Both an End and a Beginning: The Long Fall of the Berlin Wall

Lichtgrenze better

The Lichtgrenze commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall- November 9, 2014.

From our perspective today, it is easy to see November 9, 1989 as the end of the German Democratic Republic. In most of the coverage of the anniversaries, that date is synonymous with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of monopoly rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the end of the feared Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. In retrospect, it is clear that the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 was a decisive breaking point, after which the SED could never recover its capacity to rule.

But on November 10, 1989, this was far from obvious for all involved. In the early hours that day it was still unclear what exactly had happened overnight. SED officials still believed they could re-impose controls on cross border travel. The Soviet Union had yet to comment on the events or indicate if it would intervene. While earlier mass protests had been tolerated, Egon Krenz, leader of the SED since late October when he had deposed Erich Honecker, had praised the violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square earlier in the year leading some to fear violence could still come. That the opening of the border would usher in a peaceful transition to pluralistic democracy and later reunification was hardly certain.

Continue reading

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.”

fechter2

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

Continue reading