This year will bring the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the victory of the West in the Cold War, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. This week brings us another related anniversary, of the last person whose life got taken for his desire to live in freedom. Chris Gueffroy died in a hail of gunfire as he attempted to flee across the Berlin Wall:
Berlin paid tribute Thursday to the last person shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Chris Gueffroy died in a hail of bullets as he tried to flee East Germany on the night of Feb. 5-6, 1989. He was the last person to fall victim to the East German policy of shooting people trying to flee across the Berlin Wall — although more were to die trying to escape from East Germany before the borders were opened on Nov. 9, 1989. …
The young barman, who wanted to avoid his approaching military service, decided to try to escape after hearing from a border guard that the shoot-to-kill order had been revoked. Gueffroy and a friend set out to cross the border in the Treptow district of East Berlin. After getting through the first sets of barriers without any problems, the pair were spotted by guards. Gueffroy was hit by 10 bullets and died shortly afterward. His friend was seriously injured and seized by the guards.
East Germany’s ex-leaders always denied they had ordered soldiers to shoot people trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. However, documents which surfaced in 2007 proved without doubt that such an order did exist. “Don’t hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children, which traitors have often exploited in the past,” reads an order dated Oct. 1, 1973.
I had forgotten that it had been twenty years since the Wall got torn down by ecstatic Germans on both sides of Berlin. I can still recall the wonder and the joy of seeing it collapse as the East German puppet government of its Soviet masters finally surrendered to inevitability. Even while we watched it fall, many of us wondered how long it would be before the Stasi showed up or the tanks rolled into the area to reimpose the tattered Iron Curtain. That moment never came, and suddenly the previous 28 years of symbolic and literally division came to an end.
But it didn’t come without a cost. Many managed to escape across the Berlin Wall after its construction began in 1961, the result of a badly-bungled meeting between John Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev, but many died looking for freedom. Gueffroy was the last of an estimated 1,200 unarmed Germans who died in 27 years trying to cross the Berlin Wall, or at least the last who attempted it on land. On March 8, 1989, Winfried Freudenberg died when East German security forces shot down his hot-air balloon over the Wall. Several more would die in 1989 trying to escape the police state of East Germany to the east and to the west, the last just days before the fall of the Wall and the oppression they wanted to escape.
At first, it seems as though fate played a cruel trick on Gueffroy, Freudenberg, and the others who died in 1989, but that’s not the case. Without their bravery setting an example for the world of how brutal the East German and Soviet governments were, the international pressure to destroy the Wall would not have existed. These people gave their lives for freedom, and although they died attempting to find their own freedom, their deaths helped set their families, friends, and countrymen free from a decades-long nightmare. They deserve to be remembered in the celebrations of the defeat of an evil empire this year, and they remind us that freedom always comes at a cost.