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.”

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

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40 Years Later: Rethinking the Helsinki Accords and Human Rights

US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev
US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev

Forty years ago today, 35 countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Accords – the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, this agreement has been held up as a crucial turning point in the modern history of human rights. Academic and journalistic accounts often cite the Helsinki Accords as a breakthrough moment when communist states in the Eastern Bloc first accepted the principles of human rights. It is, thus hailed as the inspiration for the wave of human rights activism that culminated with the revolutions of 1989. This fatal decision by the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to sign on to an agreement with significant human rights provisions has been explained as an act of hubris, cynicism or some combination thereof. According to these narratives, wily diplomacy on the part of the West pressured the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites to sign its own death warrant by agreeing to respect rights they were obviously violating.

In the broader history of human rights in the Eastern Bloc, however, it becomes harder to draw a straight line of connection from the diplomacy of 1975 to the collapse of European state socialism in 1989/91. First, the Helsinki Accords were not the first instance in which communist states had recognized human rights. Second, while the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords were fiercely argued over, they were not simply imposed by the West on a recalcitrant East. Third, while the agreement provided fodder for dissidents, it was one of many human rights documents cited by activists rather than a singular catalyst for change.

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