Perhaps the most solid symbol of the geopolitical tension of the Cold War was the Wall that stood between East (the German Democratic Republic or GDR) and West Berlin dividing the communist East and the democratic West. The Wall, ordered to be built by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, was to halt the fleeing of skilled workers, professionals, and intellectuals. From 1949 to 1961, about 2.5 million of these people crossed into West Germany, unhappy with the living conditions of the East(because Communism). Barbed wires and concrete “antifascist bulwark” were built beginning on August 13, 1961.

To those desperate to leave, the possibility of being shot down was a risk they were willing to take. In fact, 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to pass the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1988. More than 600 were shot and killed by the border guards, if not from other ways while trying to escape— drowning, accidents, or committing suicide once caught.

It was the same for the Bethke brothers, who fled and crossed that iron curtain several years apart on three occasions. They were Ingo, Holger, and Egbert.

The three Bethke brothers (from left Holger, Egbert and Ingo)
The three Bethke brothers (from left Holger, Egbert, and Ingo) with their father Claus at Easter 1961. (Photo: Phoenix/ picture-alliance / obs / Spiegel.de)

1/3— Ingo

Ingo Bethke was just seven when the Berlin Wall was erected, thus leaving his family on the eastern side of Germany’s capital. When he grew up, he was called to work as a soldier assigned to guard the border, just like all the other young men required to serve in the People’s Army. However, all those times, all he thought was escaping that very same wall that he was tasked to guard.

On May 26, 1975, Ingo and his friend drove to the Wall. After seeing that the coast was clear, they crept through a small hole that they cut beforehand within the border fence, making sure that they did not step on the raked sand that would indicate someone was trying to escape. They also had to avoid tripwires that would activate floodlights. The last obstacle was a minefield that they successfully passed through with nothing but a crude wooden block as a mine detector. They finally reached the river bank, and so they blew out their air mattresses and quietly paddled their way across the River Elbe and toward their freedom. It seemed that night that the river wanted them to be free, as she was filled with fogs that moment, concealing the two fugitives from the police boats and spotlights all over. Thirty unnerving minutes of paddling passed, and they made it to West Berlin.

2/3— Holger

Ingo did not leave behind his family, in a sense that he kept in touch all the time, using fake return addresses, cryptic telephone calls, and the help of their relatives. It took them eight years before deciding to make a move for Holger Bethke to join his brother on the other side of the Wall. On March 31, 1983, he made up his mind to escape. If his brother used an air mattress, his choice was to use his trusty zip wire.

The “Hamburger Abendblatt” published a caricature on May 29, 1989, showing both machines flying over the Wall. (Spiegel.de)

His preparation included practicing at a public park in the guise of a circus performer. In reality, he was scouting the Wall so they could create sketches. Next, he worked on his archery by doing dry runs in the forest. On that day, Holger found a street near Treptow Park with a narrow death strip sandwiched by tall houses. He sneaked into an attic. From there, he shot an arrow that flew 40 meters across and beyond the house opposite it. It trailed a nylon wire that Ingo pulled across the border and tied to his car. On the other side, Holger knotted his end of the line around a chimney. When all was set, Ingo drove a few meters to pull the rope taut.

Here’s the scary part: With his metal pulley enclosed in a frame with two handholds and a strap for his wrist, he prepared to launch himself. He gripped the handles before launching himself into the atmosphere, hoping that the soft whirring noise would not be heard from below. 120 ft later, he was in the West, safe in his brother’s embrace.

3/3— Egbert

The two Bethke brothers ran a pub together in Cologne, but they knew they had to help Egbert, their youngest brother. For five years, they plotted how they would get him out. Thus, a great and daring escape idea was born.

Egbert, Holger and Ingo Bethke (Vincent Tv/Maischberger via Facebook) 

They sold the pub and used the money to buy two ultralight aircraft that they taught themselves how to fly. Their first attempt was on May 11, 1989, which failed. On May 26, they were back wearing military uniforms and helmets, and their planes were painted with Soviet stars. At 4 AM, Egbert was at Treptower Park, hiding in a bush and waiting for his ride to freedom. Two planes suddenly emerged: one circling above to survey the area, while the other landed in front of him. It had been fourteen years since he last saw his older brother, and it was surreal. However, they didn’t have much time for an emotional reunion, so he hopped in, and they flew their way out, now all reunited.

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