Chris Gueffroy lived his entire 20 years trapped behind the Berlin Wall, unable to reach freedom just on the other side. The imposing structure ran nearly 100 miles, stood 12 feet high in most places, and had 300 watchtowers manned by armed guards. It divided the city into two vastly different worlds: democratic West Berlin and, where Gueffroy lived, Communist East Berlin, controlled by the Soviet Union.
For most of the 1.3 million East Berliners, it was illegal to cross the wall. Attempting to do so could get you thrown in prison--or worse. But Gueffroy, four months shy of his 21st birthday, wanted to see the world. Close to midnight on February 5,1989, he and a friend, Christian Gaudian, tried to scale the wall. That's when the guards, with orders to shoot to kill, raised their automatic rifles and took aim.
Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gueffroy's story and the stories of hundreds of others like him reflect the desperate acts people undertook to flee the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union.
"Human beings have a basic desire for a measure of freedom, to move around, to do things, to think and create," says historian Frederick Taylor, author of The Berlin Wall. "And I think you can't, in the end, suppress it."
A Tale of Two Cities
On August 13, 1961, about seven years before Gueffroy was born, Berliners awoke to find their city split in half. Barbed wire and concrete posts had appeared overnight along the border of West and East Berlin, separating family members, friends, and classmates.
Before long, these barriers would be transformed into a more formidable concrete and barbed wire structure. It would serve as a physical representation of the "iron curtain" separating the U.S. and its democratic allies in the West from the Communist nations in the East, led by the Soviet Union, during the Cold War.
Though the barbed wire beginnings of the Wall appeared overnight, they'd been years in the making. During World War II (1939-45), the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had joined forces to defeat Adolf Hitler's Germany. After the war, Germany was divided among the three victors and France. The U.S., Great Britain, and France took over the western three-quarters of Germany and in 1949 installed a democratic government in what became West Germany. The Soviets installed a Communist regime in the eastern section, which became East Germany (see map).
Berlin, which had been Germany's capital, sat entirely in East Germany, but it too was divided, with U.S., French, and British forces controlling the western half. That part remained accessible to the West by planes, trains, and highways. For 12 years, Berliners could travel freely within the city, and many RE East Germans used Berlin as an escape route to flee Communism. About 2.5 million East Germans ft fled to West Berlin from 1949 to 1961. Alarmed that their country was losing its young, educated workforce to the West, East German leaders came up with the drastic solution to barricade the border.
East Germans were cut off from the Western world. Under Communism, they lived in a police state where they lacked basic freedoms. The Stasi, the secret police, imprisoned citizens who spoke out against the government. Goods were hard to come by, with people waiting years to buy a car or even get a phone.
Practically from the moment the border was sealed in 1961, East Berliners began trying to escape. They leapt from the windows of apartments looking out onto West Berlin. Some forged passports. Others crawled through sewers. About 300 people escaped through underground tunnels, many of which had been dug by groups of college students in West Berlin seeking to reunite with loved ones. According to Taylor, young people were often the ones leading the escapes from East Berlin.
"Young people were restless," he says, "and they were curious, and they were influenced by Western culture, like rock music."
In total, about 5,000 East Berliners escaped, another 5,000 were caught, and nearly 200 were killed. The stories of these daring attempts shocked the world. Two U.S. presidents traveled to the West Berlin to condemn the Wall. In a 1963 speech, John F. Kennedy declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner!" ("I am a Berliner!") And in 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Shoot to Kill?
Growing up in East Berlin, Gueffroy dreamed of traveling to the U.S. In a 2014 NBC interview, his mom, Karin Gueffroy, recalls telling him he'd never "be able to leave East Germany, it will never work."
"Why not, Mom?" she remembers her son saying. "They cannot always decide everything for me, for all of us, from birth to death."
He became more desperate to leave East Berlin when he was drafted into the National People's Army in January 1989, at age 20. Gueffroy didn't want to serve a government that denied him the freedom of movement. So he and his friend Gaudian hatched their escape plan for the following month. They'd heard that the border guards' shoot to kill order had been abandoned. That assumption would prove to be a tragic mistake.
By this time, the Berlin Wall had become a menacing structure that was actually made up of two concrete walls spread up to 160 yards apart. Between the two walls stood a barbed wire fence, watchtowers, and other obstacles, such as trip-wire machine guns, trenches, and metal spikes sticking out of the ground.
In the midnight darkness, Gueffroy and Gaudian scaled the first wall using grappling hooks they'd made out of gardening hoes and rope. But as they climbed the inner fence, they set off an alarm. With the shoot to kill order still in effect, the floodlights switched on and guards fired as the young men frantically zigzagged across the area known as the death strip.