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Harry Seidel (Berlin, Germany, 1938 - Berlin, Germany, 2020)

the Berlin Wall cyclist, he managed to flee more than 100 people from East Germany

Harry Seidel was born in Berlin on 2nd April 1938, at the dawn of the Second World War. He spent his youth in Prenzlauer Berg district, located in the eastern part of the city. After the end of the war, this area of Berlin was administered first by Stalin’s Soviet Union, and then, since 1949, directly by the newly-founded German Democratic Republic (DDR, from the German Deutsche Demokratische Republik). The DDR was a socialist-led dictatorial state, which was quite different from democratic and liberal West Germany (the BRD, Bundesrepublik Deutschland). In this country, SED, the single party, centralised political life and any form of dissent was suppressed by force.

Since a young age, Seidel opposed the pressing political indoctrination educational system of the DDR and therefore abandoned his studies. He then started working as an electrician and went on nurturing his great passion: track cycling, a sport in which he excelled. He won several East Berlin municipal championships and in 1959 he also triumphed in the national championship of “team riding for two”, a discipline of track cycling.

Seidel was a highly successful athlete and the national press and the Ministry of State Propaganda often used his image instrumentally for propaganda purposes. However, surprisingly, he was not summoned for 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, in which he would have richly deserved to take part. According to some, Seidel was not summoned to go to Rome as he refused to take anabolic steroids (a widespread practice among DDR athletes). Notwithstanding, according to other sources, the Berlin cyclist could not take part in the Olympics for “political reasons”, as his aversion to Walter Ulbricht’s regime was well known (Ulbricht was the SED secretary, Ed).

His failure to qualify for the Olympics was an incurable rift for Seidel, who decided to leave his East Berlin team to continue competing with West Berlin Grünweiß. Only later, in April 1961 (four months before the construction of the Berlin Wall started), Seidel decided to retire from sporting activity and to start working as a newspaper courier in West Berlin. Every day, the now former cyclist travelled to the western part of the city and went back to his wife Rotraut and his son André in East Berlin in the evening. Things suddenly changed on 13th August 1961, a date that was etched with fire in the memory of the German capital and the entire history of the 20th century. Aimed at solving the issue of the numerous migrations from East to West once and for all, the socialist regime decided to build overnight an “anti-fascist protective barrier” - as the Berlin Wall was called in East Germany. The city was divided in two by means of a barbed-wire fence, controlled by border guards day and night and travel from East to West was banned.

On the very day the Wall was erected, Seidel managed to escape to the West, but he immediately returned home to his family. One month later, in September 1961, he managed to escape to West Berlin once again, with his wife and his son. Following his escape - through a crack in barbed wire - Seidel’s family members were questioned at length and arrested by Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, which controlled every action of East Germans through its terrible spy network. Meanwhile, Seidel decided not only to take his family to safety, but also to help anyone who wanted to cross the Wall and reach the western part of the city. Thanks to the crack on Kiefholzstraße - through which he had crossed the border several times and through which his wife and son had passed - Seidel managed to help 34 people escape from East Berlin.

Shortly afterwards the barbed wire was repaired and the Wall reinforced. In December 1961 Seidel was arrested at the Brandenburg Gate on charges of breaching the fence and destroying the floodlights used by DDR guards to identify escapees. The cyclist managed to escape by jumping from a window of the building in which he was being held, returning safely to West Berlin. Having reached that point, Seidel realised that the only way to organise the escape of East Berliners would be to build underground tunnels. In January 1962 he tried to build his first tunnel in Treptow area, but a water infiltration made it unusable.

He then joined forces with Fritz Wagner, an escape helper from West Berlin who charged for helping East Germans escape - unlike Seidel, who was motivated solely by idealistic and humanitarian motives and always refused to receive payment for his courageous actions. In March 1962, Wagner, Seidel and Heinz Jercha (another escape helper) completed their first tunnel in Heidelberger Straße; the group met the refugees in the East and silently crawled for dozens of metres to West Berlin with them. However, the actions of Seidel and the other helpers soon fell into the sights of Stasi, who planned a surprise attack on 27th March 1962. Jercha was killed by Stasi agents, whereas Wagner and Seidel managed to escape and go back to West Berlin. The tunnel was closed, but between 35 and 59 people are estimated to have been able to reach the BRD through it.

In May of the same year, Seidel worked on the construction of a 75-metre-long tunnel in Treptow. 55 people used it to reach the western part of the city, before Stasi discovered it and made it inaccessible. Today, a memorial plaque - unveiled in 2006 in the presence of Seidel himself - recalls the story of that tunnel of salvation and hope. In July 1962, the cyclist helped build a new tunnel, but an informer had revealed the plan to Stasi and the 60 people waiting in the East were arrested. Seidel therefore became a “public enemy” of the DDR and he was a threat for Ulbricht’s regime to be eliminated at any cost.

In November 1962, Stasi ambushed Seidel at the end of a 70-metre-long tunnel he was building in Kleinmachnow. Seidel was immediately arrested and tried before DDR Supreme Court. The hearings were a farce and were used by the regime for propaganda purposes. Indeed, it was believed that making the trial of the famous cyclist public might discourage fugitives from the East from leaving the country. Seidel - who had even been compared to Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg during the hearings - was then sentenced to life imprisonment for violating the “Act for the Protection of Peace”.

The conviction raised a fervent controversy in the western world and Willy Brandt, then Mayor of West Berlin, commented that “Words are not sufficient to express the outrage at this shameful sentence of modern inquisition of an unjust State”. Seidel was first imprisoned in the dreadful Hohenschönhausen prison and later in Brandenburg prison. In West Berlin, in the meantime, his wife Rotraut organised daily protests to demand her husband’s release. In 1966, four years after he had been imprisoned, Seidel was ransomed by BRD government and then released. He immediately went back to West Berlin, where he could reunite with his family and start competing as a track cyclist again. In 1973, at the age of 35, he won the German team time trial championship.

After the fall of the Wall, Seidel testified before the German Parliament’s Study Committee on the history and consequences of the dictatorship in East Germany. Conversely, in 2012 he was awarded the prestigious Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Harry Seidel died in Berlin on 8th August 2020. Today, his story can be seen at the Berlin Wall Memorial Museum in Bernauer Straße, where a panel depicts him in photographs and tells how, by defying the regime and risking his life several times, Harry Seidel contributed to the escape of more than 100 people from dictatorial East Germany to democratic West Germany.

Credits foto in copertina: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-52567-0004/CC-BY-SA 3.0

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