Homepage > Victims at the Wall > Gueffroy, Chris

Victims at the wall

Back to overview
Chris Gueffroy: born on June 21, 1968, shot dead at the Berlin Wall on Feb. 5, 1989 while trying to escape (photo: Nov./Dec. 1988)
Chris Gueffroy, shot dead at the Berlin Wall: Memorial cross at the West Berlin bank of the Britzer Zweig Canal (MfS photo: 1989)

Chris Gueffroy

born on June 21, 1968
shot dead on February 5, 1989

on the Britzer Zweigkanal, near the garden settlement "Harmonie" and "Sorgenfrei"
on the sector border between Berlin-Treptow and Berlin-Neukölln

Gueffroy, Chris

Chris Gueffroy, born on June 21, 1968 in Pasewalk, moved with his mother to Berlin when he was five years old. [49] When he was in the third grade, athletic scouts noticed his gymnastic talent and sent him to the youth sports school SC Dynamo Berlin. Chris Gueffroy was very hopeful that he would have a successful career as a gymnast. But he also felt increasingly constricted by the state-regimented daily routine. After he finished school he refused to pursue an officer’s career track in the National People’s Army and was consequently denied the right to study at the university. This destroyed his dream of becoming either an actor or a pilot. In September 1985 he began an apprenticeship in the Schönefeld airport restaurant near Berlin after which he worked in a number of different restaurants.

Chris Gueffroy had a better than average income as a waiter and enjoyed a strong degree of freedom, but he encountered the downside of his profession as well. He repeatedly told his mother how disgusted he was by the widespread corruption in the restaurant business. His friend Christian G., whom he had met at gastronomy school, shared his feelings. Chris Gueffroy, age twenty, began to find it increasingly unbearable to think that he would remain locked up with the knowledge that it would always be this way and that he would never have the freedom to decide for himself where he wanted to live. [50] In mid-January 1989, when Chris Gueffroy learned that he was to be conscripted into the National People’s Army in May, he and Christian G. decided to leave East Germany.

The two young men chose not to submit an application for an exit visa to leave East Germany. They feared the harassment at work and in their personal lives that usually accompanied such a move. When they heard from friends that the order to shoot fugitives at the border had been lifted, they became convinced that they should try to flee over the Wall to West Berlin. [51] Chris Gueffroy and Christian G. learned that the Swedish prime minister was going to pay a state visit to East Berlin in early February 1989 and they decided to plan their escape for February 5. They could not imagine that fugitives would be shot at during the official visit and they thought that, were they to be arrested, they would soon be deported to the West. But they had erred tragically on two counts: The order to shoot was still in effect – and the Swedish prime minister had already left East Berlin. [52]

On February 5, 1989 both young men left the apartment they shared at 9 p.m. and approached the border area. They had told their family and friends that they were taking a trip to Prague. [53] At around 10:30 p.m. they reached the small garden colony named "Harmonie" in the East Berlin district of Treptow. They waited for more than an hour in a tool shed and observed the border territory, waiting for an advantageous moment to flee. At around 11:30 p.m. they approached the border fortifications in front of the Britzer Zweigkanal, a canal that forms the border to the West Berlin district of Neukölln. [54] They had brought two self-made kedge anchors with them to help them get across the security grounds. The two athletic men were able to help each other climb over the three-meter-high interior wall without being noticed. Christian G. climbed up onto the top of the Wall first and helped pull Chris Gueffroy up from there. [55] They left one of the kedge anchors behind. When they crawled through the signal fence they set off an optical and acoustic alarm. As both men ran towards the final obstacle, a three-meter-high stretch metal fence, they came under fire from two border guards. To escape the bullets they ran in the opposite direction along the fence and got caught in the fire of two other guards who were also shooting at them. They tried unsuccessfully to use the second kedge anchor to climb over the last fence, after which the two men tried again to help each other up with their hands. A border soldier about 40 meters away from Chris Gueffroy crouched down and fired single shots at the young man’s feet. He hit them, but the injured man, in a state of shock, showed no reaction, so the gunman aimed higher. Chris Gueffroy was standing with his back to the fence when he was hit in the heart. He collapsed and died within minutes from his injuries. [56]

