Berlin Wall 30 years on: How a Stasi ‘hero’ saved tunnel digger’s life

As the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, David Courbet hears the story of a tunnel digger who risked his life for others and was saved by an unlikely 'hero'.

Berlin Wall 30 years on: How a Stasi 'hero' saved tunnel digger's life
The wall being built in August 1961. Photo: DPA

When Berlin's despised Wall went up in 1961,the divided city overnight became an imposing landscape of barbed wire and guards with shoot-to-kill orders.

But below the earth, desperate Germans began digging dozens of tunnels to try to burrow their way to freedom, or liberate easterners who were prisoners of their own country. Only a lucky few succeeded against the odds.

Thirty years on after the joyous fall of the Wall, Boris Franzke, now 80, recalls his hair-raising, subterranean adventures between the communist east and the capitalist west – once with the unlikeliest of allies.

Franzke, who helped several easterners escape, said: “At first I wasn't interested in politics. I didn't feel affected by the tensions between the Soviet Union and the West.”

All that changed the night of August 12-13th, 1961 when the Stalinist state moved to seal the border to stop a mass exodus of easterners to the west. From 1949 until work on the Wall began, 2.7 million had crossed from east to west.

“That famous night was the trigger,” Franzke told AFP, when he as a 22-year-old man was cut off from his friends, his family and even his fiancee, who were all living in the east.

READ ALSO: How and why was the Berlin Wall built?

'We were devastated'

Franzke's brother Eduard, whose wife and two children lived “on the other side”, suggested that they build an underground pathway.

But they were betrayed on their first attempt and the family still in the east was thrown in prison.

“We were devastated but said that we'd keep at it because each person we brought back to the west would weaken the GDR a little more,” he said, fighting back tears.

From the time the border was sealed until 1964, the brothers took part in the building of seven tunnels, only two of which achieved their purpose.

Onlookers watch the Wall being built. Photo: DPA

Between 26 and 28 East Germans, according to Franzke, spirited themselves to the west through them.

“In his own way, Boris Franzke was certainly a member of the resistance,” said historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff, co-author of “Underground to Freedom” about the escape tunnels.

“These courageous young men,” he said, offered “selfless help in escaping – it never involved payment and its sole purpose was to weaken the single party regime”.

In total, 75 tunnels ran below the city during the 28 years the Wall stood, although only 19 succeeded in allowing fugitives to escape to the West – around 400 people, according to the Berlin Underworlds group which organizes historical tours in the capital.

READ ALSO: Berlin to mark 30th anniversary of fall of Wall

A trap

But the most indelible moment came in the summer of 1962 when the two brothers, who had made a name for themselves among the shadowy group of “diggers”, wanted to bring several acquaintances of a friend to the west.

The spot they chose, on the outer fringe of the city's western sector bordering on the eastern state of Brandenburg, was not closely monitored.

The risks of flooding were low and the sandy soil did not require reinforcement of the tunnel walls.

The Franzkes and two friends dug day and night for five weeks until the passage – 80 centimetres wide and 80 metres long – opened into a garden where 13 potential escapees were to be waiting.

But as soon as they arrived, they saw it was a trap: instead of dissidents hoping for freedom, who had in fact been arrested a few days before, they found Stasi agents ready to pounce.

Three of the diggers managed to do an about-face in the tunnel but their friend Harry Seidel, the first to emerge, was caught and interrogated.

Sentenced to life in prison, this “public enemy number 1” of the SED party would later be “bought” by the West German government in 1966, a common practice at the time.

It would take until 2010 for Boris Franzke to learn that he had narrowly escaped a grisly death: the East German authorities, exasperated by him and his brother, had wanted to blow up the tunnel with five kilogrammes (11 pounds) of explosives.

'My hero'

“The supplies were ready but at the moment they were to go off, nothing! The wick (on the explosives) had been cut,” Franzke said.

As for the saboteur, historians say it was likely a lieutenant-colonel of the Stasi secret police, Richard Schmeing, who died in 1984.

A still-standing section of the Wall at Bernauer Straße, with a mock up of the former death strip behind it. Photo: DPA

“As strange as it sounds, he's my hero. He put his life on the line to save four people,” Franzke said.

Schmeing had been imprisoned at two concentration camps under the Nazis for his membership of the communist party. From 1949 until 1968 he worked for the Stasi.

