Some 15 years after unification, a Berlin court has given one-year prison sentences to two former East German Politburo members, bringing an end to cases against East German leaders involved in the shoot-to-kill policy.
Once a death zone, now a popular tourist site
Sitting in the dock in the last trial involving former East German Politburo members were ex-regional communist party heads Siegfried Lorenz and Hans-Joachim Böhme. Both men, now in their 70's stood accused of accessory to manslaughter for their involvement in issuing "shoot-to-kill" orders along the Berlin Wall and the former inner-German border.
The judges in the Berlin regional court considered the two officials for the former East German state as "primary" decision-makers in the communist chain of command that ultimately led to three deaths at the Berlin Wall between 1986 and 1989. The court thus handed down one-year suspended prison sentences to both men.
Although Lorenz and Böhme alleged they had never directly ordered or oversaw any shootings at the Wall, they were nonetheless found guilty for failing to prevent or revoke the order to kill illegal border crossers.
Remembering those who died in search of freedom crossing the Berlin Wall -- here on Aug. 13, 2003 -- the 42nd anniversary of the Wall.
The defendants' argument that border shootings were lawful in East Germany at the time and that they were simply following command, failed to persuade the judges. The Nuremberg trials against Nazi leaders after World War II already established the legal precedent to which Germany abides, namely that under international law, those who order or assist in killings cannot be protected by national legislation.
Last in a line of proceedings
The case against Lorenz and Böhme marks the end in a long line of proceedings against former East German officials and their involvement in crimes committed prior to unification in 1990. Looking back on past trials, Marianne Birthler (photo), the head of the state-run agency responsible for analyzing archived Stasi material, said there is a lot to be learned.
"The trials we've witnessed over the past years have been an important contribution towards coming to terms with our own history," said the woman who governs over reams of archives compiled by East German state police.
"It's the travel season now, and thousands of Germans cross the former inner-German border just like that. To think that some 15 years ago this would have been totally impossible for us Easterners," she added. "You must not forget that the Wall was nothing less than a big prison for millions of people over so many years. This alone was a huge crime!"
Partial victory for justice
During the 40-year history of East Germany, close to 1,000 people were shot at the Berlin Wall or along the inner-German border while trying to flee to the West. Legal proceedings against senior East German government members started in 1992, when former head of state Erich Honecker had to stand trial.
Former East German head of state and party leader, Egon Krenz was released from prison on Dec. 18, 2003, after serving just 4 years for involvement in state shootings.
But death or infirmity has caught up with most officials before the courts could bring them to justice. Honecker, for example, died in 1994 while in exile in Chile. And East Germany's last leader, Egon Krenz (photo), was handed down a six and a half year prison sentence for manslaughter, of which he only had to serve four years before being released early in Dec. 2003.
Birthler stressed that a lot has been done to make sure justice was carried out with regard to the wall shootings. "In other areas, the judicial system in unified Germany has failed completely," she lamented, referring to the case of Erich Mielke, the head of the dreaded Stasi secret police.
"He was convicted of killing two policemen during the Weimar Republic. But he didn't have to stand trial because of what he did as the Stasi chief, nor did anyone else because of their involvement with the secret police in a dictatorship," Birthler said.
She noted that no fewer than 250,000 political prisoners suffered under the "very rough" treatment of the Stasi during interrogation and internment.
"It is simply ridiculous, and a slap in the face of those who suffered from Stasi repression," argued Birthler, who herself is from former East Germany. Many of the dreaded former Stasi prison officers have found a new nice in unified Germany as heads of private security firms, she said, regretting that justice had not completely won out.