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Peter Fechter, the border's first victim, killed in Berlin in 1962Image: AP

Shooting Germans

Andreas Tzortzis
November 11, 2004

Germany ended one of its ugliest chapters when a judge convicted four East German officers for their role in border deaths. But like dozens before them, they received no punishment.


The SM70 was one of the East German border's most effective killing machines -- no one knew that better than those who designed and developed the automatic-fire weapon.

On Tuesday, four former military technicians, between the ages of 63 and 71, were convicted of accessory to murder for their part in developing and maintaining the machine, which had been placed along the East German border. But they received no sentence for the fatal injuries their machines dealt four people trying to cross the border during the 1980s.

Saying that the suspects were not "ice-cold, inhuman" killers like other members of the East German military leadership, the prosecutor in the case called for nothing more than a "symbolic conviction," which the judge granted.

The decision, coming in the same week when Germany celebrates 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, was one victims' organizations have gotten used to. Waning political will and, critics say, a German justice system that is too merciful has meant that most of the 112 trails over deaths at the border between East and West Germany have ended in suspended sentences or no punishment at all.

"The law completely failed in its duty," said Harald Strunz, who heads the umbrella organization responsible for GDR victims. "Only a laughably small percentage of the suspects have been held responsible."

Aggressive prosecution, mild sentences

1.000 Holzkreuzen die neben einem Streifen ehemaliger Berliner Mauer in der Naehe des ehemaligen Checkpoint Charlie stehen in Berlin
One cross for every victim of the border, set up at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin in October 2004Image: AP

The balance since 1991: 128 people of a total of 246 have been convicted for crimes relating to deaths on the East German border. Of that number, 10 were part of the political leadership. Former Defense Minister Heinz Kessler received 7.5 years in prison, the harshest punishment. Egon Krenz, the successor to GDR leader Erich Honecker, received 6.5 years and Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten, the hawkish head of the East German border troops also got a 6.5 year sentence.

Of the rest, around 80 were border soldiers who received suspended sentences or no sentences whatsoever. In 65 cases, judges declared the suspects innocent.

Sentencing laws in Germany that are focused on the suspect rather than the victims' suffering account for the smaller sentences, said Christoph Schaefgen, Berlin's former chief prosecutor responsible for investigating crimes in the former East Germany. Though satisfied with the prosecution record, Schaefgen said he wished for strong sentences.

"That we were able to personalize the injustice and individualize the guilt of the regime was certainly a success," Schaefgen said. On the other hand, he conceded that "the punishment went in favor of the suspects and that we could have done that differently."

After the Wall fell, West German prosecutors were faced with the dilemma of whether they were allowed to charge someone with a crime that wasn't considered one in the country where it was committed. West German lawyers went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which sided with the argument that legislation so contrary to international law should be disregarded.

Border guards suffered, too

The first border guard trial began in 1991, involving four soldiers responsible for killing Chris Gueffroy, 20, the last person to die while fleeing East Germany on Feb. 5, 1989. Two of the four guards were cleared; the other two eventually received suspended sentences. The pattern was to repeat itself over the next 13 years.

Many argued that the political leadership, not the border guards, should have been the focus of the prosecution all along. "Border," a documentary appearing in German movie theaters this week, argues that border guards were forced, on punishment of prison time, to serve. The theory has been questioned by former East German soldiers, who said that guards volunteered for border duty.

"I think the majority of the conscripts put in that situation weren't thinking, only acting, when they shot at border crossers," said Holger Jancke, the film's writer and director, who was himself a border guard. "They will live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their life. In this sense, I think that's enough punishment."

Of the 112 prosecuted, 38 were members of the GDR military leadership.

Doing what one could

"I think we did what was possible," Schaefgen said.

The retired prosecutor said he regretted the decision by a Berlin judge on Tuesday, something he attributed to the 15 years that have passed since the Wall came down. Following reunification, Germany's political leadership was more aggressive about going after and punishing East German government criminals, Schaefgen said. That gradually ebbed with time and a changing political landscape.

"It was also always a political question: How aggressively will we go after this?" he said.

For some victims' families the answer will continue to be: not aggressively enough.

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