At least 136 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. One of the most spectacular escapes involved an Austrian engineer who rushed with his sports car underneath the cross-beam at Checkpoint Charlie.

20-year-old waiter Chris Gueffroy was the last East German citizen to be shot and killed while fleeing trying to the West by breeching the Berlin Wall. After receiving a call-up notice to serve as a conscript in the Communist regime’s much-hated National People’s Army, Gueffroy, together with a friend named Christian Gaudian, decided to flee to West Berlin on February 6, 1989. Both believed that the shoot-to-kill order that the East German border guards had been under for decades was no longer in effect.

Meixner behind the wheel of his rented British sports car as he passes through the East German border checkpoint.

That was a tragic mistake

After midnight, they had already scaled the three-meter-high wall when they set off an alarm in the kill zone. They hastily ran to the last hurdle, a tall metal fence, as the border guards opened fire on them. Gueffroy was hit by several bullets and died at the fence. His friend was was wounded and arrested by the border police.

The “Berlin Wall Memorial” documents the numerous fatal escape attempts that occurred at the Wall from the time the it was first built by the Soviet-backed Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as East Germany was officially known, until the it was finally torn down in 1989.

There are dozens of moving accounts of desperate people who saw no future under the totalitarian Communist regimes set up by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and who dared to attempt, and in many cases were killed, trying to make the dangerous escape to freedom and the West.

Among the many victims were several Austrians who tried to help those who wished to escape to the West. The tenth fatality, Dieter Wohlfahrt was a 20-year-old, Berlin-born Austrian chemistry student who helped bring the relatives of former classmates and fellow students to West Berlin.

Wohlfahrt’s volunteer group of Western activists helped people escape from East Germany through sewage canals until the Stasi, the infamous East German secret police, discovered and blocked or walled off the escape routes. Later, on isolated stretches of the wall, Wohlfahrt’s group would cut holes into the barbed wire to shuttle refugees through the Wall. The group never demanded money for helping East Germans espace Communist oppression, they simply wanted to help.

As an Austrian citizen, Wohlfahrt was able to travel unhindered between the two parts of Berlin, which allowed him to scout and plot out new escape routes. On December 9, 1961, Wohlfahrt wanted to help the mother of a student who had already fled to the West. They were to meet at a place where the woman would go through agreed the three rows of barbed wire fence, but the woman betrayed them as she was an informant for the border guards.

When the escape was scheduled to happen, the guards opened fire immediately on Wohlfahrt and his friend. Wohlfahrt lay mortally wounded in the notorious “death strip” while his friend was able to escape.

West Berlin’s border guards and British military police wanted to help Wohlfahrt, but the GDR’s border guards threatened to open fire on anyone who attempted to help the wounded and dying you Austrian. Wohlfahrt stayed for more than an hour between the barbed wire rows and died before being whisked away by the Stasi.

The East German authorities called Wohlfahrt a “provocateur” who had planned an attack on the “state border” of the GDR. His friends, however, assured the West German press that he was only carrying a bolt cutter at the time he was shot. A wooden cross now stands in Staaken, the area in the Berlin borough of Spandau, commemorating Wohlfahrt’s tragic death.

Escape under the turnpike

One of the most spectacular escape attempts through the complicated border-system that the East Germans and their Soviet advsors designed was orchestrated planned by a young engineer from Linz, Austria. On May 5 1963, Heinz Meixner raced to the west in a rented sports car with his East Berlin bride and mother-in-law by driving under the Berlin Wall’s most famous and heavily guarded spot – Checkpoint Charlie.

Meixner was working as an electrical engineer in West Berlin and scouted the exact height of the metre-high border bar by crossing with a scooter. He then rented a British-made sports car, an Austin Healey Sprite, which was just low enough to fit under the iron bar if its windshield was removed and a little air let out of the tyres.

He hid his fiancé in the back seat under the tarpaulin and his mother-in-law squeezed into the trunk. He slowly rolled to the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing where the East German border guards asked him wondering why he drove without hood despite the morning cold. The guard then waved him onwards to the border-station for closer inspection, but Meixner did not stop there and slowly drove on to the slalom track in front of the turnpike.

“Until then, I acted like a tourist who just did not know you had to stop again,” Meixner told later. “It was not until I heard whistles that I stepped on the gas, pulled my head in and raced under the cross-beam.”

The surprised East German soldiers did not have time to shoot at the car.

Meixner’s daredevil escape route was immediately barricaded on the East Berlin side. A day later, all East German border bars were equipped with vertical bracing.

Meixner became a hero in the Western media and he later settled in Linz with his East German wife. Sadly, he died not long after in a home accident when he dropped an electric shaver into a sink and tried to remove it with his hands.

The smuggling of East Germans by Westerners continue well into the 1970s. Truck drivers did their best to sneak people out to the West, but the ever-stricter border controls from the GDR’s brutal police force meant the escape attempts were often discovered.

East Germans who were caught were sentenced to several years in prison for “attempted republic flight”. Those who were caught trying to smuggle people to the West were sent to the foreign wing of East Germany’s infamous Bautzen penitentiary for having “aided individuals in their attempt to flee the republic”.

“Several truck drivers from Austria sat in Bautzen prison,” recalled Friedrich Bauer, Vienna’s former ambassador of the GDR. “My officials visited them regularly and we were usually able to obtain an early release.”

By the summer 1989, most East Germans had had enough of living in a police state. Many went to Hungary for summer their vacation after having learnt through West German media that the Iron Curtain was no longer in place on Hungary’s border with Austria.

On August 19, more than 600 East German citizens fled to Austria during the Pan-European Picnic that was organised by Hungary’s anti-Communist opposition group, the Democratic Forum, right at the border gate which opened for a few hours to accept Austrian visitors.

On September 10 the Hungarian government decided to let all East German citizens leave for the West.

Two months later, on November 9, the Berlin Wall finally came down.