Today he didn’t climb over the fence but came through the main gate of the old Palais Lobkowicz in Prague. The Palais is home to the German embassy since 1974. But 25 years ago, during September 1989, it was for a short time the home for Tilo Beutmann, too.
In the eve of the revolutions of 1989 over 7.000 citizens from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) tried to find shelter in the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague and were hoping for passage to West Germany. Beutling was just one among many others. Today, on the festivities for the 25th anniversary of this event, the now 48 years old German remembers the circumstances of his escape.
“A friend of mine applied for an allowance to exit the GDR. To emphasize his appeal, he and a couple of others were protesting in front of the townhall. They were not shouting anything, it was more a silent protest, week by week. In the consequence he was sentences to 18 months of jail. His wife had to pay for the same deed just 800 GDR Marks. For me that was the point where it was enough. I wanted freedom, being able to travel to wherever I want, being allowed to express my opinion freely.
“So I applied for an allowance to exit the GDR. Which was denied… My first attempt was to flee through Hungary but I didn’t get a visa. The denial was justified that I hadn’t completed my military service in the GDR. However this made me even more determined.
“On a Saturday – it must have been September 25th – I saw on TV how refugees were climbing the fence [at the German embassy in Prague]. So I made my decision that as soon as possible I would do the same. […]
“There was not a lot going on when I arrived on the 25th of September. First I had to find the fence. I didn’t know the area. Although I heard people – there must have been already about 900 – but I didn’t know where to find the fence. In front of the embassy there were Czech police men armed with rifles. I pretended to be another Czech and passed them without attracting attention. I followed a couple of other men, thinking they would also go to the fence. So I followed them through a gate and it turned out they just wanted to take a leak [laughs]. I followed the way and then saw people standing behind a fence. This must sound odd today but I didn’t dare asking them if I am at the right spot. I mean, actually it was too obvious. So they asked me if I want to enter the embassy. I said yes and then everything went pretty fast: ‘Here is a cable reel, climb on it and we’ll pull you over’. And so I was in.
“There were many young people. Most were my age, around 23 years old. Some were even younger; I met a 17 years old boy who wanted to flee through Hungary. “My parents were not mad at me. At that time you didn’t know if you could ever see your relatives again. […]
“My parents saw me on TV when [a camera team was filming in the embassy and] I was rushing through the picture, for just a glimpse of a moment. That’s when they knew. They couldn’t believe it at first. But yes, it was true.”
A couple of days later, Beutmann left the embassy with many others towards West Germany, where he lives until now.
Today the fence is one meter higher, with sharp spikes at the top. Climbing is nearly impossible now. At the main entrance of the embassy there are five security officers standing in addition to the Czech police who are controlling every (non-diplomat) car which enters the embassy district. I could not help but think that the symbols speak for themselves. A situation like 25 years ago, when thousands of political refugees were desperately searching shelter on the embassy compound, will not and cannot happen again.