Story of German ‘freedom trains’ a good reminder of why we shouldn’t take our freedom to travel for granted
By Bob Berwyn
Speeding through a rainy German night aboard an Intercity train last year I got a quick reminder on why we should never take travel for granted. An article in the railroad magazine focused on the “refugee trains” that, in October 1989, carried thousands of East German fugitives from the German embassy in Prague to freedom in the west.
It’s hard to believe more than 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall crumbled, but during our autumn trip to Europe, all the magazines and newspapers were full of reminders. The images are unforgettable. East and West Berliners reached across the wall to touch hands, and then worked from both sides with sledgehammers to demolish the concrete barricade.
The Communist regime of the former East Germany did not build the wall to keep potential enemies out. They had to seal the Iron Curtain to keep their own people in. Had the totalitarian dictators let people out, it’s a sure thing that many of them would have never returned. The simple and powerful desire of East Germans to come and go as they pleased played a big role in the dismantling of the totalitarian regime, something worth keeping in mind as we all blather on in our travel blogs about things that are, in the bigger picture, really quite trivial.
What would you do if you woke up one morning to find troops building a wall around you, turning your city, your country, into a prison? That’s what happened after World War II in Eastern Europe, and for a few decades, most people there simply shrugged their shoulders and made the best of a bad situation.
But in the waning days of the Soviet empire, just a month before the wall fell, thousands of East Germans made their way to the German embassy in Prague, demanding that they be allowed to move West. It was about a month before the wall came tumbling down, and as the crowds of refugees in the Czech capital grew, the East German government finally relented.
The Politburo finally agreed to let a handful of special trains cross East German territory to transport the refugees to the West. Trying to maintain the charade of control, the dictators forced the passengers to give up their East German passports at the border. The “Ossis,” as they were then called, responded by setting fire to their East German money and throwing coins and apartment keys out onto the platform as the train crossed to the west.
The trains were thronged. Altogether, about 10,000 people punched one-way tickets after camping out for weeks on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague. They left behind their houses, cars, clothes, pets and, in some cases, even family, because the burning desire to be free was stronger than anything else.
A week later, East German leaders celebrated the 40th anniversary of the “German Democratic Republic” with the usual vacuous ideological speeches and parades of military hardware. Three weeks later, East Germany was dead and the wall was gone, not removed by any grand political arrangement or treaty or by force of arms, but simply dismantled by the will of a people who wanted to be able to come and go as they pleased, to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
Most of us take the right to travel very much for granted. As long as we have money and a little time off, we’re free to go when and where we please. It’s almost inconceivable that millions of people who lived in Eastern Europe during the Cold War did not share those rights.
Exit visas were strictly limited, and East German sports teams were always watched by minders from the state police to prevent defectors, all while the regime touted its supposed ideological supremacy. When the regime did allow travel, it often would not let entire families travel together, essentially holding relatives hostage against potential defections.
For East Germans and other residents of the East Bloc, Cold War travel became a matter of life and death. A couple of families tried to stitch together silk fabric, even using bits of clothing, to build a gas-filled balloon to carry them across the border. Others tried to dig tunnels under the wall, and some tried to swim for freedom, like my own father, who plunged into the Danube one evening, escaping Soviet-controlled Slovakia and reaching the west with nothing more than a few pieces of clothing.
Anytime I revisit Germany, it triggers Cold War memories. I grew up on U.S. Army bases around Frankfurt, where at the peak of the ideological showdown in the 1960s and 1970s, about 20 percent of the total population was American. I played in neighborhoods that still had visible craters from WWII bombing, and when the Army Engineers started to build a new gym for our junior high, the excavators uncovered a stash of German army weapons and explosives, buried just a few feet below the ground.
The main reason for keeping so many civilians stationed in harm’s way was the tripwire effect. Any attack by the East would have resulted in huge American civilian casualites, almost ensuring retaliation by the U.S. armed forces. When we traveled to Berlin for high school football games, we took the “Duty Train” from Frankfurt, leaving at midnight and crossing forbidden East German territory in the middle of the night.
It was all a far cry from the ease and comfort of Eurail travel as we know it today. and I almost feel a little guilty, putting my feet up on the seat across and cracking open a cold beer. But it’s a good reminder that travel is a gift and a privilege. As travelers, we need to be at the forefront of trying to make sure that everyone in the world enjoys the same freedoms we have.