Oct 09, 2014
The daily report issued by the East German border police on March 14, 1953, reported that a soldier named Hans-Joachim S., from the town of Ballenstedt, had deserted across the border strip to West Germany at about 7:00 p.m. the previous day, taking his weapon with him. The document says the flight “could not be prevented by the patrol commander using his firearm.”
The East German record makes no mention of whether the escapee reached West German territory injured or not, nor of whether he survived or died of his potential injuries, and for more than four decades, it was unclear what actually occurred at the border that day.
Since August 2012, the Forschungsverbund SED-Staat at Freie Universität Berlin has been investigating what happened to victims of the GDR border regime. In this research project, which is slated to run until the end of 2015, the researchers are studying the life stories of the men, women, and children who died at the border between the two German nations between 1949 and 1989. The goal is to compile a register of the dead containing short biographies of all those proven to have died at the border. The research work is being financed through funding from the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as well as the German states of Hesse, Lower Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt.
So far, the research team has evaluated records and other evidence from official sources in East and West Germany that are stored at the Federal Archives in Berlin, Koblenz, and Freiburg (military archives), at the offices of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic, at various state archives, and at the Police Historical Collection (Polizeihistorische Sammlung) found in the Berlin Police Headquarters. A large number of contemporary witnesses have also been interviewed about incidents at the border between the GDR and the FRG. The overwhelming majority of the deaths investigated involved people under the age of 25, most of them blue-collar workers.
The youngest victim who died at the border that the researchers have found in the archival materials was a six-month-old baby who suffocated in the trunk of a vehicle being used to flee the country in July 1977. The oldest victim was an 80-year-old farmer from the rural Lüchow-Dannenberg district of Lower Saxony, who inadvertently entered a minefield in June 1967. Both of his legs were torn off by landmines. He lingered, dying, for more than three hours, eventually bleeding to death right before the eyes of a GDR regimental doctor, who did not dare to enter the minefield along the border strip.
The research team has researched information on 1,128 probable victims of the East German border regime to date. In all, 998 victims have been identified, with some details of their lives filled in, while 190 of the deaths recorded at the border involved people whose names are unknown so far. Alongside refugees who lost their lives while attempting to cross the border, the archival research has also yielded a considerable number of border patrol soldiers who died after being shot or wounded by mines or committed suicide while serving on the border.
Clarifying the circumstances surrounding suicides and classifying these cases has turned out to be especially difficult, as the investigating officers from the East German national security forces typically listed “personal reasons” as the cause of death in their records. Motivations pointing to military oppression or problems with experiences at the border are downplayed, by contrast, since these kinds of incidents would not fit the image of the “class-conscious and valiant border troops.” In fact, however, witness statements and suicide notes often indicate a connection between the suicides and the victims’ experiences serving on the border.
Witness statements from the investigations conducted by the police and public prosecutors’ offices after 1990, in particular, often correct the official East German records regarding border incidents. These records were drawn up based on the statements of border solders involved in the acts, and were adjusted by members of the East German secret police – the Stasi – to fit the worldview of the East German regime, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Refugees were typically referred to as “traitors to the GDR” and “antisocial elements” that had been seduced by Western propaganda and strayed from the path of real socialism.
Pleasingly, a witness statement also corrected the GDR border police report on the defection in March 1953, when Hans-Joachim S. fled the country, a flight that allegedly “could not be prevented by the patrol commander using his firearm.” Hans-Joachim S. was interviewed as a witness in 1996, in the course of the investigations of unjust acts by the SED regime due to attempted manslaughter against his then-patrol commander Horst P. A retiree living near Hannover at the time, S. stated that he was on patrol with this comrade for the first time in March 1953.
They had talked about the “soldiers on the West German side, with whom we had smoked a cigarette before that,” and he had said that they weren’t criminals after all. He then mentioned that he would actually much rather be on the other side, but didn’t dare to flee, since Horst P. would have to shoot at him because he was the patrol commander. P. answered, “I won’t shoot. Don’t worry, you can just go.” The two of them agreed that P. would let off a shot ten minutes later. Everything went according to plan – although it appeared from the GDR border police’s daily report that the commander had done his duty by aiming and firing at the refugee.
Incidentally, the Ministry for State Security registered the largest number of defections to the West at any time after 1961 shortly before the end of the East German dictatorship. A file on defectors kept by the Stasi lists the names of 342 defectors from the National People’s Army and the border troops during the period from January 1 through September 20, 1989.
The author is a project manager at the Forschungsverbund SED-Staat at Freie Universität Berlin.
Biographies of victims of the GDR border regime on the Internet: www.fu-berlin.de/fsed/Opfer_des_DDR-Grenzregimes
Jochen Staadt, Project Manager, Forschungsverbund SED-Staat, Freie Universität, Tel.: +49 30 838 55562, Email: email@example.com