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Günter Wiedenhöft: born on Feb. 14, 1942, drowned in the Berlin border waters on the night of December 5, 1962 while trying to escape (date of photo not known)
Günter Wiedenhöft: Commemorative Column on Lankestrasse at the foot of the bridge across the Teltow Canal towards Klein Glienicke

Günter Wiedenhöft

born on February 14, 1942
drowned on the night of December 5 to 6, 1962

in Griebnitz Lake
on the outer ring between Potsdam-Babelsberg and Berlin-Zehlendorf

Wiedenhöft, Günter

Günter Wiedenhöft was twenty years old when he tried to flee from Potsdam to West Berlin in December of 1962. A few days earlier an East Berlin court had sentenced him to an eight-month prison sentence for "illegally attempting to leave East Germany." He had been arrested in October of the previous year at the inner-city sector border. [29] Before he had to begin his prison term, however, the young man again tried to get through the border fortifications. He died on the night of December 5, 1962 while trying to escape.

Born in Berlin on February 14, 1942, Günter Wiedenhöft spent his first years in a children’s home. His mother retrieved him when he was six years old and he went to live with her and his younger sister in Berlin-Treptow. After eight years of schooling he began an apprenticeship as an electrician and was hired by the company that had trained him. Like so many East Berlin teenagers, before the Wall was built he had spent much of his free time in the western part of the city where friends of his lived. After the border was closed off, he stayed in contact with them through letters. Without knowing it, Günter Wiedenhöft was suspected of espionage when one of his letters was intercepted by the post office surveillance office, but the Stasi investigation was unable to confirm the suspicion. [30]

Günter Wiedenhöft first came into conflict with the East German authorities when he was arrested on October 11, 1962 for exploring the border grounds along the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg. [31] After he was arrested he admitted to wanting to flee, explaining in the interrogation that he was constantly fighting with his mother and that his conscription into the National People’s Army was imminent. He was also quoted in the interrogation protocol as having said: "Before 13.8.61 I was often in West Berlin where I met other people my age and their parents. I am still in contact with various people in West Berlin today. But in all my letters I never spoke about wanting to cross the border. I didn’t tell my mother or my sister about my intentions; even when we had conflicts I never spoke about it." [32]

That Günter Wiedenhöft would have spoken about his true motivations during his police interrogation is highly unlikely: In the precarious situation of an arrest, what was important was that the fugitive get a short sentence and protect others by eliminating the impression that the escape had been planned far in advance or that anyone else knew about it. With this in mind, it makes sense to assume that during the interrogation before the Treptow district court on November 27, Günter Wiedenhöft showed insight and claimed that his actions had been foolish. [33] He was still sentenced to eight months in prison but the East German authorities evidently had no reason to assume that he would try to escape again. They even granted him a few weeks time before he had to go to prison. [34] Günter Wiedenhöft used this remaining time to plan his second escape attempt.

He traveled from Potsdam to Berlin on December 5, 1962 and at dusk approached the embankment of Griebnitz Lake. Half of the water extension to the Havel River belonged to the East German district of Potsdam. The other half was part of the West Berlin outer district of Zehlendorf. Parts of the lake near the embankment had already frozen over that cold winter, but to prevent escapes the East German border troops kept a channel open. Why Günter Wiedenhöft chose to escape through the difficult border waters is not known. Evidence showed that three layers of barbed wire fence that blocked access to the bank had been cut at a number of places. Having reached the embankment, he must have set off on the ice at around midnight. This is when two border guards heard something, first a cough and then later the loud crack of ice breaking. [35] The guards could not see anyone in the dark, but they were certain that it had to be a fugitive. [36] They ordered him to come back, fired a warning shot and after back-up arrived, let off curtain fire parallel to the bank. The search for the fugitive that followed was unsuccessful. There was no trace of him except for the pincers, coat and scarf that he had left behind on the riverbank. [37] After hearing the shots, the West Berlin police also assumed that someone had tried to escape and wanted to offer the fugitive assistance, but West Berlin police and press reports show that they did not find anyone either. [38]

Günter Wiedenhöft must have fallen through the ice on Griebnitz Lake and drowned that December night without being hit by any of the guards’ bullets. When his body was found in the Havel River the following spring it bore no signs of a bullet wound. [39] Border soldiers discovered the body in the water on March 25, 1963 in the so-called "Babelsberger Enge." The papers found on him made it possible to identify the deceased immediately as Günter Wiedenhöft. [40] During investigations the East German authorities also learned that he was the fugitive that had been shot at on the night of December 5 at Griebnitz Lake. [41] When Günter Wiedenhöft’s mother was presented with the scarf and coat left behind on the riverbank, she was able to recognize them as clothes belonging to her missing son. Conflicting sources make it difficult to determine exactly when Günter Wiedenhöft died that night. Since the escape occurred around midnight, the exact date of his death is not certain. Evidence suggests that he died early on December 6, 1962: According to one report of the East German border troops, the wristwatch that was found on the body had stopped ticking at fourteen minutes past midnight. [42]

Christine Brecht

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