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Shall I escape to the West?


This activity, created by Ian Luff, is a classic “thinking from the inside of a situation” that, by putting students into the minds of people in the past and simulating the dilemmas they faced, increases the complexity of students’ understanding and knowledge. Anyone glancing through the window and seeing two students walking up and down as guards, the rest of the class split between East and West Berlin might well think ‘that looks fun’ but they’d miss the intensity of the thinking that’s taking place – the ‘should we escape or stay?’ dilemma which requires students to take into account far more factors than they might if simply reading about the situation.

Here is Ian’s description:

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

This activity is based on the ’Physical Map ’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


This activity is intended to give insight into the ideas and attitudes prevailing inside the DDR ( East Germany) during the period 1961-1989. It challenges the simplistic view, so often held in the West, that every citizen of the DDR was desperate to re-locate to the West German Federal Republic. This was never the case. Many never wanted to go at all; many wanted to go but were deterred by a complex interaction of factors; some wanted to go and would never be deterred by any obstacle. A great number probably flirted at some time or another with the idea of leaving, in various degrees of seriousness, and it was for these that the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’ or Berlin Wall was intended as a means of tipping the balance in favour of staying in the East. Above all, the citizens of the DDR, as of any state, were people with families to consider. What were the factors pulling them to the West and/or tying them to the East? Many would have made their decisions on a balance of factors: perhaps this activity makes that dilemma a little more understandable.


Room plan – (downloaded above)

Pupil instruction sheets – (in Resource File, downloaded above)

10 ‘Type of person’ cards – one card per student so you’ll probably need to copy 3 sheets and then cut them up – (in Resource File, downloaded above).

Pull, Push and Stay in the East cards – one sheet for each student – (in Resource File, downloaded above).

Supply of carrots – basic rations for East Berliners

Supply of chocolates (e.g. chocolate buttons, ‘bite-sized’ bars), crisps etc - for West Berliners

Setting Up

1. Duplicate enough Person cards so that each student has a role.

2. Duplicate the Push, Pull, Stay in the East sheet –one for each student in East Berlin – about 75% of the class. We have included two versions – one in colour, one in black and white. Colour copying may differentiate the 3 sections more clearly.

3. Duplicate the ‘Instructions for pupils’ sheet

4. Arrange the room – see Room plan.

The Activity

Make sure you read the ‘Instructions for pupils’ card in conjunction with these points so that you are clear on each stage of the activity.

1. Create an area clear of desks in the middle of your room – see Room Plan. This empty space represents the wall and death strip. This should be as large a width as possible but you also need a large space to form East Berlin, in which three-quarters of the class are situated, each issued with a carrot as basic life subsistence nutrition. The smallest slice of your room, on the other side of the death zone, will be West Berlin. Choose a quarter of the class to be West Berliners – their task is to wave chocolate and crisps (or whatever you choose as symbols) at the Easterners to represent the good life in the west.

2. Choose two fairly calm pupils to patrol the wall and death zone as Border Guards. Give them some form of obvious uniform – perhaps a tabard or a steel helmet from the departmental collection. They can kill escapers (anybody entering the death zone) by placing a hand on a shoulder.

3. Give out the Type of Person cards to all other pupils in East Berlin. Tell pupils that they should not reveal their occupation to anyone yet.

Then give out to each pupil the Push, Pull and Stay in the East factors sheet and explain the differences between the types of factors.

They also need the pupil instructions and to read them through completely before the next stage of the activity begins.

Now explain to pupils why they have to be careful about revealing their occupations. There are STASI security police among you – only they know who they are and must try to stay secret. And that anyone who stays in the East and informs the STASI police of escapers will be rewarded with chocolate rations.

4. Allow ten minutes for pupils to talk to each other. In this time escapes will be planned and betrayals made. Arrests can be made in this time but no escapes can take place. Pupils arrested go to a corner of the room – you need to tell them to begin writing lines ‘I will not escape from East Germany!’

5. After ten minutes call ‘Begin’. Escapes may be attempted from this moment. Border Guards and STASI are actively trying to prevent escapes by arrest. Remind pupils that no running is allowed by guards or escapers. Emphasise that only two escapes can happen simultaneously i.e. only two escapers are allowed into the ‘death zone’. Any third escaper starting will immediately be ‘busted’ by the teacher. Allow ten minutes for this activity. Before returning pupils to their seats review the numbers of:

- successful escapees;

- arrested escapees

- those remaining in the East.

From the experience of doing this activity with a number of different classes it may be helpful to say that the number of attempted escapes and successful escapes varies very much with the class. Boisterous lively classes will try anything up to ten escapes. The more thoughtful the class the fewer escapes they try on the whole.


Debrief pupils in role.

Ask the following kinds of questions to each group.


Why did you choose to take the risk?

How did you feel if successful?

If you were killed how do you think your families would have viewed your plan to escape?

If arrested would this have put you off trying again?


Why did you choose to stay?

Did you betray anybody? If so, why?

Did you feel proud to have stayed or slightly inferior?

If you informed on somebody what made you do this?

Border Guards

Would killing the escapers worry you? Remember, you were not volunteers.


How effective were you? What made you effective or ineffective?

How popular would you have been?

