The men who dared scale the treacherous Berlin Wall

A cross of remembrance has the name Chris Gueffroy had written on it in a black-and-white photograph.
A cross to remember the last fallen victim of the Berlin Wall firing order, Chris Gueffroy.

February 5, 1989 recorded the last victim of the GDR’s Berlin Wall firing orders. The victim was a 20 year old. Until now, researchers are still piecing together how many have really died along Germany’s inner border. It has been a quarter of a century since.

The darkness covered the two young men which slipped through a portion of the gardens in East Berlin. The day was February 5, 1989 and a little early before midnight. Their destination was the Britz Canal. The two men were Chris Gueffroy and his friend Christian Gaudian. They were aiming to slip pass safely what was one of the world’s best-protected borders, the Berlin Wall.

Both the men had only recently heard rumors that the firing orders had been quietly lifted for the East German borders troops. Before, anyone who attempted to leave and cross the wall was stopped by force. And they heard from a source that seemed safe with the information coming from a border soldier working in Thüringen, three hours southwest of Berlin.

Daringly, the climbed the wall which measured about three meters or 10 foot Hinterlandmauer, or Hinterland wall. After the wall is a signal fence. It was at the fence when the men men some tragedy. One of them accidentally set off the alarm. Suddenly, the searchlights illuminated the place to hunt down who triggered the alarm.

The men scampered at top speed towards the last object that comes between them and their freedom. But, the fence was nearly three meters high. They desperately tried to help each other go through the whole ordeal. But, it was too late. East German border soldiers saw the two and immediately opened fire.

Apparently, the firing orders were still in effect. Chris Gueffroy died in the volley of fire, one of which claimed his heart. His friend, Christian Gaudian was seriously injured and immediately arrested.

A 20-year-old man looks at the camera in a dated color photograph.
Chris Gueffroy, 20 yeas old, dreamed of travelling. Nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was killed by the GDR border soldiers.

The shots echoed through the night. Karin Gueffroy, Chris’ mother, also heard the commotions. However, she was entirely clueless that it was her own son who had died that night. It was only days later when news reached her.

Chris is recorded as the last victim of the infamous firing orders along the Berlin Wall.

Until today, there is still no exact figure as to how many people dies as an offshoot of the militaristic policy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on border crossing.

Aside from the Berlin Wall, border soldiers also patrol the north and south covering 1,400 kilometer (870 mile) stretch of inner border between East and West Germany. A research project at the Freie Universität Berlin, SED Statt, is now working to shed some light to the public about the fateful event in history.

“We’re currently working on 1,036 cases of named individuals,” researcher Jan Kostka said. “And on top of that, there are another 192 cases of unknown persons.”

The GDR authorities does not seem to have a system of documentation of the people who died at the inner German border. In fact, the deaths were covered up even with its propensity. The Stasi, East Germany’s state security service, forced the surviving families of the victims to be silent about the deaths.

Chris Gueffroy’s family, too, was left in the dark about the true accounts of his death and was informed that he died after attacking a military zone. His mother had nagging questions on her mind having heard of the shots that night. Two weeks later, the family members published an obituary in the “Berliner Zeitung” newspaper. In the short note written in the prescribed language rules, they attributed his death to an “accident”.

That obituary resulted to the swarming of Western reporters to the day of the funeral to question the mystery that surround the death of the young man. The former West Berlin radio broadcaster RIAS reported, “The vague wording of the tragic manner in which Chris forever closed his eyes repeated itself in the speech by the professional speaker this afternoon. More on the official cause of death was not to be heard. At the cemetery, a strong state security presence distributed itself early.”

A sign is placed in front of the large stone Brandenburg Gate.
Caution! You are now leaving West Berlin.

 The death of Gueffroy received such media hype that his case was treated exceptionally. In almost all of the deaths, the family were intimidated into silence and the cover-ups were successful even up to today.

“This is a very small-scale research project, and other records have to be used constantly,” Kostka says. “We analyze the monthly or daily reports from other institutions that were involved in border occurrences to check if there were any fatalities on the border.”

The source of the information is the newest findings made by SED-Statt. The project expands the scope of the research being made by the Berlin Wall Memorial Foundation and the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam.

The record takes into account the deaths which are directly connected to the border regime. This includes the deaths of those who were shot incidentally at the Berlin Wall even without any motives to flee. It also includes the GDR border soldiers who themselves wanted to jump into the other side and were killed. The record, however, does not include those who committed suicide for reasons of being caged in by the East German regime.

Behind the number of deaths at the Berlin Wall are lives of real people with real life stories. Many of them experienced a dramatic change in their lives. Maria Nooke, the deputy director at the Berlin Wall Memorial foundation said, “What’s decisive is what these people experienced. Why did they take such a risk, and what were their motives?”

Chris Gueffroy was only 20 years old when he was killed by the lethal bullets fired by the border soldiers when he tried to scale the wall on February 5, 1989. He was a trained waiter. He was called to begin basic military service in the National People’s Army. He, however, had other plans in mind. He wanted to flee and travel around the world. He did not live to see through his dream. Nine months after his death, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989.

A black-and-white photograph shows a prison compound.

Thousands celebrate the falling of the Berlin Wall in a color photograph with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE