Christiane and Ulf Beuck were young, in love, living behind the Berlin Wall under East Germany’s repressive regime and dreaming of escape. In June 1989, exactly 20 years ago, they took action. “We were never politically active,” says Christiane, who I interviewed while researching a piece on the Stasi, the East German secret police. “We were too scared of the reprisals. Besides, we didn’t think we could make a difference. But we did decide to escape. If that sounds contradictory, well, it was easier to try to flee the state than be political.”
She was 21, Ulf 22. They planned to escape into Austria – the west – via Hungary: the Austrian/Hungarian border was being dismantled, so they knew it was their only way out.
“We arrived at the border three days before our attempt, and walked up to the fence to check it out,” says Christiane. “Beyond were a wood and a steep hill, in Austria. The next morning, we chose a spot near a border guard tower – so we could keep an eye on it – and took cover, aiming to wait until it got dark. But at around 3pm a huge storm broke. ‘This is our chance,’ we thought. We assumed the guard would take shelter.”
Ulf cut through the fence with a pair of shears. “We crawled under and ran up the steep hill. After a short while, I noticed someone was behind us,” she says. “Then I heard shots – it was the guard. I didn’t know if he was aiming at us or just shooting in the air to scare us. Either way, from then on I felt crippled. Ulf was screaming at me to keep going, but I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.”
“The guard caught up with us. We tried to reason with him, offered him money. But he couldn’t help, he said, otherwise – and he drew his finger across his throat. After a while another, tougher, guard joined him. He was pretty pissed off at having to climb the hill in the rain. He forced Ulf on to the ground with his hands behind his head, and held a gun at his neck. I saw stars, I screamed, I cried, ‘Don’t shoot!’ They put us in a jeep and took us to a nearby barracks. After our arrest we were sent back to East Germany, to a jail for political prisoners. Our trial was set for August 18, 1989 but it never took place: the political situation was changing, and East Germany was forced to release any political prisoners who’d been caught at the Hungarian border.”
“But we were still stuck in the east,” says Christiane. “So we lodged a request to move to the west. Two months later it was accepted, and a date set: November 10. The night before, the Berlin Wall came down, all the borders opened, so we passed through legally, along with everyone else. If we’d known that, we’d never have tried to escape. But if it wasn’t for people like us, the borders might never have opened. So, maybe, in our own tiny way, we contributed to that.”
Photograph: Michael Danner (michaeldanner.com)