I trudged along a canal in Berlin back in 2011, hoping to see the inside of one of the few remaining watchtowers in the city—a guard tower where East Berlin soldiers kept an eagle eye out for people escaping to West Berlin.
The guards had shoot-to-kill orders.
When I paid my visit, the Berlin Wall had fallen 22 years earlier, and this watchtower was only a distant reminder of one of the most bizarre barriers ever created—the Berlin Wall. In August of 1961, the border between Communist East Berlin and the free democracy of West Berlin closed overnight, and work on the Wall began in earnest.
Some called it a “surreal cage,” which enclosed an entire nation behind a wall that snaked through the heart of Berlin.
I had featured this watchtower in the novel I was writing in 2011, so I was disappointed when I showed up at the guard tower, only to discover that it was closed.
I was also confused. This watchtower had been converted into a small museum and was supposed to be open every weekday. So why the locked door? Fortunately, I encountered a high school teacher, who was there with his class, and he had some answers. He explained that the watchtower was preserved and operated by Jürgen Litfin, whose brother had been the first person shot while trying to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin. The day that I showed up just happened to be the 50th anniversary of the day that Jürgen’s brother was killed. Hence, it was closed in his honor.
Fifty years earlier, Günter Litfin strolled down the same canal bank that I had just walked along. About 150 yards across the canal was the British sector of West Berlin. Freedom was so close. Just a short swim away.
So Günter plunged into the water. He was spotted by one of the East German police, who immediately fired several shots at the swimmer. Here is how Frederick Taylor described what happened next in his book, The Berlin Wall:
“Then one of the other guards locked his machine-pistol on to automatic and sprayed shots around the young escaper. After he let loose with this ‘targeted burst’ (as the Stasi report would call it), Günter Litfin slumped in the water. A bullet had entered the back of his neck as he swam…It was, to all appearances, a deliberate kill-shot.”
Günter Litfin was dead.
This watchtower was located close to where he died, which was why his brother preserved it as a museum. Finding the watchtower closed, I decided to come back the next day. This time, when I made the same stroll alongside the canal, I reached the tower and found a small crowd gathered there. A gruff German man stood out in front, but it didn’t appear that he was letting anyone inside. As I would soon discover, this was Jürgen Litfin, the brother of the murdered man.
With a German serving as a translator, I explained to Jürgen that I was writing a novel and hoped to see the inside of the watchtower. To my surprise, he agreed to allow me and my wife inside.
We climbed up all three levels, to the very top where the mannequin of an East German soldier stood guard at one of the windows. I was grateful to see the inside because I wound up completely rewriting the climactic scene of my story based on what I saw.
After taking plenty of photos and videos, I thanked Herr Litfin. And as we left, two other women walked up and asked if they too could see the inside of the watchtower. I heard the German man gruffly answer, “Nein!”
That’s German for “no.”
After the Wall went up in 1961, the border became more fortified every year, bristling with traps. There were actually two walls—an inner and an outer wall with a “death strip” in between, a no-man’s land peppered with booby traps, guarded by dogs, and watched over by guards in towers.
East Berliners tried to escape any way they could. One family constructed a makeshift balloon, another man tried to pole-vault the Wall, and several people tried to plow through it in trucks. During the first year, there were also many tunnel escapes.
The tunnel that most fascinated me was one that ran from West Berlin, under the Wall, and into the Pankow municipal cemetery. The tunnel opening was hidden beneath a memorial stone in the graveyard. People would come to this grave, pretending to be mourners, and then the hole would open up at their feet. When no one was looking, the East Berliners would slip into the hole, crawl through the tunnel, and wind up in West Berlin and freedom.
Twenty-three people from East Berlin escaped through this tunnel until one of the escapees left a baby buggy by the grave, tipping off police that something was up.
Reaching freedom through a grave—what a fitting image. It reminds me of someone else who led people from a grave to freedom. Jesus shocked authorities by breaking out from the grave, and ever since that day, over 2,000 years ago, millions of people have followed Him in the greatest escape of all time—the escape from death.
We’re all looking for resurrection. We live, we die, and we rise again on the other side of a spiritual Wall, following in the footsteps of Jesus. As it says in Romans 6:5-7: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”
The devil has his watchtowers, of course, and he’ll do anything to prevent us from escaping his clutches. But if we’re brave enough and have faith, we can dig beneath the death strip and rise in glory.
The devil in his watchtower can only scratch his head and wonder how in the world we did it—or, more precisely, how Jesus did it.
By Doug Peterson