The tunnels of divided Germany: Digging and crawling beneath the Berlin wall
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The tunnels of divided Germany: Digging and crawling beneath the Berlin wall

It is considered to be an attraction nowadays. The number of people who are interested is huge and booking is obligatory. Even taking photos is prohibited. It is, of course, impossible to squeeze your way into the real tunnel because they all disappeared. They collapsed. Mostly due to water surges. Out of 79 tunnels, many got fucked up during the digging itself. The others collapsed after the first few fugitives passed through them. Anyway, for a long stretch of time, crawling a few meters below the Berlin wall had been one of the most popular ways to free yourself from the constraints of communism and set out into a better life in the West. However, there were also Germans who begged to be taken back after a few days. It appears that even in those days capitalism wasn’t for everyone.

 

The underground in the first few months of the Berlin wall

In August 1961, a national initiative started. Bricks and barbed wires were strewn across the streets of Berlin. One of the funniest moments, perhaps even the only funny moment in the history of making this construction, happened during these hectic and chaotic days. While the East Germans worked diligently on dividing the city, Conrad Schumann concluded that there are more important things in life than ideology.

tunnels of berlin wall

The news of his leap over the barbed wire and subsequent defection traveled the world in a matter of hours. The media called this act of heroism “leap of freedom” and, of course, they used it for propaganda purposes. He appeared on the billboards of all the big cities overnight.

When someone erects a 3.6 meter-high and 155 kilometer-long wall, you have to be very agile if you want to escape. Berliners definitely were. The first of these underground escapes went through well-worn routes of the metro tunnels. Eventually, they were outmaneuvered by the Stasi. The tracks on every station were lined with metal spikes and electric cables were stripped. Escaping through the metro after the erection of the Berlin wall entailed either being stabbed or electrocuted or sometimes even both.

People who were tiny in build had a greater chance of success if they sneaked into the sewers and swam through a ton of shit to reach that blissful capitalism. These „tours“ were organized by the German group made up of West Berlin University law students.

Not even these initiatives could surprise the Stasi. They changed manholes in the whole East Berlin. They weighed more than 100 kilos. As this wasn’t enough to stop the ideological migrations through the faeces, the Stasi set bars on sewer lines. Not even a child could physically get through. The shit couldn’t flow away either, but that was a minor issue. Several hundred people were employed on sewerage maintenance during those years in Berlin. That is quite an interesting concept for opening new jobs!

 

Pioneering undertakings in the suburbs

The first tunnel was dug in October 1961 in the very north of Berlin. The tunnel was short and tight, about 30 meters in length. Since its depth was no more than 3 meters, progress was slow. Such shallow digging made a heavy sound on the surface and every patrol could hear what was happening. This is why there were more people keeping watch than doing the digging itself. The tunnel entrance was in the kitchen of a home on the very boundary, right next to the wall. The greatest problem was what to do with all that enormous amount of excavated soil. The only efficient and inconspicuous solution was to literally fill the upper bedrooms to the brim, so that people slept on earth mounds just a meter below the ceiling.

tunnels of berlin wall

The other neighboring tunnel was made out of spite to the first which was so tight that the only way to get through it was on all fours. This is definitely the most glorious tunnel in the history of Berlin. In 1962,80-year-old Max Thomas decided that he didn’t want to leave his home crawling. We believe that his decision was spurred not only by pride, but also by loin and knee pain. In agreement with the other pensioners, he began digging from his chicken coop. The tunnel was more than 170 centimeters high and 12 people escaped to capitalism though it without kneeling to grab a Mac burger and a Coke.

This is the story about the first two tunnels. There were 77 more attempts and most of them are linked with the central area of Berlin and the famous Bernauer Street.

 

Bernauer street

At one moment, there were 15 tunnels below Bernauer Street. An invisible play had been taking place in here for decades. The students from the west dug towards the east, financially aided by many states. On the other side, the Stasi simultaneously built their underground monitoring systems. This is definitely the most hideous street of the divided city, famous for its cemented windows and demolished buildings, barbed wire and watchtowers.

tunnels of berlin wall

A metal wall dedicated to all the victims runs along the street. This is a reminder to all the shots that the Germans fired at one another.

