When Smuggling Was Heroic

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.

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.

When I toured the museum in March 2015, I couldn’t help but notice the biography of John P. Ireland, an American who smuggled…