Forty-five years after the Berlin Wall was built, researchers still can’t say for sure how many people were killed trying to cross it. So far, 125 deaths have been confirmed, but further cases are being investigated.
Peter Fechter was one of the first people to be killed at the Berlin Wall
In most historical accounts of the Berlin Wall, it's stated that well over 200 people died attempting to cross the concrete and barbed wire barrier into West Germany. But that figure may have to be revised downward, at least until a group of researchers in Berlin wraps up their two-year investigation aimed at a conclusive answer as to how many people lost their lives between 1961 and 1989, and under what circumstances they died.
Taking stock of their progress one year on, researchers from the Berlin Wall Association and the Center for Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) in Potsdam said of the 268 cases of Berlin Wall deaths under investigation, less than half that number -- 125 people -- can conclusively be said to have lost their lives due to the Wall.
The researchers have been able to eliminate 62 cases of suspected Berlin Wall deaths, while 81 suspected cases still await more thorough investigation.
Referring to the 62 eliminated cases, Maria Nooke of the Berlin Wall Association was careful to add that this didn't mean the people weren't still victims of the Wall in some way. In many of the cases, she said, these were people who suffered serious injuries during attempts to flee the GDR, but who ultimately survived.
"It is not our job to lower the number of Berlin Wall victims," said Nooke. "We are not doing this to diminish the brutality of the East German regime. Rather, each individual story contributes to our picture of the brutality of the regime."
Looking for clarity
The stories of the Berlin Wall still fascinate visitors to Berlin
The 125 confirmed victims -- most of whom were young men under the age of 30 -- lost their lives in a variety of different circumstances. Most were East Germans who were killed while attempting to cross the death zone into West Berlin. However, 24 of the victims were East or West Germans who died during incidents at border crossings even though they were not attempting to escape or assist in an escape. Eight incidents where East German border guards were killed while on duty are also included in the 125 cases.
Hans-Hermann Hertle from the ZZF acknowledged the difficulties involved in documenting the deaths.
"The East German state tried to cover up the deaths -- there was no list left behind," he said. "In West Berlin, authorities tried to keep records when they were able to observe an incident, but very often they didn't know the details of what happened."
The result, even years after the fall of the Wall, was a patchy list of both confirmed and suspected cases of killings along the Berlin Wall, filled with mistakes and misinformation.
Hertle said the research project, supported by a federal grant worth 260,000 euros ($334,000), only became fully possible following the conclusion of the homicide trials of high-ranking East German military officials and border guards. The last of these trials, intended to bring to justice those responsible for East Germany's shoot-to-kill border policy, ended in 2005.
State prosecutors then handed over their files to the team of researchers, leaving them to painstakingly examine each individual case, comparing whatever records exist, in addition to contacting family members, friends or colleagues, when possible, to fill in the gaps. In many cases, however, family members could not provide information as they were either told little about the deaths of their loved ones, or fed lies made up by East German officials about the circumstances of the deaths.
A month into construction of the Berlin Wall, a woman climbs out of her apartment building, bordering on the West German side.
The researchers still have a year to complete their project, during which they aim to "reconstruct the individual stories of those who lost their lives at the Berlin Wall, to rescue them, in some cases, from anonymity, and prevent them from being forgotten," said Gabriele Camphausen of the Berlin Wall Association. The victims' stories and photographs will be used to compile a register of the dead, which will become part of the permanent exhibition at the Berlin Wall documentation center located on Berlin's Bernauer Strasse. Camphausen added that public interest and support for the work of the research cooperative is growing again. Immediately after reunification, there was intense interest in clarifying Berlin Wall deaths, though this waned in the course of the 1990s despite the ongoing presence of the border guard trials in the headlines. She said that now people feel that enough time has passed and they've gained enough distance from the regime that they are once again interested in finding questions to the unanswered questions of the past.