The decision had to be made immediately. Harry Deterling and his wife Ingrid knew that they absolutely wanted to turn their backs on the GDR. If only to enable their four children to grow up in freedom – instead of being constantly patronized by socialist party officials and the fear of an almost all-powerful secret police.
They had actually planned to flee between Christmas and New Year's. For four months, the Berlin Wall has also divided the inner city of the former imperial capital occupied by the four victorious powers; nine people had already died violently trying to cross this border to the west. The intended escape route was also clear: with a stolen passenger train from the Deutsche Reichsbahn across the tracks between Albrechtshof and Spandau. In other words, where the regular interzonal train from the Federal Republic of Germany to West Berlin ran.
But at the beginning of December 1961, Deterling learned by accident that the GDR authorities wanted to close the route and dismantle the tracks in the following days; the interzonal train would henceforth operate at an easier-to-monitor location in the southwestern US sector.
Deterling hatched the plan together with an acquaintance, Hartmut Lichy, who was only an 18-year-old stoker. Together they wanted to free six families – a total of 25 people – from the SED dictatorship. In the night from Monday to Tuesday, he informed the other people who wanted to flee: "Today at 7:33 p.m. the last train to freedom is leaving." Today - that was December 5, 1961.
Engine driver Deterling was not on duty that evening. But that was the least of the problems in the "workers' and farmers' state": He simply volunteered on the grounds that he wanted to make an additional trip in favor of the "national construction" of the SED dictatorship. In a way, he beat the party at its own game.
Shortly before half past seven in the evening, five families in Oranienburg got on the train – all of them in the first wagon behind the locomotive with the coal tender. But there were only five families, those who wanted to escape from Grünau had missed the train. They raced after the train in a taxi and reached it in Falkensee – at the penultimate stop. The next station was Albrechtshof, which was also the terminus.
The GDR state security reported on what happened next: "On December 5, 1961 at around 8.45 p.m., passenger train 2192 (Oranienburg-Albrechtshof route) passed Albrechtshof station at excessive speed and also passed the exit signal showing 'Stop'."
Train driver Deterling didn't think about braking. At a speed of 75 kilometers per hour, the train drove past the astounded stationmaster over the switches towards the border to West Berlin. The GDR citizens in the first carriage who were willing to flee threw suitcases and other luggage on the ground and took cover. They feared they might be shot at at the border. But the people in uniform at the border three kilometers east of Albrechtshof were just as astonished as the station staff: not a single shot was fired.
The conductor, whom Deterling and Lichy hadn't told, jerked the emergency brake several times, but to no avail. Because Deterling had put them out of operation. So the train broke through the gate, which was closed here and only ever opened for the interzonal train when several armed guards were standing by on both sides to catch any fugitives.
"Approx. The train, which consisted of a locomotive and eight passenger cars and was occupied by around 50 passengers, was brought to a standstill 500 meters behind the border,” says the Stasi report: “In addition to the engine driver and the stoker, around 30 passengers left in this way the GDR, while 19 people (including the train driver, three other railway workers, a member of the German border police and a member of customs) returned to the territory of the GDR on foot.”
The conductor took a little longer. Because he really wanted to issue a warning – after all, the track on which the interzonal train was supposed to travel to the Zoo station just under an hour later (arrival at 10:08 p.m. according to the schedule) was occupied. But because the GDR had interrupted all telephone connections between West Berlin and the surrounding area for years, he was unable to reach anyone in Albrechtshof.
But that didn't matter, because the interzonal train from Hamburg was stopped in Albrechtshof. An hour and a half later, a Reichsbahn locomotive (due to Allied decisions, the GDR operated long-distance and S-Bahn services in the three western sectors of the divided city even after the Wall was built) pushed the hijacked train from West Berlin back to Albrechtshof. Now the route was free again and the interzonal train could continue its journey.
The refugees, a total of ten women, eight men and seven children, the youngest of whom was just eight days old, were driven to the Marienfelde emergency center in two West Berlin police vans. Before that they had repeatedly asked anxiously: “Is this West Berlin? Are we really in the West?” Then the tension eased. Deterling, born in late 1933, said: "I didn't think it would all work out so well. I didn't know some of the refugees personally. I didn't know if they would keep quiet."
Two other GDR residents made it to freedom indirectly through the adventurous escape by train: They took the opportunity when border guards at the breakthrough point were only dealing with the train - and climbed through the barbed wire fence.
On the following day, and thus even earlier than intended, the GDR shut down the connection from Albrechtshof to Spandau. Due to the construction of the tracks here, it was not possible to direct a train coming from the GDR onto a dead track. From then on, the inter-zone trains from Hamburg were no longer routed to West Berlin via the previously usual Falkensee and Spandau route, but via Potsdam and Griebnitzsee.
The Deterlings, about whom WELT published a large report with a photo in the December 7, 1961 issue, were flown to West Germany and were offered the opportunity to continue their journey to the USA. But Harry and Ingrid refused. A decision that had consequences: For years, the family received threatening letters, mostly from fictitious senders in West Germany. The last such letter came in 1974; it read: "You too will kiss Stalin's feet..."
Until 1989, the Deterlings lived under police protection; Harry worked for the Deutsche Bundesbahn as a train driver. In May 1990, for the first time since December 5, 1961, he set foot on East German territory.
You can also find "World History" on Facebook. We are happy about a like.