out war.

The struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became known as the Cold War. This Cold War was not fought with bombs and armies like World War II. It was fought with fear and threats.

During this time of tension, both nations vied for power and control across the world. This struggle went on for more than 40 years.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union sent spies to each other’s countries to steal secrets. They competed to make the deadliest weapons, filling warehouses with bombs more powerful than anything the world had ever seen. They told stories that vilified each other.

Around the world, people worried: Would these hostilities erupt into all-out war?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

A Divided Europe

The Soviet Union (in red) existed from 1922 to 1991. Its official name was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). During the Cold War, East Germany was one of a number of countries (in orange) under the influence and control of the Soviet Union.

No Freedom 

Hartmut lived in a part of Germany that the Soviets took over after World War II. In 1949, when Hartmut was 1 year old, this area became a new country: East Germany. The official name was the German Democratic Republic.

The rest of Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany, also known as West Germany. The capital city of Berlin was divided between East and West Germany.

Germany had been split in two.

Life in East and West Germany could not have been more different. As West Germany recovered from the war, the people who lived there began to thrive. They had lives like Americans. You could walk into a bookstore and choose from all sorts of books. There were newspapers that expressed many viewpoints. There were planes to take you anywhere you wanted to go. Teenagers were watching the latest Hollywood movies and listening to the Beatles.

But in East Germany, many felt they were living in a prison. You could only read books and see movies approved by the government. Listening to the Beatles—or any rock and roll music—was forbidden. You couldn’t simply get in the car and go where you wanted; you needed permission to travel. And getting news of the outside world was extremely difficult. Journalists were allowed to write only what the government told them to write.

If you were caught breaking a rule, the penalties could be harsh. The Stasi—East Germany’s ruthless secret police force—were always watching. They listened to phone calls and read personal mail. And they were notorious for their brutality.

This is the country Hartmut was growing up in. And this is the country he was determined to leave.

Hartmut lived in a part of Germany that the Soviets took over after World War II. In 1949, when Hartmut was 1 year old, this area became a new country - East Germany. The official name was the German Democratic Republic.

The rest of Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany, also known as West Germany. The capital city of Berlin was divided between East and West Germany.

Life in East and West Germany was very different. As West Germany recovered from the war, the people there began to thrive. They had lives like Americans. You could walk into a bookstore and choose from all sorts of books. There were newspapers that expressed many viewpoints. There were planes to take you anywhere you wanted to go. Teens watched the latest James Dean movies and listened to the Beatles.

But in East Germany, many felt they were living in a prison. You could only read books and see movies approved by the government. Listening to the Beatles - or any rock and roll music - was forbidden. You couldn’t simply get in the car and go where you wanted; you needed permission to travel. And with journalists allowed to write only what the government told them to write, news of the outside world was rare.

For those caught breaking a rule, the penalties could be harsh. The Stasi, East Germany’s ruthless secret police force, were always watching. They listened to phone calls and read personal mail. And they were notorious for their brutality.

This is the country Hartmut was growing up in. And he was determined to leave.

Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Why Was Germany Divided?

After World War II, the victors wanted to make sure that Germany could not rise up again. They decided that Germany would be divided into zones. France, the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were each given one zone to control and help rebuild. The capital city of Berlin was also divided into four zones.

 

In 1949, the areas controlled by the U.S., France, and Great Britain were combined to form West Germany. The area controlled by the Soviet Union became East Germany. That is how roughly half of Berlin came to be part of West Germany and the other half, East Germany.

The Berlin Wall

Of course, Hartmut wasn’t the only one who wanted to get out. From 1949 to 1961, millions fled, and Berlin was one of the main places for escape. By 1960, 1,000 people were crossing from East Berlin into West Berlin every day.

East German leaders were alarmed by the flood of people leaving the country. They became determined to put a stop to it.

And so on August 13, 1961, at 1:00 in the morning, they began building a giant wall to physically separate East Berlin from West Berlin.

How strange it must have been for Hartmut, who was 13 at the time and visiting relatives in Berlin, to wake up that morning and see the capital city literally cut in two. Streets connecting the two sides of the city were blocked off. So too were train lines and sewers. Phone lines were cut. Families and friends were suddenly separated.

