Of Walls and Victims: Berlin Refugees Then and Now

“Auf der Flucht erschossen” by Jimmy Fell

On August 24, 1961, Günter Litfin was shot to death by East German transport police as he tried to cross the border to West Berlin. A tailor from Weissensee, the 24-year-old Litfin had climbed over the Berlin Wall, built only 11 days earlier, near the Charité Hospital. Police fired warning shots at Litfin while he was on solid ground, but once he jumped into the Humboldt Harbour and began swimming for West Berlin, they took proper aim and hit their target. His corpse was pulled from the water a few hours later by East German firefighters.

Early in the morning of February 6, 1989, Chris Gueffroy became the last person to be shot to death while crossing the Berlin Wall. The 20-year-old waiter decided to leave East Germany on the cusp of being conscripted into the National People’s Army. With his friend Christian Gaudian, Gueffroy hoped to cross the Britz Canal to the West Berlin district of Neukölln – they erroneously believed that the order to use deadly force at the border had been suspended. Border guards opened fire on the pair as they scaled the final layer of border fencing. Gueffroy was hit twice in the chest and died immediately.

Litfin and Gueffroy are often mistakenly referred to as the first and last victims of the Berlin Wall, but this sad distinction actually belongs to two others. The 58-year-old widow Ida Siekmann died of injuries from jumping from a building on Bernauerstrasse to cross the Wall two days before Litfin was shot. At the other end, Winfried Freudenberg was killed over a month later than Gueffroy when his makeshift balloon failed during the border crossing and he fatally crashed in the West Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf.

This error is important, not for the sake of historical pedantry, but because it speaks to how the Berlin Wall is understood in the popular imagination. When we think of the Berlin Wall, the imagined victim is usually a young man, gunned down by border guards as he fled for freedom. The most famous of all the Berlin Wall victims, Peter Fechter, embodies this image. Fechter, 18, was shot as he tried to cross the border near Checkpoint Charlie in 1962, little more than a year after the Wall’s construction. He lay wounded and screaming in pain in the death strip for forty minutes until he bled to death. His monument on Zimmerstrasse eulogizes his plight: “…he only wanted freedom.”


The death of Peter Fechter. East Berlin. August 17, 1962.

Over the past year, I have been posting on daily events in East Germany on social media and I was struck by just how many victims failed to conform to this narrative. According to an exhaustive study, 140 people were “shot dead, suffered fatal accidents or committed suicide after a failed escape attempt across the Berlin Wall.” From this total, 8 were border guards who were killed by friendly fire, by fellow soldiers trying to escape, by West Berlin Police, or by escape helpers.

Of the remaining 132 victims, 30 had no intention to flee East Germany at all. In June 1962, a Border Guard accidentally fired his AK-47 while showing off his service weapon to a group of children. The bullet hit Wolfgang Glöde, 13, killing him almost immediately. The following year, Dieter Berger was fatally shot at the Wall when he drunkenly lost his way and began climbing a fence in the death strip. In 1965, Peter Hauptmann got into an argument at a checkpoint while trying to bring dinner guests to his home near the border –  the heated discussion escalated and Hauptmann was shot to death. Hermann Döbler, a West Berliner, was killed by border troops when he took his boat too close to the border on the Teltow Canal.

Many were also killed in the rivers and canals of Berlin that made of much of the boundary between East and West. The first to drown during an escape attempt was 25-year-old Udo Düllick in October 1961. Lothar Lehman was the next to perish in the water a month later when he tried to swim across Havel River to West Berlin. Ingo Krüger’s diving equipment failed in December of the same year and he drowned in the Spree River.

From the West Berlin side, several children also drowned when the they had the misfortune to fall into the waters of the militarized border. The 6-year-old Andreas Senk was the first of such victims in 1966. He was followed by Cengaver Katrancı, Siegfried Kroboth, Giuseppe Savoca and Çetin Mert – all were children between five and eight. Only in 1975 did the drownings end when a treaty between East and West created a protocol for water rescue at the border.

When you read through the many tragic stories, you can see how the Berlin Wall did not just strike down those seeking freedom in its 28 years of existence, but created a zone of death around it affecting people of all ages and political dispositions. 39 of the 140 victims were not even trying to cross the Berlin Wall at all. Some victims had previously emigrated to West Berlin, returned to the East and decided to leave once again. The desire to reconnect with loved ones motivated just as many as a rejection of real existing socialism. Many fatal escape attempts were prompted by breakups, arguments at work, or just plain loneliness.

