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Berlin Tunnel Escapes

Background On May 8, 1945 World War II in Europe was over, and Germany was divided into four sectors: the Americans, British, French in the West and the Soviets in the East. On June 30, 1946, at the initiation of the Soviet military administration, the demarcation line between East and West Germany, including Berlin, was safeguarded. Travelling to West Germany became difficult after closing the border between East and West Germany in 1952. Until 1961, however, East German citizens were entitled to travel to West Berlin. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, which divided the city of Berlin and surrounded West Berlin for more than 28 years. The wall was erected because more than 2.6 million East Germans had bolted to West Berlin or West Germany from 1949 to 1961. In spite of the wall, the desire of the people to move to West Germany grew every day. After 1961, many East Germans tried to flee to West Germany because of bleak economic conditions, and the government had forced people into working on state-owned farms. There also was a massive food shortage. By contrast, West Germany offered freedom of movement, greater economic opportunities, more control over the government by the people — in short, a better life. The Berlin Wall was built in a single night to officially divide the country into East and West Germany. The wall was first made of barbed wire and armed by guards 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was 66.5 miles long and 13 feet high, winding its way through 192 streets. After some time it was rebuilt in concrete with a tube on top to make it difficult to climb over. On the East side of the wall, a deep trench was dug to discourage people from using vehicles to smash through the wall. A second, smaller wall was constructed that added more difficulty and time to cross. Also, the eastern side of the wall was fully illuminated, so the guards could see anyone attempting to cross the wall at night. The guards were ordered to shoot anyone trying to cross the wall, and the patrol soldiers had attack dogs. The tunnels One of the ways the people tried to gain access to the other side of the wall was to dig tunnels. Tunneling was hard work and took many many months to complete. Among those that partook in building the tunnels were professional gangs, students, and common working folk. The tunnels had to be built in deep secrecy, so the East German soldiers would not discover them. One of the tunnels required seven months to build and was only 140 yards long. It was started in an old bakery and came out on the other side in an outhouse. It was completed and available long enough for 100 East Germans to make their way to the other side. The most well-known tunnel was dug in a graveyard where Germans would come to mourn the dead and then “disappear” as they dropped into the hole that was dug. The tunnel was a means of escape for more than 50 people, until a woman left her baby carriage behind, leading to the tunnel's discovery and closure. There were many more tunnels to the other side of the wall, but most of them either caved in or were discovered. Other escapes included flying in hot air balloons, ramming trucks through the wall, and using a rope to “shimmy” to the other side.