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Günter Litfin: born on Jan. 19, 1937, shot dead in the Berlin border waters on Aug. 24, 1961 while trying to escape (photo: ca. 1960)
Günter Litfin, shot dead in the Berlin border waters: Memorial cross for Günter Litfin at the Reichstag building in Berlin, 2005

Günter Litfin

born on January 19, 1937
shot dead on August 24, 1961

in the Humboldt Harbor near Charité Hospital
at the sector border between Berlin-Mitte and Berlin-Tiergarten
It was just after 4 p.m. when Günter Litfin began his attempt to reach West Berlin by fleeing between the Friedrichstrasse and Lehrter train stations. According to reports from the East Berlin police, he crossed Charité Hospital grounds and climbed over a wall bordering the bank of the Spree River when members of the transport police discovered him.
Günter Litfin, shot dead in the Berlin border waters: First communion (photo: ca. 1947)
Günter Litfin was born in Berlin on January 19, 1937 and lived in the city district of Weissensee. He grew up during the Second World War and later experienced the country’s reconstruction and the gradual division of the city. His father Albert worked as a butcher and in 1945 helped found the local CDU district chapter, which his wife Margarete also joined. The four sons were baptized Catholic and attended the St. Joseph School in Berlin-Weissensee. The family was clearly rooted in a milieu that was not supportive of the East German government and its mission to "establish socialism." [1] The sons continued to maintain this attitude as adults: In 1957 Günter Litfin and his younger brother, Jürgen, joined the West Berlin CDU, which unlike the CDU block party in East Germany, existed illegally in the eastern part of the city. [2]

After completing an apprenticeship as a tailor, Günter Litfin got a job in a West Berlin tailor workshop. He was fashion conscious, dressed elegantly and dreamed of becoming a costume maker for the theater. At first the young man commuted daily from his parents’ apartment in Weissensee to his job near the Bahnhof Zoo. But "border-crossers," as people who worked in the West and lived in the East were called, were under increasing pressure in East Germany. To avoid conflict Günter Litfin found an apartment in the West Berlin district of Charlottenburg, but he did not register his new address with the police because that would have made him a "republic fugitive" - someone who has deserted East Germany - and would have meant that he could no longer visit his relatives in East Berlin. Günter Litfin’s brother later described him "as the calming force in the family and the one everyone could confide in." [3] After his father died in May 1961, Günter strongly felt it was his responsibility to be there for his mother.

Günter Litfin, shot dead in the Berlin border waters: age 14 in photo (photo: 1951)
Consequently, he postponed his permanent move to West Berlin -- until it was too late. The construction of the Berlin Wall suddenly put an end to his plans for the future. Günter Litfin spent August 12, 1961, a Saturday, with his mother and brother visiting relatives on the west side of the city. When they took the S-Bahn back to Weissensee late that evening, they had no idea that measures were being prepared to close the border. The shock was great the next morning when they heard on the radio that the sector border had been completely sealed off during the night. Günter Litfin, unable to accept the existence of the Wall, began looking into possible escape routes.

A large number of successful escapes were undertaken during the first few days after the Wall was built. Many East Berliners found holes or used an unobserved moment to cross the sector border, which was not yet completely guarded. [4] No one could imagine at this point that the border guards would actually aim their weapons at someone fleeing. But on August 24, 1961 the fatal consequences of the newly established border regime were displayed for the first time. It was just after 4 p.m. when Günter Litfin began his attempt to reach West Berlin by fleeing between the Friedrichstrasse and Lehrter train stations. According to reports from the East Berlin police, he crossed Charité Hospital grounds and climbed over a wall bordering the bank of the Spree River when members of the transport police discovered him. [5] From the railroad bridge where they were standing, they ordered the fugitive to freeze and fired a few warning shots. They opened fire when Günter Litfin jumped into the Humboldt Harbor. He was fatally wounded by a bullet in the back of his head just before he reached the West Berlin bank on the other side. East Berlin firemen pulled his body out of the water three hours later.
Meanwhile hundreds of West Berliners had gathered on the west side of the harbor and watched as the dead body was carried away. The press reports over the next few days reflected the outrage that Günter Litfin’s death had triggered in the West. "Ulbricht’s human hunters have become murderers," ran a headline of the "BZ" newspaper. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" also condemned the border guards for their "brutal cold-bloodedness." [6] West Berlin residents expressed their strong resentment through spontaneous protest demonstrations. On the morning of August 27, a banner was hung on the west side of the Humboldt Harbor with an inscription in German: "No matter how berserk Ulbricht becomes, Berlin remains free. And will never go red." [7] A year later a memorial stone to Gunter Litfin was placed at this site.

