It’s 1.30pm on March 30th, 1983 when Holger Bethke and his friend Michael Becker arrive at a particular corner in Schmollerstraße in East Berlin. The house they are looking for is right beside the “death strip” … the area surrounding the Berlin wall (s.above).
Disguised as craftsmen in blue work suits, they carefully open the locked doors with a picklock, making as little noise as possible. Once they are in, they hide in the attic for nearly twelve hours, eating sandwiches, drinking schnapps, and smoking cigarettes. Their plan to escape across the Berlin-Wall is highly risky, daring and dangerous. But, if it works, it is also a compelling tale of innovation … pure genius really.
Soon after midnight, they loop one end of a 105-meter-long 6mm-steel cable around the chimney. Then, they plan to use a fiberglass bow to shoot an arrow with fishing line attached to it to a house on the other side of the border.
The arrow is supposed to land in the courtyard behind the Bouchéstraße 68a building in West-Berlin, where Holger’s brother Ingo is waiting. Ingo had escaped East Germany by swimming across the river Elbe in 1975.
The fishing line is attached to a steel cable on the East German side. Ingo’s job is to pull the fishing line … and the steel cable … across the Berlin Wall and connect it to his car to tighten the cable. Holger and Michael would then glide to freedom.
The trio had found a way to communicate with each other. Michael Becker’s grandmother, who lived in the West, had smuggled a radio in a Miracoli-pasta pack across to East Berlin.
Holger and Michael have three arrows with them. They start the mission at 1 AM. The fishing line snaps on the first try. The second shot misses its target. The tension rises. The third shot hits, but in the darkness, Ingo takes a while to find the arrow. But he eventually does and pulls the fishing line with the steel cable across the death strip, securing it to the car’s bumper. He drives forward. It’s now tight enough to do the job. With this the daring escape can commence.
A few minutes later, the 24-year-old electrician Holger Bethke exits through a skylight. Clinging desperately to a small pulley connected to the steel cable, he leaps from the rooftop.
As he rolls over the wall, he beholds the whole death strip for the first time … tank barriers below him, a watchtower 70 meters away, barbed wire, and the endless wall. The border section is brightly lit. Every ten meters, powerful floodlights illuminate the restricted area.
Holger can’t help but think a dark thought. What if the guards look up now, spot him, and shoot?
Yet, nobody notices a thing. A little over a minute later, he reaches the building on the opposite side in West Berlin. Freedom seems within his grasp when something goes wrong. Holger doesn’t land on the roof of the Bouchéstraße 68a building as planned.
The wire has sagged slightly. But luck is on his side. He spots an open loggia just below the roof. He climbs over the railing and he’s free!
Now, it’s his friend Michael Becker’s turn. The 23-year-old heating installer clings to his pulley with one arm, secured only by a loop. He, too, encounters difficulties just before the finish line. He dangles there until he has lost the strength to hold on much longer. Just in time, Holger is able to pull him into the house.
Moments later, they realise what they’ve just done and can’t believe their luck.
“It was pure joy when we arrived on the other side,” as Holger describes the moment. “I saw my brother for the first time in eight years.”
Why am I sharing this story?
For me, it highlights the creativity of innovation … of thinking out of the box and solve a problem with a new and brilliant approach. Holger and Michael escaped by using the following tools:
– Bow and arrow
– Fishing line … wrapped around the neck of an empty champagne bottle so it unwound evenly
– 105m long 6mm steel cable
– A “pulley” to glide on the steel cable
– A walkie talkie radio smuggled in a pasta pack
– A car to tighten the rope and keep the cable steady
When we live our daily lives, we can sometimes get stuck in the way we think. Trying to be creative can be very challenging. We may overlook the solution that’s already there, somewhere just outside the box of conventional wisdom!
So, my challenge to you today is simple. Look beyond the conventional. When you have a very difficult problem to solve and there are no obvious answers, get creative and think about how to solve it as if your freedom … or even your life … depends on it. Think out of the box. Try something unseen. Look for answers in new places.
Necessity truly is the mother of invention. If you have a strong enough reason to take on impossible odds and win … like Holger and Michael … you CAN and WILL find a way, by unleashing the power of creative problem-solving.