It is easy to create a straightforward ideological narrative in which the Berlin Wall  serves only as a symbol of the failures of state socialism. Without the Wall, East Germany would have collapsed economically due to mass emigration and to preserve its position of power, the Socialist Unity Party was willing to use deadly force against its own fleeing citizens.  The death of Peter Fechter is still remembered today because his brutal killing was the cost of such ambitions.

Yet, the broader body of victims points to a more general indictment of militarized borders everywhere. If we move beyond the heroic narratives of those who died seeking freedom, we have a list of victims whose only offense was to want to be with their family, to argue with a guard, or to fall into the wrong river. Such deaths could have occurred at any border manned by a force determined to prevent unauthorized movement at any cost.

Last November, as Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the city was once again beginning to fill with refugees and walls were being built around the world. This excellent graphic from TD Architects illustrates the global nature of how these barriers are walling off the wealthy economic core from the impoverished periphery. The full irony of these parallel developments was on display at the East Side Gallery when the remnants of the Berlin Wall served as the canvas for the WALLONWALL exhibit documenting the fences and separation barriers of Baghdad, the Korean Peninsula, the Occupied Territories, the US-Mexican border and others.

Walled World, TD Architects

Many may balk at such comparisons: the Berlin Wall separated a people, a nation even, that naturally sought to live together. From our position more than a quarter century later, it is easy to presume that mass immigration from East Germany was universally welcomed in the West. While state policy provided citizenship for all German refugees from the East, they faced prejudice on the ground. Some West Germans went so far as to contact the East German Stasi if they knew of plans to escape to because the “foreigners, but also East Germans, want to take away our jobs.” The huge influx of East German refugees in 1989 also sparked a backlash over housing. As the West German woman in this clip from the Berliner Abendschau explains, she has no problems with the people from the East in general, just not in her front yard.

While conflicting attitudes of acceptance and xenophobia towards refugees endure, the lethality of the modern border regime in Europe has actually vastly outstripped that of the Berlin Wall. More than 2,000 migrants have been killed trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015 alone. The death toll from some single incidents has exceeded the total killed in the entire history of the Berlin Wall several times over. They were not shot, but then again neither was Rainer Liebeke who died swimming to West Berlin across the Sacrower See in 1986.

The other main objection to the comparison between victims at the Berlin Wall and the mass death of migrants at the edges of Europe is that East Germany employed lethal force to prevent it’s own people from escaping.  According to this logic, however, the moral flaw with the Berlin Wall was that its guards were simply wearing the wrong uniforms. If the positions were reversed and the same Berlin Wall was manned by West German soldiers gunning down fleeing refugees from the East, would that have made it all okay? If they had simply arranged it so that hundreds drowned in the Spree and the Havel as they tried to cross the border, would that have been alright?

When decrying the crimes of communism, the cold and brutal economic logic of the Berlin Wall is condemned as inhuman and freedom of movement and family reunification held up as the highest of human rights. In contemporary discussions of borders and refugees, the argument seems to rapidly flip on its head with the defense of borders for the sake of national interests held up to be the highest duty. How much difference is there between the freedom that Peter Fechter died seeking, and the freedom sought by thousands from Syria, Eritrea, and elsewhere in the Europe of today – and dying in the Mediterranean trying to reach it?

We can limit our the scope of our vision to those victims of the Berlin Wall who allow such atrocities to remain cut off from us in the distant past. Or we can look more closely and see how these tragedies continue today.

Update February 4, 2016: The total number of confirmed Berlin Wall victims changed from 136 to 138 in accordance with an updated version of the Hertle/Nooke ZZF study http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/uploads/todesopfer_dokumente/2013_11_26_hertle_nooke_victims_berlin_wall.pdf

Update November 10, 2016: The total number of confirmed Berlin Wall victims changed from 138 to 139 in accordance with an updated version of the Hertle/Nooke ZZF study http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/de/uploads/todesopfer_dokumente/2016_10_30_hertle_nooke_berliner_mauer_todesopfer.pdf

Update August 13, 2017: Total number of victims updated to 140 based on identification of Soviet soldier who was killed at the Wall by East German police http://www.chronik-der-mauer.de/todesopfer/183814/wladimir-iwanowitsch-odinzow?letter=O

One thought on “Of Walls and Victims: Berlin Refugees Then and Now

  1. Pingback: Links, 14 August 2017 | illiquid ideas

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