Christian G., injured, was arrested and sentenced in May 1989 to three years in prison for "a severe case of illegally attempting to cross the border." . [57]The West German government paid ransom to the Eastern authorities to have him released to the West in mid-October 1989. [58]

Many residents in the East and West heard the shots fired that night in the border territory. A West Berlin witness reported to the police that he heard at least ten shots and saw two men being carried away, one completely motionless. [59] West Berlin newspapers reported the next day on the failed escape attempt. [60]

Chris Gueffroy’s mother had also heard the shots. Two days later she paid a visit to one of his friends and learned that her son had been planning to escape and that the shots fired the night before may have been directed at him. That very evening she was picked up by the East German secret police to "clarify circumstances." During the hours of interrogation she learned that her son was dead. The Stasi agents told her that Chris Gueffroy had been seriously injured during an attack on an East German "military security zone" and had died "despite the immediate medical care" that he had been given. [61]

Although the East German authorities did everything in their power to keep the death of Chris Gueffroy a secret, his brother managed to send the eastern paper "Berliner Zeitung" an obituary that was printed on February 21, 1989, making reference to a "tragic accident" that had occurred on February 6. The western media made the connection between the deceased and the shots fired at the border. [62]

Chris Gueffroy was buried on February 23, 1989 at the Baumschulenweg Cemetery in Berlin-Treptow amidst tremendous public sympathy. Well over 100 people paid him the last honors under the watchful eye of the East German secret police. Although the East German secret police imposed massive control measures, [63] a few western correspondents managed to enter East Germany in order to attend the funeral and report on it. [64] That same day a memorial cross in honor of Chris Gueffroy was erected on the West Berlin side of the Teltow Canal in Neukölln. [65] Opposition groups in East Germany publicized the murder of Chris Gueffroy in an "open letter to the population of East Germany." That fact that his murder was still referred to as a "tragic accident" during the funeral sermon was described as a shameful demonstration of just how steeped in lies East Germany was. [66]

After the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Karin Gueffroy left no stone unturned in her search for information about the death of her son. On January 12, 1990 she pressed charges against "persons unknown" with the East German general state prosecutor. [67] After German re-unification the Central Investigating Agency for Governmental and Party Crimes took over the investigation. The Berlin public prosecutor opened the case amidst great public interest on May 27, 1991. Four former East German border guards stood trial for the shooting of Chris Gueffroy. It was the first of many trials against guards who had shot at fugitives at the Berlin Wall and their commanders. The Berlin district court came to its verdict on January 20, 1992: The gunman was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. [68] The other defendants were either given suspended sentences or were acquitted. The court justified the long sentence for the one gunman, Ingo H., with the explanation that he had "revealed a very high degree of callousness and abjection." [69]

The Federal Court of Justice overturned the verdict on March 14, 1994 and referred the case to another chamber of the Berlin district court to be retried. [70] It criticized the Berlin district court for not paying enough consideration to the fact that the gunman stood at the very bottom of the military hierarchy and, unlike the people in positions of responsibility who had yet to be held accountable for their actions, the guards "were to a certain degree also victims of the border regime." [71] The outcome of this case created a precedent for later verdicts. Almost all the subsequent trials followed the court decision to exonerate the gunmen. Ingo H. was the only defendant in this case to be sentenced to a two year prison term by the Berlin district court in a subsequent trial, a sentence that was commuted to probation. His guard leader was acquitted due to "insufficient evidence of intention to kill."

The shooting of Chris Gueffroy threatened to politically isolate the Communist Party leadership in the spring of 1989. There was no end to the protests and diplomatic measures directed against the order to shoot fugitives at the Wall. On April 3, 1989 the Communist Party general secretary Erich Honecker revoked the order to shoot fugitives at the Wall – the existence of which had always been denied. [72] The shots fired at Chris Gueffroy and Christian G. were the last fatal bullets fired at the Berlin Wall.

A memorial column commemorating Chris Gueffroy was erected at Britzer Zweigkanal in Berlin-Treptow in 2003 in honor of his 35th birthday. Britzer Allee between Treptow and Neukölln was renamed Chris-Gueffroy-Allee on August 13, 2010.

Udo Baron/Hans-Hermann Hertle

Top of page