Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

When Smuggling Was Heroic



Time to read

2 Minutes

Guest post by David J. Danelo, director of field research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a former US Marine. This post is the fourth installment of Border Criminologies themed series on Human Smuggling organised by Gabriella Sanchez.

As stories about human smugglers manipulating victimized migrants dominate international airwaves, internet readers on both sides of the Atlantic might think people who skirt European and American border regulations are second only to (or the same as) murderers or rapists along the descent of criminal amorality. In almost all migration narratives, modern smugglers are demonized as exploiting opportunists and dangerous rogues.

Checkpoint Charlie in 1989
That wasn’t always the case. During the Cold War, as any visitor to Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie Museum learns, smuggling men, women, and children through the Berlin Wall from the East German side to the West was every bit as challenging—if not more so—as moving migrants across the Mediterranean Sea, around European Union law enforcement, or through the US-Mexico border. Welcoming close to one million annual visitors, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum stands on one of downtown Berlin’s busiest corners, just meters from what used to mark the passageway from East to West Berlin.

On the second floor of the museum, three rooms are dedicated to displaying the ‘heroism’ of men and women who, ‘at great risk to their own personal freedom,’ brought ‘refugees’ out of East Berlin to ‘freedom in the West.’ Placards with stories of the ‘escape helper’ backgrounds cover the walls. The most prominent display—featured on the museum’s official website—includes a model car with compartments near the engine block that could hide a person. Any smuggler today would recognize, and probably admire, the ingenuity and tactics.

Image: D. Danelo
When I toured the museum in March 2015, I couldn’t help but notice the biography of John P. Ireland, an American who smuggled ten people to safety, and with whom I share similarities in my own background. Ireland was drafted into the US Marine Corps in World War II and later enlisted in the US Army, serving out his tour in Berlin. He stayed in Germany after leaving the US military in 1953, and retained his American passport after becoming a political science student at the Free University of Berlin.

According to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum display, soon after the Berlin Wall ascended, Ireland modified his Cadillac to include a ‘specially created hollow space between the engine and car interior.’ From August 1961 until early 1965, Ireland was one of several drivers in a smuggling ring organized by Hasso Herschel, who helped over 1,000 other East Germans escape through tunnels and hidden compartments. In three years, Ireland drove ten East Germans through the Berlin Wall checkpoints, breaking numerous laws in the process. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum, however, hails Ireland as a man who endangered himself to keep escapees ‘out of sight of prying eyes.’

The term ‘smuggling ring’ often brings to mind seedy images of mafia kingpins swapping cocaine stashes and trafficked girls. In West Berlin, Herschel, Ireland, and hundreds of other assistants are feted today as heroes. Standing in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, it becomes difficult to judge harshly anyone who undertakes the risk of moving men and women from one border checkpoint to another. In this room, ‘criminals’ don’t seem to exist—only people who, for whatever reason, assume the complex task of taking men and women from chaos to safety. On a continent where smuggling has become demonized, it remains a perspective worth considering.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Danelo, D. (2015) When Smuggling Was Heroic. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/11/when-smuggling (Accessed [date]).

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