Unyielding at Every Turn

In January 1966, Hartmut Richter was picked up on a train before the Austrian border with a map on which he had scratched his planned escape route with his fingernail. Charged with committing a “passport offence,” he was held in the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security in Potsdam for almost six months before being sentenced to ten months probation. Just three months later Hartmut Richter undertook his second escape attempt. It took him four long hours to swim across the Teltow Canal that was guarded by the border troops, but he made it to West Berlin.

Hartmut Richter was born in Glindow near Werde in January 1948. He attended the upper level day and boarding school in Potsdam while at the same time completing vocational training as a factory and transport railroad worker. He didn’t join the FDJ while at school and refused to denounce his fellow classmates for watching western television. When he was caught in the tenth grade listening to RIAS (the western radio station), he was reprimanded by the school. Hartmut Richter first started thinking about escaping when he was 16. He and a friend had been exploring different places to escape in the border area of Potsdam when they were picked up by officials.

After his successful escape through the Teltow Canal, Hartmut Richter worked for a few years as a sea steward and lived in Hamburg. In 1971 an amnesty was passed which released him from his East German citizenship and allowed him to travel to East Germany as a citizen of the West without legal consequences. After the Transit Agreement was passed that same year, he recognized an opportunity to help friends and acquaintances get out of East Germany. The agreement stipulated that citizens of West Germany traveling on the transit routes from and to West Berlin could only be checked when a “reasonable suspicion” existed. Hartmut Richter took advantage of this provision and over the following three years was able to help more than 30 people escape to West Berlin by hiding them in the trunk of his car. But on the night of March 4, 1975 he was stopped and his car was inspected by border police at the Drewitz border crossing. He had his own sister and her boyfriend in his trunk. All three of them were arrested. He once again found himself in the remand prison in Potsdam, where he spent one year. In 1976 Hartmut Richter, 28 years old at the time, was found guilty of 18 proven cases of “subversive human trafficking” and sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

While in prison in Rummelsburg, he refused all the amenities that were available to prisoners for a price. He endured the month-long information and contact ban imposed on him and defied the rumor intentionally spread about him that claimed he was working for the secret police. He went on a hunger strike three times: once he refused to eat for 21 days. These measures didn’t get him released, but his parents were allowed to pay him a visit after 21 days. Hartmut Richter spent four years of his five year and seven month prison term in solitary confinement. He created fliers to underscore his hunger strike. He wrote: “In protest against the constant harassment by my henchmen, I am beginning an unlimited hunger strike, freedom for all escape helpers, freedom to all who want to immigrate, freedom to all political inmates.” The fliers were discovered and Hartmut Richter was transferred to the Bautzen II prison because of his “negative influence on other inmates.” He opposed the house rules there too and continued to rebel. In 1980 West Germany purchased his freedom and on October 2, 1980 he was released from prison.

Hartmut Richter became a member of the International Society for Human Rights and initiated various high-publicity protest events against East Germany. The Ministry for State Security continued to keep him under observation until the Wall fell. It had even prepared a “plan of operation to liquidate H.R.” On August 13, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall was built, he organized a stunt in which the entrance to the office of the Soviet airline “Aeroflot” on the Kurfürstendamm avenue was walled up with a sign in front saying: “Better not to go in than not to get out.” In 1983 he used a hook to fish out a bed of nails, also known as “Stalin’s lawn,” from the border strip. He also actively participated in demonstrations and human chains set up as protest actions. In 1986, in response to the death of a passenger traveling on the transit route, Hartmut Richter participated in a protest march in Berlin-Kreuzberg, at which four people carried a coffin: “This drew a lot of publicity and that was the point.” Twenty years after the Peaceful Revolution, Hartmut Richter is still fighting – but now his struggle is about exposing the crimes in East Germany and counseling people who were persecuted by the SED regime on issues of rehabilitation and victim compensation.

Anna von Arnim

Harmut Richter 2011

Hartmut Richter, 2011, photo: M. Nooke, Berlin Wall Memorial

Harmut Richter 1970

Hartmut Richter in Hamburg, 1970, photo: privately owned


Report on the escape through the Teltow Canal

Operation Stalin’s Lawn on the death strip

From an interview on March 18, 1999, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)