Now ask the class to read out all the ‘push’, ‘pull’, and ‘stay’ factors on the cards as recap.

Follow-up activity – Students could tackle the question below.

‘What factors might an East German citizen considering an escape to the West think about before taking a final decision?’

Students’ reactions to the activity

I have found that this activity whets their appetite for more study of the Cold War and makes them far more thoughtful in their judgements of the societies on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. After having done this they are far less inclined to assume that life in the east was all bad. I have been e mailed by two teachers who tried this after my session at the SHP conference in 2006. Both reactions were very positive.

Finishing with the story of a real escaper - Conrad Schumann

See images at, for example,

Conrad Schumann was the first escaper across the barbed wire fence that later became the Berlin Wall or ‘Anti Fascist Protection Barrier’ His escape was particularly significant because he was a member of the DDR’s security forces. For him, the balance of factors led to a decision to flee.

The picture of Conrad Schumann’s escape became famous (you may wish to look at the Dynamic Learning CD which is available to accompany the SHP Year 9 pupils’ book). The image was used extensively by the West to show Communism as an idea from which even its own troops fled. Conrad Schumann too, became famous for a while – a minor ‘celebrity’ in his day. The man who took the photo, Peter Leibing, became a leading newspaper manager and had a glittering career in journalism.

Conrad went to live in Bavaria, a wealthy state in West Germany. As he had no western education Conrad took a job on a car assembly line making AUDI cars. He married, but in his own words ‘never felt truly free’ until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. However, he continued to feel more at home in Bavaria than in his birthplace in East Germany, blaming old hurts with his former colleagues, and hesitated even to visit his parents and brothers and sisters in East Germany

Throughout his life Conrad struggled with alcoholism and depression. When the wall fell he re-lived his fame a little in a museum in Berlin but as a portly, middle aged man was unrecognisable from his famous picture.

Tragically Conrad Schumann committed suicide in June 1998.

Instructions for Pupils

(These instructions are provided as a separate file, downloaded above, for easy copying)

1. Take a ‘Type of Person’ card from your teacher then collect sets of the ‘Push Factor’, ‘Pull Factor’ and ‘Stay in the East’ cards. Ignore any that do not apply to your character.

2. Read your cards carefully and quietly take your decision. Are you going to stay in the East or risk an escape to the West? If you decide to escape, be careful about trusting anybody. THE EAST GERMAN SECURITY POLICE HAVE AGENTS AMONGST YOU. IF THEY FIND OUT WHAT YOU ARE PLANNING THEY WILL ARREST YOU AND YOU ARE THEN OUT OF THE GAME. If you can plan with somebody else without being caught the chances of getting across will be greatly improved.

3. If you have a card marked STASI OFFICER you can arrest somebody immediately they tell you their plan but this will stop anybody else from talking to you. Or you can wait until you have identified a few possible escapers and then arrest them all at once.

4. In the ten minutes talking time see what you can find out from others.

a) if you want to escape try to find a partner This could greatly enhance the chances of at least one of you making it across the wall.

b) If you decide to stay in the East you will gain extra rations (e.g. a chocolate bar from the STASI security police) if you can inform on someone who is planning to escape. Talk to people. Try to get them to trust you with their escape plans so you have information to give the STASI police.

5. When your teacher calls ‘Begin’ - escapes can be carried out and arrests can be made.

If arrested you must go quietly to the corner of the room.

If escaping - you must get past the guards to the other side of the classroom where the ‘goodies’ are waiting.

Running is not allowed by guards or escapers.

No more than two people can enter the death zone to make an escape at any one time.

Resource Cards

All the following cards are provided as a separate file, downloaded above, for easy copying.


Type of Person Cards

Factory Worker


Parent with three young children

Young single person

Retired person 65 years old

Skilled tradesperson


Newly married young person


Person needing constant hospital care


‘Pull towards the West’ Factor Cards

Wages are very high in the West

Skilled workers are desperately needed in the West

Material goods such as cars and watches are freely available in the West

Western homes are large and well equipped

People can vote in free elections in the West

Young people can listen to any kind of pop music in the West

TV is exciting in the West

US goods are freely available in the West

Fast food is freely available in the West

A passport, 100 marks ‘welcome’ money and a home will be given to anybody arriving in the West


‘Push towards the West’ Factor Cards

Shortages of luxury goods are common in the East

The waiting list for a car is at least 15 years

Eastern cars are very crude, slow, uncomfortable and smoky

Western pop music is banned in the East

People in the East are constantly being watched by the STASI

Anybody upsetting the government in the East for even the slightest thing goes to prison

No ‘fashion’ clothes are available in the East

No free elections take place in the East

People never feel ‘trusted’ in the East

Wages are very low in the East


‘Stay in the East’ Factor Cards

Guards on the border shoot to kill

The health system in the East is free and very good indeed.

Unemployment does not exist in the East

Basic goods are always available in the East

Crime hardly exists in the East

Any escaper will never be allowed back to see family in the East

Education in the East shows the West as frightening and evil.

To escape alone is hard enough; the chances of bringing family over are almost zero

Nobody is homeless in the East

Escape is so difficult and dangerous that few will risk it.


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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity


Instructions to Pupils

Resource Cards