This play entailed the introduction of some completely new rules. Due to the large number of watchtowers, the initiatives could by no means be organized in the vicinity of the wall. First, the foundations in some of the basements in the west would be smashed and then they would start digging for more than 150 meters until they reached the basement of some of the buildings on the east side. These were often buildings in the second or third row from the wall.

tunnels of berlin wall

Not even the technique could be the same. The path led below the foundations of four-storey buildings, so it wasn’t possible to dig too shallowly. On the other hand, they couldn’t dig too deeply either because of the naturally high water level in the city. All in all, what is important is that they did the digging, one way or the other. It was hectic and done in collusion with the eastern Berliners.

The most striking tunnel was called Tunnel 29. It was built by the students of civil and mechanical engineering. Since they lacked money to continue the project, they struck a deal with the NBC News. The deal was simple. You dig. We shoot. Few people know that the CBS and the NBC struggled for an exclusive right to screen these wretched men. CBS gave up after President Kennedy made an earnest appeal. He said: „Everything is better than a new war. We are not interested in East Germany. That system will eventually come apart.“ No appeal was good enough for the NBC. The documentary The Tunnel (1962) won three Emmy awards and is one of the most awarded in the history of documentaries.

 

Tragicomic tunnel tales

Truth be told, tunnel tales are often tales about failure. Collapse. Treachery and informants. The Stasi’s harsh punishment of the citizens of East Berlin who were sentenced to several years’ imprisonment after a couple of weeks of brutal torture. That was the time when information was more valuable than life. In the east, at least.

Fortunately, not all failed tales were tragic. Some of them were rather comical and some truly incredible. It all stems from the knowledge and valid piece of information that you have. If you knew very little about the terrain and digging, the chances were great that you would end up like a group of students who managed to break a water pipe in their quest for the east. Luckily, the pipe was on the side of West Berlin. The government was glad to help them by shutting off water supply in that part of the city. However, this wouldn’t be of such a big use if you continued to dig like crazy and broke the pipelines on the East Berlin side. For a couple of weeks no one could take a shower in the Berlin district of Mitte because of these wise guys.

On the other hand, if you knew a lot about the terrain and digging, then you would have probably joined the group of lads who were digging a tunnel at the very south of the city, with the indirect American support. The only problem was the fact that the tunnel led to the bank vault. Or maybe it wasn’t a problem. After all, the lads intended to rob it from the very beginning.

tunnels of berlin wall

It wasn’t only the citizens from the West that were digging. The tunnel, popularly called „Chinese whispers“, corroborates this. It was dug out by the British army in order to monitor the Stasi. However, all these techniques were well known, having in mind that the Stasi did exactly the same thing. They knew that five meters below the ground, four Brits were collecting information from one of the branch offices in East Germany. However, instead of uncovering the plot, the Stasi set up a special unit whose task was to sit in the tapped room and talk gibberish.

 

What remains in Barnauer street

What remains is the death strip, a small part which has been preserved and fenced off. What remains is the part of the Berlin wall through which passers-by are trying to stare between the concrete slabs. They carry their children piggyback so that they could look over the wall, probably unaware that they are doing the same thing that Berliners had been doing for decades, trying to show a newborn to their grandparents. Sometimes they just wanted to meet the eyes of their fellowmen that ideology had obliterated from their lives.

tunnels of berlin wall

What remains is the graffiti. Metal plaques at the location of every tunnel. A remembrance of only 300 successful getaways and an infinite number of people who were arrested, tortured and murdered for the attempt to do the same thing. What is left are the metal bars where the former wall used to stand that are beginning to rust as the time passes, just like every idea about division and oppression should rust.

We are left with a business card from Berliner Unterwelten E.V. organization that is making enormous efforts so that these events would never fade away.

 

The writing of this story was aided by the German National Tourist Board and Berliner Unterwelten E.V. organization

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