The reaction in East Berlin was quite different. Under the headline "Shots Disregarded," the East Berlin press presented the fugitive as someone "who was pursued because of his criminal behavior." [8] "Neues Deutschland," the Communist Party’s "central organ," and its head propagandist, Karl Eduard von Schnitzler, showed no compunction in disparaging the deceased by name. Staff members of the Ministry of State Security harassed and intimidated Günter Litfin’s relatives. His brother was unaware of what had happened when he was arrested on August 25 and interrogated the entire night. The same day his mother’s apartment was searched without explanation. Both were left in the dark as to what had happened to Günter Litfin. They first found out that he had been shot and killed at the Wall through an announcement on the West Berlin news program, "Abendschau," that reported the fatality on August 26. [9]

Günter Litfin, shot dead in the Berlin border waters: Street-naming ceremony in Berlin-Weissensee, Aug. 24, 2003
Although the circumstances of his death were generally known from western news reports, the East Berlin authorities demanded that the relatives of the deceased remain silent about the incident. This explains the ambiguous language of the obituary that stated that Günter Litfin had died suddenly and unexpectedly "from a tragic accident." At the funeral, which took place on August 31 at the St. Hedwig Cemetery in Weissensee in the presence of Stasi personnel, the truth could not be revealed. According to Jürgen Litfin, because the majority of the guests knew that his brother’s death was not an "accident," the funeral became a farce. [10]

After the East German state collapsed, legal proceedings were introduced against the two men responsible for shooting him. They had to appear before the Berlin district court in 1997 and take responsibility for their actions. According to the verdict, they were found guilty of joint manslaughter. As with most of the border guard trials against guards who had shot fugitives at the Wall, the sentences handed down were mild: The men were sentenced to one year and one year and six months respectively, and then released on probation. In its closing statement the court commented on "how little all these sentences do justice to the illegal nature of the acts in question and how strongly symbolic they are." [11]

On the initiative of his brother Jürgen, the former border troops command post on the Spandau shipping canal was converted into a memorial and dedicated to the memory of Günter Litfin. The former watchtower became part of the Berlin Wall Foundation in 2017. In 2000, a street was named after Günter Litfin in Weissensee, the Berlin district where he had lived. A memorial was placed on Kapelle-Ufer in Berlin-Mitte, not far from the escape site, to commemorate the first person in Berlin to fall victim to the order to shoot.

Christine Brecht

[1] See Jürgen Litfin, Tod durch fremde Hand. Das erste Maueropfer in Berlin und die Geschichte einer Familie, Husum, 2006. [2] See Günter Buchstab (ed.), Verfolgt und entrechtet. Die Ausschaltung christlicher Demokraten unter sowjetischer Besatzung und SED-Herrschaft 1945-1961, Düsseldorf, 1998. [3] Conversation conducted by Christine Brecht with Jürgen Litfin, 2.6.2006. [4] See Bernd Eisenfeld/Roger Engelmann, 13.8.1961. Mauerbau, Fluchtbewegung und Machtsicherung, Berlin, 2001. [5] See "Rapport Nr. 236 des PdVP Berlin/OS für die Zeit vom 24.8./25.8.1961, 25.8.1961," in: PHS, Bestand PdVP-Rapporte, Bl. 188; "Rapport Nr. 236/61 der Trapo/Abschnitt Berlin/Operativstab für die Zeit vom 24.8.1961, 00.00 Uhr, bis 24.8.1961, 24.00 Uhr, 25.8.1961," in: PHS, Bestand Trapo-Rapporte, Bl. 17; "Bericht der [SED-]Bezirkseinsatzleitung Berlin über den 24. August 1961 an Walter Ulbricht, 25.8.1961," in: BArch, VA-07/39575, Bl. 22–26; "Rapport Nr. 234 der Hauptverwaltung der Deutschen Volkspolizei, 25.8.1961," in: BArch, DO 1/11.0/1351, Bl. 170. [6] BZ, 25.8.1961; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26.8.1961. [7] "Journal der Handlungen des Stabs des PdVP, 27.8.1961," in: LAB, C Rep. 303-26-01, Nr. 239, Bl. 116. [8] Berliner Zeitung, 25.8.1961. [9] See interview by Maria Nooke with Jürgen Litfin, 8.1.2001. [10] See ibid. [11] "Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 17.1.1997," in: StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 141/90, Bd. 3, Bl. 15–29, here Bl. 28.
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