It Has Been 30 Years Since the Berlin Wall Fell

Have we learned anything since then?

Photo by Morgana Bartolomei on Unsplash

On February 5th, 1989 twenty-year-old Chris Gueffroy was the last person to be killed for the crime of trying to escape “The Fatherland.” It was so wonderful in communist East Berlin, so much so that the East German Border Control was compelled to execute anyone who wanted to leave.

He was shot in the chest ten times.

But one can’t fault the East German Border Control; after all, they were only trying to protect the East German people from “decadent capitalistic culture.” Under the policy of “Schiessbefehl”, they were required to shoot those who were trying to flee.

I looked up the meaning of Schiessbefehl. It means “order to fire.”

The Wall

The wall was installed almost overnight on September 12th, 1961. But what were the communists to do? Almost one fifth (2.5 million) of the population left between 1949 and 1961 and by 1961, almost 2,000 people were leaving…per day.

This was called “Flight from the Republic” or “Republikflucht.”

The East German Border Control had to stop them from leaving by any means necessary. An estimated 75,000 East Germans were caught and imprisoned.

Chris was not alone when he tried to make his escape. His friend, Christian Gaudian, was injured during the escape attempt and eventually sentenced to three years in prison by East Germany officials.

The charge? A “severe case of attempting to cross the border.” Capitalist West Germany paid a ransom to have him released in October of that year to West Berlin.

Recently, I noticed that the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall was approaching. I wanted to honor those who died by reading the bio of each person who tried so desperately to reach freedom.

It was the least I could do.

I went to the wall with my classmates in 1973. We were well aware of the deaths of the people before we arrived, and after we left Checkpoint Charlie. It made an impression on me that resonates today.

Why, we asked ourselves, would officers shoot their own countrymen? In many of the cases, the victims were shot in the back. A considerable number of deaths occurred when the victims were swimming to freedom.

They were shot in the water.

However, East Germans continued to try to escape even though death was likely.

But it was not so easy to forget the past. It is well documented that the East German Border Control officers received accolades and rewards after they shot an escaping East German.

However, it is also verified that many of them lived for years with this knowledge, it weighed on their conscience, and they expressed regret for what they did.

It’s hard to be a hero when one shoots someone in the back.

Most of them were children themselves…in fact, after the fall of the wall in 1989, their youthfulness at the time of the shooting was taken into consideration when they went to court.

There is one thing that I do not understand. As was mentioned before, these soldiers were given a command to shoot to prevent escapes to the west. It was a part of their training; it was their duty.

Under the policy of “Schiessbefehl”, they were required to shoot those who were trying to flee.

After the wall fell, what they did was now a crime. I’m not quite sure that this is reasonable.

One knows instinctively that shooting unarmed men, women, and children is wrong. However, in regards to the guards, they would do whatever they would need to do in order to avoid pain.

And if they did not do their duty under this cruel and sometimes unreasonable regime, they and their families would suffer. The Stasi (a spy agency for East Germany composed of over 620,000 people called The Ministry for State Security or the State Security Service) was watching.

Is something like that happening here in America? Is this behavior a possibility with the United States Border Patrol (USBP) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?

Just asking for a friend.

Another thing; when we lived in West Germany in the 1970s, even then we noticed the lack of people. There were buildings where no one lived, zones where we played in the ruins, and streets of nothingness.

It was as if the ghosts of those who lived before us were there— along with the ghosts of those who were never born. World War II took a toll on Germany that is still evident today.

It is therefore within reason to understand why Angela Merkel (the chancellor of Germany since 2005) agreed to welcome immigrants to Germany. They were not growing. If your country is not growing, it is dying.

I remember reading an article about the growing emptiness of Germany some time ago; hospital birthing centers were empty, child nurseries were small, and schools were half-filled.

They had to shut down a number of elementary schools because it wasn’t economically feasible. After all, a high percentage of their population had died (were murdered) in the past and the birth rate of today? It was and is very low.

Germany has always had immigrants. I remember playing with Italian children and children with other nationalities from throughout Europe during my time there.

Immigrants bring a country to life.

We should know. America is nothing but a country of immigrants and their ancestors.

The worst thing we can do is to forget the past. That’s why today I bring this important anniversary up; these souls walked this earth and must not be forgotten.

All they asked was for a better life. As a matter of fact, that is what most of us want, and that is an opportunity to live our best life.

These people and countless others were denied that opportunity.

Ida Siekmann

Chris Gueffroy was the last to die by gunshot at the wall. However, the first to die after the wall was erected was Ida Siekmann. At 58 years of age, she had been separated overnight from friends and family.

Her building was part of the border. The ground just outside of her third-floor window was freedom. She watched as the front of her building was barricaded. To this day, no one knows if she intended to fall on the bedding that she threw outside of her window. But she knew that outside was…freedom.

Maybe she heard footsteps and panicked. She jumped.

The West German firemen were there, but they had no chance to catch her in their rescue net.

She died from the injuries that she received from her fall on August 22, 1961, just nine days after the construction of the Berlin wall began.

Günter Litkin

The first East German to be shot? That honor belongs to Günter Litkin. Two days after Ida Siekmann died, he jumped into the Humbolt Harbor and began his swim to the west bank. Hundreds of West Berliners watched as he was shot in the back of the head and perished. His body was pulled out of the water three days later.

West Berlin citizens reacted with protests. Because of the circumstances, it was difficult for East Germany to conceal. And of course, for both East and West Berliners, it was a shock.

No one believed that they would go that far.

Who would shoot and kill a man swimming to freedom? Were they that desperate to keep the flood of refugees from leaving communist East Germany?

The East German Border Control had to stop them from leaving by any means necessary.

Apparently, the answer was yes.

Writer and Observer: Injustice, History, Family, Love, and Politics. Electrical Engineer. Completing First Historical Fiction Novel.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store