Kostbade Baltic Sea Breakaway - Sailing across the Baltic Sea to freedom. 30

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Introduction to the book

The actual story told in Lotte Couch's "Aber nicht übers Wasser" is primarily about courage and great human ingenuity.

It is therefore all the more appropriate that these dramatic events are told from the perspective of a third person, and not by the Kostbades themselves, whose risky adventure is the subject of this book. Because at the time their adventure took place, the endeavour to flee East Germany on a flimsy boat, first from the Baltic resort of Kühlungsborn north-eastwards into the Baltic Sea and then further west to the West German island of Fehmarn, was indeed a great achievement.

The security measures in the GDR's restricted area and the numerous local security precautions designed to make it impossible for citizens to find a gap in the "Baltic Wall" (p. 58) were so ruthless and ingenious that in the relatively rare cases chronologised below, it took as much luck as caution and prudence for an escape attempt to freedom to succeed. As we will hear in the following story, it was strictly forbidden to stay in the restricted area without a so-called "pass". There was also a ban on going out and a beach closure from 9 pm. The practical obstacles designed to make escape impossible were just as daunting as the price that had to be paid if you were caught trying to flee. Nevertheless, until the end of the GDR, there was a small group of citizens who, either alone or in well-organised groups (and in those days only in very rare cases with help from the West), were willing to risk their safety - and in the majority of cases even their lives - in a desperate attempt to reach the West. If they didn't make it, they faced a 5-year prison sentence and jeopardised their careers for the rest of their lives. If they did make it, they had to reckon with clan detention and punitive actions against friends and colleagues left behind. The reasons that prompted people to make such dangerous escape attempts are documented in detail in the decision-forming conversations in the following fictionalised, but nevertheless truthful, account of one such company.

For those of us reading this book who have never felt such a strong urge for freedom and have never had to endure such discouraging living conditions as to justify the risk associated with flight, the following problem arises: not much more remains of the flight through the Iron Curtain than, on the one hand, a purely statistical value and, on the other, political schadenfreude in the West at the inability of the other Germany to keep even those citizens within its own borders who once believed in its ideals.


The word "Republikflucht" alone reveals the extent to which the official language criminalised the enterprise of replacing going to the ballot box with fleeing. Yet all that the citizens who left East Germany illegally were doing was exercising the right of every individual to decide for themselves where they wanted to live and where they wanted to travel, a right that, at least in theory but unfortunately not in practice, was guaranteed to all GDR citizens by the signing of the Helsinki Agreement by the GDR regime in 1975. In reality, the attempt to leave one Germany for the other "... renegade from socialism [ ... 1 and thus an enemy of peace." (p. 102) "We are good people, clean people, whom you have lost here," explains Mrs Kostbade at one point in the following story; "For you we are fugitives from the republic and therefore worthy of condemnation - and you will make us bad. But we are not bad." (pp. 206-207) One of the undisputed strengths of Lotte Couch's fictionalised reconstruction of such an escape attempt is the obvious way in which not only the Kostbades' dilemma and the solution to it, but also their shared strength of character are elaborated. Alfred and Renate Kostbade did not even consider fleeing without their two children, Doreen and Marco, and their consent: "We either all go together or not at all." (p. 65) This solidarity characterises the entire family business, from the first draft to the detailed plan, which often had to be changed spontaneously during the escape, sometimes as a necessary reaction to unforeseeable circumstances. The immediate events after the fall of communism remind us of the massive haemorrhaging that prompted the GDR regime to build the Berlin Wall in 1961. From the founding of the GDR until the end of the previous year, more than 2,750,000 citizens fled to the West, with another 160,000 following by 13 August 1961. Even after the Wall was built, the wave of refugees was not completely halted, but the number of refugees began to fall first into the thousands and then into the hundreds, with the majority of those who now successfully fled being on business trips abroad or on holiday in a less restrictive neighbouring socialist country. The regime was to continue and, with even greater ingenuity, improve the barriers that were to block the former escape routes from both East Germany and from East to West Berlin. Human and technical surveillance of the border regions was also tightened, culminating in the death strip that marked the ugly face of the German-German border in most places. But while our European community has fairly clear photographic images in its memory of fugitives leaping from windows on Bernauer Strasse in Berlin to the West or risking vopo bullets by squeezing through the primitive predecessors of the then eventually concrete Berlin Wall, to get to the West or lie injured or shot in no man's land, we should remember that most escape attempts, like the one reported on below, did not take place in the media spotlight or with the practical witnesses who could then report on "how it was".


