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The East German: "I Didn't Take It Seriously"

Mathis Winkler interviewed Hartmut RichterAugust 13, 2006

On Aug. 13, 1961, Hartmut Richter had planned to go swimming with his cousins. He did so eventually, but not before becoming an eyewitness to the beginning of the division of East and West Berlin.

Hartmut Richter in front of the remnants of the Berlin WallImage: DW

Born in 1948, Hartmut Richter grew up in the East German town of Werder southwest of Berlin. He fled East Germany in August 1966 by swimming through a canal. Richter later helped 33 people escape before being caught by East German border patrols. After more than five years in GDR prisons, West Germany paid for his release. A former ship steward, Richter now lives in Berlin and offers tours and talks at several memorial sites, including a former GDR secret police prison and the Berlin Wall memorial.

DW-WORLD.DE: Where were you on Aug. 13, 1961?

Hartmut Richter: I was spending my vacation with relatives in West Berlin's Wedding district. I remember the day well, it was a Sunday, it was hot and we were planning to go swimming just like we had done on previous days. We were eating breakfast and my uncle came into the kitchen all confused and told us to come look. "Kids, they're closing the border," he said. No one was talking about a wall at the time.

Mauerbau im Wedding
Children in West Berlin peek across the Wall in Aug. 1961Image: AP

I remember the pictures from the West Berlin side, the border patrols, I saw people jumping out of windows. Some smoke-balls were flying and thrown back across the barricades -- I was fascinated by that. My uncle probably felt it was getting too dangerous, because he told us: "Kids, go swimming, maybe this is all gone again by tonight."

We didn't think about it any more. I was 13 and thought that the GDR was the better German state. I didn't take it seriously. The only problem was getting back home. My parents couldn't come and get me, so a Red Cross car picked me up. I said good-bye just like I always did and wanted to come back during the fall vacation. I saw my relatives again at Easter 1963. We met at the zoo in East Berlin.

How did you feel about the Wall?

I was torn. On the one hand, I had been told that socialism could not be stopped. On the other hand, half of my classmates were gone because they had left with their parents. The Wall was the "anti-Fascist protective barrier," that's what they told us in school. Of course it takes time to realize that people were on the wrong path and that I would either have to conform or try and escape. I saw things like that by the time I was 15 or 16. From that point, I planned on leaving this country.

Bildreportage Berliner Mauer Maueranlage
The Bernauer Strasse memorial seen from western side: First comes the primary Wall, followed by the death strip and the secondary Wall on the eastern side.Image: DW

Did you notice the Wall?

Of course. I had always looked forward to my trips to West Berlin. But people in the GDR didn't think that this was going to last long.

How did you experience the fall of the Wall?

Bildreportage Berliner Mauer Mauerraum
A torn cable box still sits inside the death strip at the memorialImage: DW

I'll never forget that. I experienced the fall of the Wall at the checkpoint at Berlin's Invalidenstrasse. Even the soldiers had tears in their eyes. It was unbelievable.

Has the Wall completely disappeared?

Well, people still talk about the Wall in people's heads, and that's probably how it will stay for my generation. I'm more angry about attempts to romanticize things similar to how it happened after the Third Reich. I think one should draw lessons from history.