Once they were heroes--lowly soldiers decorated for a job well done. Then the world changed. Now the pale young men sag in their seats in a packed courtroom, accused of manslaughter for performing what they considered their duty on a night shift at the Berlin Wall.
Set against the Oct. 3 anniversary of German unification, the trial of four former East German border guards has become a gripping morality play, raising complicated questions whose answers may decide the course of justice in a tortured nation: Can the people of one country be judged by the laws of another? Can a soldier be punished for following orders, while the officers who issued them, the politicians who supported them and the leaders who conceived them remain free?
“The whole thing is a genuine tragedy,” said Rainer Hildebrandt, director of Working Group Aug. 13, which monitored human rights abuses by Communist East Germany.
More than 300 similar cases are now under investigation in Berlin alone, according to the Justice Ministry, and even more could come to trial if other state courts decide to file charges for deaths along the inner-German frontier. The former Communist leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, fled to Moscow after criminal charges were lodged against him here for issuing the shoot-to-kill orders against would-be escapees.
“This trial will set the precedent,” said Johannes Eisenberg, the attorney defending former guard Mike Schmidt, 26, who admits ordering a lower-ranking soldier to shoot two men during a daring escape attempt just nine months before the Berlin Wall fell.
“If they are guilty,” Eisenberg said, “then you must also prosecute all the judges, prosecutors, prison wardens and police who deprived East Germans of their liberty and human rights.
“If these four are acquitted,” he said, “then they will have trouble prosecuting any of the others, even Honecker. This is a show trial. They were only obeying the existing laws of East Germany and carrying out the orders they had to fulfill as conscripts.”
The case being heard in Room 700 of Berlin Criminal Court focuses on the cold night of Feb. 5, 1989, when two young East Berlin waiters who dreamed of opening their own restaurant on “the other side” tried to surmount the Berlin Wall. Neither made it. Chris Gueffroy died trying. One of the four former guards sitting now in Room 700 fired a bullet through his heart.
“We left at 9 o’clock that night,” recalled Christian Gaudian, now 22, in testimony Monday. “We worked our way through back gardens and got to the Wall. We waited about two hours there, trying to sense movement or hear patrols on the other side. Around 11 p.m., we began our flight.”
The slight, bespectacled man calmly told the court how he and Gueffroy, his old school friend, used a hook with rope attached to scale the first concrete wall, dropping down into the deadly no-man’s land along the frontier. After snaking through a barbed-wire fence, the two crawled into a ditch on their way to the final metal fence and freedom.
“Then we heard the alarm go off,” Gaudian testified. “We jumped out of the ditch and started running. We heard someone yelling ‘Stop!’ and the first shots immediately followed.”
By then, the two waiters were at the final fence.
Gaudian saw sparks as bullets bombarded the metal barrier.
“Chris cupped his hands so I could climb up on his shoulders and pull myself over the fence, but I couldn’t do it,” Gaudian said. “We were motionless. They kept coming, shooting at us.
“Chris turned around, so his back was to the fence. I was standing 1 1/2 or 2 meters from Chris. Chris was hit. He groaned and fell. I wasn’t sure at that moment if I’d been shot or had just injured my foot. I dropped to my knees. My I.D. was in my pocket. I pulled it out and shoved it through the fence, in the direction of West Berlin.
“I lay there with my feet facing West Berlin and my head facing East Berlin.”
When the guards approached, Gaudian said, he heard one of them curse: “You idiots! Pigs! Why did you do this?”
The two men were led to a car. Before a blanket was thrown over his eyes, Gaudian said, he saw a fifth guard beat his dying friend. “I asked a guard why there was no ambulance, and someone flicked a cigarette in my face,” he testified. Once at the hospital, Gaudian said he was told he would be denied medical treatment for the bullet wound to his foot “and be crippled for the rest of my life” unless he cooperated with interrogators.
Gaudian was sentenced to three years in prison for trying to flee East Germany. He was freed on Oct. 17, 1989, during the anti-Communist revolution. Three weeks later, the Wall that Chris Gueffroy died trying to climb was opened.
The four guards listened to Gaudian’s testimony Monday with their heads bowed, averting the glare of Gueffroy’s mother, Karin. Two guards are 26 years old; two are 27. All have children of their own.
The case is to be decided by a panel of three judges and two jurors. The presiding judge acknowledged Monday, when challenged by the defense, that he was himself an East German emigrant whose brother had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the Communists for trying to flee more than 20 years ago. But the judge, Theodor Seidel, denied that this poses a conflict of interest.
If convicted, the ex-guards face up to 15 years in prison.
The defense attorneys, some of whom acknowledge that part of their fees are being underwritten by German tabloids or magazines, argue that the guards had no choice but to follow orders.
“Everyone forgets that these were not policemen who had a chance to check out the situation and decide what to do,” said defense attorney Henning Spangenberg, whose client, Ingo Heinrich, is suspected of firing the fatal shot. “They were soldiers, part of the army, who must follow orders. It is a sad reality that every country that has an army trains its soldiers to follow orders.”
Hildebrandt is less sympathetic, although he acknowledges that “the ones who did the shooting are not the only ones culpable.”
“This case was a particularly brutal murder, though,” the human rights activist said, disputing the guards’ claims that they all intentionally aimed at the escapees’ feet and fired only when the two ignored orders to halt. “Gueffroy was shot in the front. He had already given himself up,” Hildebrandt said. Gaudian’s testimony corroborated this.
Andreas Kuehnpast admits he sprayed automatic gunfire at the fleeing men that night and said he has tortured himself about it ever since, at times even considering suicide.
“We had our own laws, and we could not know others would one day apply,” he said after Monday’s session, which he spent staring down for hours at his own sad reflection in the polished defense table. “We were soldiers--conscripts--who had to obey orders or face military prison.” he said.
Kuehnpast had, in fact, initially refused to sign the guards’ oath promising to use weapons if necessary to defend the border. “I was assigned to clean toilets and do dishes,” he said, “for 12 hours a day. Everybody called me a kitchen cockroach. After a couple of months, my friends said to just go ahead and sign it, that nothing would happen out there. So I did.”
The four earned three days’ extra vacation, a buffet dinner and $85 bonuses for defending the border that night. They received medals, which they claim they later threw away in disgust.
Kuehnpast rode the streetcar back to the barracks that night with Heinrich. Both men claim that Kuehnpast was visibly shaken and kept asking Heinrich if one of his bullets could have killed Gueffroy.
“Take it easy,” Heinrich replied. “I think it was one of mine.”
Heinrich now maintains he does not know if his bullet pierced Gueffroy’s chest; he said he merely wanted to reassure his distraught comrade.
Thousands of desperate East Germans managed to escape communism by leaping over the Berlin Wall, getting past its checkpoints or even tunneling under it. But during the 28 years that the Wall divided Berlin, at least 80 died trying. In one infamous case, in 1962, Communist East German guards shot 18-year-old Peter Fechter and let him bleed to death where he fell. In November, 1989, as a democratic revolution swept Eastern Europe, the Wall was toppled.