His motives, presuming he was the one who prevented disaster, remain shrouded in mystery.

Was he a brave humanist? Did he suffer from a guilty conscience? Was he moved by the presence of a young couple who happened to be nearby?

In any case the golden age of Wall tunnel building would soon come to an end, followed by a major fortification of the border between the two Germanys.

“80 percent of the tunnels were dug between the time the Wall was built in the summer of 1961 and October 1964, when a border guard was supposedly shot by an escaping fugitive,” said Marc Boucher, a guide with Berlin Underworlds.

“This event shifted public opinion in the West which was until then very supportive of these methods of escape.”

It was not until reunification in 1990 that it emerged that the guard was in reality killed by accident by one of his colleagues.

By David Courbet

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‘Wall of Shame’: How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, communist East Germany's authorities began building the Berlin Wall, cutting the city in two and plugging the last remaining gap in the Iron Curtain.

'Wall of Shame': How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago
A cyclist passes the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße in Berlin. The wall was erected 60 years ago on August 13th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Rumours that the border between East and West Berlin was about to be closed had been swirling for 48 hours.

On Friday, the parliament or People’s Chamber of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) had given the green light to take any measures necessary to halt the exodus of its population westwards.

READ ALSO: What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

Over the preceding 12 years, more than three million citizens had fled the strict regime, opting for the freedom and prosperity offered by West Germany.

News flashes

At 4:01 am on that Sunday, a top-priority AFP flash dated Berlin hit the wire: “The army and Volkspolizei are massing at the edge of the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin to block passage.”

In a second flash, the story was firmed up. “Berlin’s metropolitan trains have for the past two hours not been going from one sector to the other.”

Then one flash after another fell:
– 4:28 am:  “The GDR’s Council of Ministers has decided to put in place at its borders, even at those with the western sector of Berlin, the checks usual at borders of a sovereign state.”

– 4:36 am: “An order from the East German interior ministry forbids the country’s inhabitants to go to East Berlin if they do not work there.”

– 4:50 am: “Inhabitants of East Berlin are forbidden to work in West Berlin, according to a decision by the East Berlin city authorities.”

Barbed wire and guns

In the very early morning, AFP’s correspondent at the scene described the situation on the ground.

“Barbed wire fences and defensive spikes have been put in place overnight to hermetically seal the border between East Berlin and West Berlin.

READ ALSO: What happened during Germany’s ‘catastrophic winter’ of 78/79?

“The road is practically cut off for refugees.

“Most of the crossing points between the two sides of the city have been cut off since sunrise and are heavily guarded by the police patrolling with machine guns on their shoulders.

“Only 13 border crossings remain open between the two Berlins, controlled by numerous reinforced units of armed police.

A sign on the wall next to Brandenburg Gate reads: “The wall is coming down – not in 30, 50 or 100 years.” This photo was taken a year before the wall fell. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Dramatic escape

“Germans from East Berlin can no longer go to the West without a special pass, the controls are excessively strict.

“As the net falls over the communist part of the city, a young Berliner from the East manages against all odds to ram with his car the barbed wire separating the two sectors of the city.

“Seeing the young man arriving at high speed in a Volkswagen, the police were too taken off guard to be able to stop the car, which carried the barbed wire placed across the street right to the French sector,” AFP wrote.

‘Death strip”

Little by little, the kilometres of barbed wire will give way to a 43-kilometre-long (27-mile-long) concrete wall cutting the city in two from north to south.

Another outer wall, 112 kilometres (70 miles) long, cuts off the enclave of West Berlin and its two million inhabitants from the GDR.

Constantly upgraded over its 28 years of existence, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the wall is made up of slabs of reinforced concrete, 3.60 metres (12 feet) high, crowned with a cylinder without a grip making it almost impossible to climb.

The remainder is made of metal wire.

Along the eastern side of what is widely called the “wall of shame” stands a “no man’s land”, 300 metres (990 feet) deep in places.

Border soldiers from the DDR look over the wall in May 28th, 1988. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

At the foot of the wall a “death strip” made up of carefully raked ground to make it possible to spot footprints, is equipped with installations that set off automatic gunfire and mines.

However hermetic this formidable “anti-fascist protection rampart”, as it was officially known, would be, it would not prevent the escape of nearly 5,000 people until it fell on November 9th, 1989. Around 100 fugitives lost their lives trying to cross over.