If you happened to live on one side of the wall and work in the other? Too bad. You had to get a new job.

Over the years, many people tried to get over the Berlin Wall. Some made a run for it. Others dug tunnels deep underground. Many were caught and thrown in prison—or killed. Historians estimate that as many as 5,000 people managed to escape. At least 200 died trying.

Hartmut came up with his own escape plan: He would swim.

Hartmut wasn’t the only one who wanted to get out. From 1949 to 1961, millions fled. Berlin was one of the main places for escape. By 1960, 1,000 people were crossing from East Berlin into West Berlin every day.

East German leaders were alarmed by the flood of people leaving the country. They wanted to put a stop to it.

And so on August 13, 1961, at 1 in the morning, they began building a giant wall to physically separate East Berlin from West Berlin.

Hartmut, who was 13 at the time and visiting relatives in Berlin, woke up to find the city literally cut in two. Streets connecting the two sides of the city were blocked off. Train lines and sewers were too. Phone lines were cut. Families and friends were suddenly separated.

If you lived on one side of the wall and worked in the other, you had to get a new job.

Over the years, many people tried to get past the Berlin Wall. Some made a run for it. Others dug tunnels. Many were caught and thrown in prison - or killed. Historians estimate that as many as 5,000 people managed to escape. At least 200 died trying.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The Berlin Wall

Construction on the Berlin Wall began in 1961. At first, it was mainly barbed-wire fences. But over the years, the wall was expanded to include enormous concrete barriers. By the 1980s, it extended nearly 100 miles, surrounding West Berlin completely. Three hundred watchtowers with armed guards stood along its length.

A Dangerous Swim

The Teltow Canal flowed from outside East Berlin into West Berlin. Hartmut had heard about a section of the canal that was not well guarded—a place he could climb in undetected.

He decided that this canal would be his route to freedom.

On a warm August night in 1966, Hartmut put on his darkest clothes. He carefully wrapped in plastic his ID and some money—the only belongings he would take with him. He did not tell his parents or sister that he was leaving. He knew that would only put them in danger with the Stasi. He could not even say goodbye.

Then, under the cover of darkness, Hartmut made his way through the streets. Just past midnight, he quietly slipped into the canal and began to swim. He figured it would take him 20 minutes—not easy in the cold water but not impossible for someone young and strong.

He was wrong.

Many guards and their dogs were out that night. Each time Hartmut saw someone crossing a bridge over the canal or peering down into the water, he had to stop and hide, crouching among the reeds.

Minutes turned to hours. He became dangerously cold in the chilly water.

He pushed on.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., Hartmut saw a street sign that told him he was nearing West Berlin. Freedom was mere feet away.

There was just one problem. Stretching across the canal was an iron gate. On top of it was a tangle of barbed wire. To make matters worse, every 60 seconds, a bright searchlight from a nearby patrol swept over the canal.

Was this the end? Had he come all this way only to fail now?

Hartmut waited in the shadows for the searchlight to pass, then sprang into action, carefully separating the sharp wire with his bare hands. At last, he made a large enough opening. He slipped through and climbed out of the canal. Moments later, he stepped onto dry land in West Berlin.

He had made it.

And then he collapsed, unconscious.

The Teltow Canal flowed through East Berlin into West Berlin. Hartmut had heard about a section of the canal that was not well guarded, where he could pass through undetected.

He decided that this canal would be his route to freedom.

On a warm August night in 1966, Hartmut put on dark clothes. He wrapped his ID and some money in plastic. These were the only items he would take with him. He didn't tell his parents or sister that he was leaving, because the knowledge would put them in danger. He couldn't even say goodbye.

Under the cover of darkness, Hartmut made his way through the streets. Just past midnight, he slipped into the canal and began to swim. He figured it would take him 20 minutes—not easy in the cold water but not impossible for someone young and strong.

He was wrong.

Many guards and their dogs were out that night. Each time Hartmut saw someone crossing a bridge over the canal or peering down into the water, he had to stop and hide among the reeds.

