Why you should care
Because taking a train for a joyride to freedom was worth the risk.
It was the last train to freedom. That’s literally what Harry Deterling called it when he told his friends and family about his escape plan. Deterling, his wife, Ingrid, and their four sons were living in East Berlin in 1961, when the 27-year-old train engineer, saw his opening. Again, literally: The opening was a train crossing to West Berlin scheduled for permanent closure. Escape wouldn’t be easy. In Deterling’s corner, though, was a BR 78 steam-powered locomotive.
The operation was far from risk-free. The second half of that year saw more than 3,000 people arrested trying to cross the Berlin Wall, which had been erected in August. By the time it fell in 1989, 765 people had died trying to cross it in desperate bids for freedom in the West. Harry Deterling — spoiler, sorry — wasn’t one of them.
“If you look at a map of Germany before 1990, you had West Berlin essentially as a free island surrounded by communist East Germany,” explains Stephen Della Lana, who teaches in the German and Russian studies department at the College of Charleston and visited East Berlin himself before the fall of the wall. Many who made a break through, around, over or under the Berlin Wall had to leave their families behind, knowing they might never be allowed to see them again — and took the risk, plus that of being shot, for a chance at the life they wanted. Of course, if they’d had a train they could have brought their families along too.
Freedom is my happiest birthday present.
Harry Deterling, East German train engineer
The Berlin Wall came down nearly 30 years ago, and it lives on in most people’s memories as a graffiti-tagged concrete behemoth. That’s not the barrier Deterling had to deal with, though plenty of people had already been killed trying to cross the wall’s first incarnation: a barbed wire fence, which hardened over subsequent months into a series of low concrete walls that were built into a huge, imposing symbol. Before the wall, Soviet-controlled East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic, had seen millions of people defect to West Germany, and the wall was a bid to stop them. Eventually, it encircled West Berlin — but not before Harry Deterling made a break for it.
Deterling chose Dec. 5, when he would turn 28, as the day of his escape. He wouldn’t go alone: His coal stoker, Hartmut Lichy, wanted to break out with him, and the pair alerted friends and family, including Deterling’s wife and children and Lichy’s girlfriend, although she ended up missing out on the adventure. This could have been the most dangerous part of the operation — Della Lana notes that it was difficult to know whom you could trust in East Germany. Deterling persuaded his bosses to let him run an extra locomotive to improve his engineering skills, and those in the know were told to be at the rail yard by 7:33 p.m.
When Deterling steered locomotive 234 onto a stretch of disused track, there were 32 people on board, including some hapless passengers who didn’t realize what they’d gotten into. Around 8:50 p.m., Deterling chuffed past Albrechtshof, the last station in East Berlin, without stopping, catching the border guards completely by surprise.
As the train bore down on the crossing between East and West, Deterling opened up the throttle, disconnected the safety brake so that no one could stop the locomotive and climbed into the coal car with Lichy as the passengers flattened themselves on the floor in case the border guards decided to open fire — those trying to cross the border illegally were routinely shot. But no shots rang out, and the train rumbled across the line at 50 miles per hour.
Once the fugitives were safely over the border in West Berlin, one of the passengers called the police to explain what they were doing with a stolen East German train. It was dramatic enough for a movie: Less than two years later, Deterling’s exploits — lightly fictionalized to include border guards firing on the maverick train — became a West German film, Durchbruch Lok 234 (Breakthrough of Locomotive 234).
Seven of Deterling’s passengers who hadn’t realized they were part of a daring escape turned right around and went back to East Berlin, though one 17-year-old girl who wasn’t in on the plan decided to stay. The train went too: The next day, another locomotive towed it back across the border, minus passengers, and the tracks were torn up. The line wasn’t reopened until 1992, three years after the wall fell.
Meanwhile, Deterling and his family went to the Marienfelde refugee transit camp, a shelter in West Berlin where escapees were processed and resettled. There he received double-digit numbers of fan letters daily and told reporters, “Freedom is my happiest birthday present.”