The closer we get to the historic summer of 1989, when all eyes were on the overcrowded embassies and consulates of West Germany in various Eastern European countries or on the recently opened Czechoslovak-Hungarian border, we must not forget that elsewhere people were still risking their lives incognito to flee to the West beyond the media spectacle, often not so successfully and usually in much more dangerous ways. Fortunately, stories and fictionalised accounts of events that actually took place can still remind us of what the press and television were unable to show us, what history reduces to facts and figures.

Given that the Iron Curtain, together with the Berlin Wall, was one of the most effective barriers to the free movement of people in the entire history of mankind, it was not surprising that some saw escape "by water", i.e. across the Baltic Sea, as the only real alternative. Not because the obstacles and threats on this route were less daunting, but because nature, in the form of poor visibility or favourable currents, or the difficulty of monitoring large expanses of water, might have been an advantage for them, or because, as in this case, it was easier to secretly explore the coastal area than the land-locked restricted areas to the west or south-west, where an almost paranoid atmosphere prevailed.

The courage of those who sought to flee from communist oppression to freedom has manifested itself in many different ways in recent decades. It ranges from the determination with which an individual could suddenly seize an opportunity from one moment to the next, risking nothing but his or her own life, to the confidence needed to embark on an escape route, largely arranged or financially facilitated by friends or aid agencies in the West, and simply trusting that one had not fallen into the hands of agents provocateurs.

But there was also the collective courage with which entire families or groups of like-minded people risked not only their own individual lives, but the lives of others. This is also the case with the escape attempt that is reconstructed in "But not across the water". All parents will sympathise with the extremely difficult decisions that Alfred and Renate Kostbade had to make. The difficult problem of how to first familiarise their children with the sketchy plan, explain the reasons to them and finally convince them; the problem of the risk they would put their other relatives and their circle of friends in. Then there were the many pragmatic challenges of fine-tuning and executing the plan, risks that affected not only the father and mother themselves, but also the children, for whom they basically had to make all the decisions.


Another risk, of course, was the danger of drawing attention to themselves, which any escape attempt "in fours" could inevitably result in. Over the next two years, as they prepared to outwit the patrol boats of the coastal border brigade monitoring the Wismar-Warnemünde area, they had to scout the terrain for opportunities in beach resorts and villages on the Baltic Sea, where the idyllic innocence of summer holidays on the beach and leisure time spent fishing at sea no longer prevailed. These had now become suspicious places, places where even the purchase of a nautical chart or a rubber dinghy or fishing equipment could invite prying eyes and attract the unwanted attention of unofficial Stasi agents.

In other words, this is not only a story of calculated courage rather than hot-headed bravado, but also one of caution, planning and the extraordinary ability not to lose one's head even under pressure, always weighing up the risks for and against the desire to flee. In hindsight, some may see an absurd dimension to the Kostbades' story, because not much more than a year after their successful escape, the Berlin Wall fell and the regime's hours were numbered. But at that time, up until the autumn of 1988, the Kostbades knew just as little about what the future would bring as other GDR citizens - or even the government itself. As they put it: "This regime has another ten, at most fifteen years, and then it will collapse." (p. 118) Their answer: "The death throes here will last another ten years. Do you want to go through every twitch of it? (p. 126), is such that they could only have answered differently in retrospect. But then, as the end of the story suggests, perhaps not.

The people whose fates we will follow are neither dissidents in the conventional sense of the word, nor are they people who were driven to the West by purely material greed, although disillusionment with the East German system, working conditions and living standards in their homeland also played a role in their decision to flee. But it was not a decision taken lightly, and there are also hints that their overly rosy ideas about life in the West were soon bitterly disappointed. What the narrator says at one point about Alfred Kostbade clearly applies to the whole family: " ... it was not his way to give up or fall into depression. He didn't expect any gifts from life; in his experience, nothing came for free. If he wanted something, hoped for something, longed for something - then he had to work hard for it, often fight for it, perhaps even wrest it from fate. It had always been like that." (pp. 75-76) This applies to the family during their nine hours in the water - "folded up like a penknife" (p. 245) - during their heroic journey from Kühlungsborn to Fehmarn, and also while they meticulously prepared for their expedition to freedom. And, one suspects, it also applies to the way in which they faced up to all the challenges of a post-reunification, reunited Germany.


Apart from the rubber dinghy that hangs in its place of honour on the wall of the garage, it is hard to imagine that the Kostbades could have wished for a more fitting memento of their part in the events described here, or a more accurate account of the political context that took them from their beloved Mecklenburg to a foreign West Germany, than the book presented here. All those who knew and admired the author of this book will regret that she did not live to see it published.

Professor John J. White

School of Humanities

Department of German

King's College London

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