Minutes turned to hours. He became dangerously cold in the chilly water.

He pushed on.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., Hartmut saw a street sign that told him he was nearing West Berlin. Freedom was near.

But there was a problem: Stretching across the canal was an iron gate topped with barbed wire. And a searchlight from a nearby patrol swept over the canal every 60 seconds.

Was this the end? Had he come all this way only to fail now?

Hartmut waited in the shadows for the searchlight to pass. Then he separated the sharp wire with his bare hands. At last, he made a large enough opening. He slipped through and climbed out of the canal. Moments later, he stepped onto dry land in West Berlin.

He had made it.

And then, he collapsed, unconscious.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

A Divided Germany

The city of Berlin was divided. About half was part of East Germany and the rest was part of West Germany.  What do you notice about where Berlin is located?    

A New Life

What happened next is a blur in Hartmut’s memory. But he remembers being taken to a hospital, where he spent nearly three days recovering from hypothermia and pneumonia.

He was free. And yet Hartmut’s incredible swim to freedom was not the end of his story. In many ways, it was only the beginning.

After Hartmut recovered, he started a new life. He went to work on a ship, traveling the world. Still, he thought often about his family and friends, of everyone he had left behind.

In 1972, an important agreement eased travel restrictions between East and West Germany. This made it possible for Hartmut to travel back and forth between West and East Berlin.

And so he decided to go back—this time with a new mission: to help others escape. He began sneaking people across the border in the trunk of his car. He brought 33 people to freedom before the Stasi caught him and sent him to prison. By the time he got out five years later, he was 29 years old.

What happened next is a blur in Hartmut’s memory. He remembers being taken to a hospital, where he spent nearly three days recovering from hypothermia and pneumonia.

He was free. And yet Hartmut’s swim to freedom was not the end of his story. In many ways, it was only the beginning.

After he recovered, he started a new life. He worked on a ship, traveling the world. Still, he missed the family and friends he had left behind.

In 1972, an important agreement eased travel restrictions between East and West Germany. Hartmut could now travel back and forth between West and East Berlin.

And so he decided to help others escape. He began sneaking people across the border in the trunk of his car. He brought 33 people to freedom before the Stasi caught him and sent him to prison. When he got out five years later, he was 29 years old.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was starting to thaw. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were softening. In Germany, people were tired of living in a divided country. They were pressuring the government to change.

And then, on November 9, 1989, came a shocking announcement: The border between East and West Berlin would be opened. All would be allowed to cross freely.

Berliners on both sides rushed to the wall. When the border opened, tens of thousands of East Berliners streamed into West Berlin. A huge celebration erupted.

Men, women, and children tore off pieces of the wall, hacking away at it with hammers and chisels. Eventually, cranes and bulldozers were brought in to topple what had been one of the most powerful symbols of the Cold War.

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was officially reunified. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

It’s been more than 50 years since Hartmut's swim to freedom. Today he works to expose the crimes of the East German regime. He talks about his experiences, and he counsels victims of the Stasi.

What matters to Hartmut now is that what happened is never forgotten. “When people are informed, they learn the lessons of what history teaches us,” he says.

The Wall Falls

Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

The Day the Wall Fell

Berliners rush to tear down the wall on November 10, 1989.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was starting to thaw. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were softening. In Germany, people had grown weary of living in a divided country. They began pressuring the government to change.

And then, on November 9, 1989, came a shocking announcement: The border between East and West Berlin would be opened. All would be allowed to cross freely.

Berliners on both sides rushed to the wall. When the border opened, tens of thousands of East Berliners streamed into West Berlin. An enormous celebration erupted.

Men, women, and children began tearing off bits and pieces of the wall, hacking away at it with hammers and chisels. Eventually, giant cranes and bulldozers were brought in to topple what had been one of the most powerful symbols of the Cold War.

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was officially reunified. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

As for Hartmut? It’s been more than 50 years since his courageous swim to freedom. Today he works to expose the crimes of the East German regime. He talks about his experiences often. And he counsels victims of the Stasi.

What matters to Hartmut now is that what happened is never forgotten. “When people are informed, they learn the lessons of what history teaches us,” he says.