Secret tunnels that brought freedom from Berlin's Wall

Old barrier between East and West pulls in tourists 20 years after its fall

When the East German government built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent its citizens from leaving, the regime failed to take into account the ingenuity and creativity of those willing to risk anything to escape the communist system. While some flew over the barrier in hot air balloons, others sailed far around it, via the Baltic Sea, and still others were smuggled across, hidden in secret compartments in cars. But several hundred took advantage of the soft, sandy soil under Berlin to tunnel their way beneath the wall.

Today, almost 20 years after the wall's demise, Berlin's Cold War-era bunker and tunnel system has become one of the most popular attractions for tourists and locals alike. And their guide is often Hasso Herschel, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped dozens escape through the secret tunnels, some of which he dug with his own hands.

Mr Herschel, who escaped to West Germany with a forged passport in 1961, dug several illegal tunnels under the wall, the first in September 1962. Its entrance was hidden in a house on the eastern side of the border, right across from the wall on Bernauer Strasse, according to Mr Herschel's sister Anita Moeller, who helped him to cross. "We went into the house, down to the basement, and then had to get into a hole in the floor," said Mrs Moeller, who escaped with her infant daughter and husband. "First, I was worried, because I'm claustrophobic. But once I was inside the tunnel, there was no time left for my fears."

Twenty-nine people fled through that shaft, making it one of the most successful tunnel projects at the time. While some passageways were less than 100ft, others were nearly 600ft in length. Some were like small tubes, barely big enough to crawl through, while others were tall enough to stand up in. It took between three days and six months to dig the various constructions completed between October 1961 and April 1982. Altogether, about 300 managed to escape through them.

Fleeing East Germany was dangerous. Border guards had orders to shoot any escapees on the spot. Researchers estimate that 136 people died trying to cross the wall and about 750 perished along the entire 856 miles of the border separating East and West Germany. It is not clear how many were killed trying to flee through the tunnel system. Last month, the city honoured Siegfried Noffke and Dieter Hoetger, who were caught by East German authorities on 12 June 1962, while digging a tunnel. Mr Noffke was killed; Mr Hoetger survived, but was badly injured.

Often tunnels were discovered before they could be used by the border troops or the Stasi, East Germany's dreaded secret police. Others collapsed, were flooded by groundwater or buried by loose soil.

"Altogether, we have counted 71 tunnel projects and 20 per cent of those were successful," said Dietmar Arnold, the head of the Berlin Underworlds Association, which conducts the tours and works on opening more subterranean structures to the public. "Most tunnels were dug from the West to the East, often by men who had already fled to the West and who were now trying to get the rest of their families out of East Germany," Mr Arnold told visitors recently.

Tours usually start at a labyrinthine Cold War bunker in the bustling immigrant neighbourhood of Wedding. Here, the association has created an illustrative model tunnel equipped with buckets, shovels and a little wooden box wagon like those used to carry out excavated soil. The light in the bunker is dim, and fluorescent paint from the Cold War-era glows on the walls, creating an eerie atmosphere. Later, groups move on to Bernauer Strasse in the neighbourhood of Mitte, one of the most popular spots for tunnel diggers at the time, due to the high amount of clay in the soil.

In the first months after the erection of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961, about 600 refugees got away through the city's canals and the subway system but, by the end of 1961, East German border troops had sealed off access completely. It was then that people started digging their way to freedom. "We crawled on all fours through the mud, until we reached a ladder which we climbed up," Anita Moeller remembered. "It took me a while to understand I was free... and only then I experienced this complete inner happiness."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Purchaser

£12000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: his is a unique opportunity to ...

Recruitment Genius: Accountant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Summarises financial status by ...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss