On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.
While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.
The Life – and Death – of the Times
This pleasant, overcast spring Sunday found a young Canadian, George Hynna, out exploring the edges of his temporary home of West Berlin. At the time, Hynna was a 24-year old student of modern languages at the University of Toronto, but the 1961-62 academic year found him in Germany where he was carrying out a study abroad year. Originally planning to study in the lovely, if sleepy, Black Forest town of Freiburg, Hynna relocated to Berlin in April 1962 after a week long trip to the city in February 1962. He’d become intrigued by the energy present in the city so “hankering for big city life”, Hynna and another student friend hatched plans to return. He recalls, “We wanted to go back to Berlin to get closer to what seemed to be the real life of the times.”
Reflecting upon the city he found upon his arrival in a recent chat, Hynna remembers, “There was always a feeling of tension, no one was really sure where things were going . . . but no one was in any panic that I recall. The attempted escapes from East Berlin continued, from Bernauer Strasse and elsewhere, and the papers carried stories of people trying to cross and being shot or getting through, so the atmosphere was tense and there was excitement.”
Tense is certainly the right way to described the atmosphere in Berlin on Sunday, May 27th. Emotions were running very high on both sides of the Wall in large part because of several recent incidents. In the first, which took place the previous Wednesday, May 23rd. a 15-year old East German boy swam to safety via the Spandau shipping canal near the Invalidenstrasse. During the boy’s escape, however, he was seriously injured by bullets fired from the East German side, while an East German border guard was killed by a bullet shot by a West Berlin police officer providing covering fire for the escapee (See Chronik der Mauer, accessed on Feb. 23, 2016 – http://www.chronik-der-mauer.de/en/victims/180606/goering-peter). On Saturday, May 26th, a bomb attack on the Wall at Bernauer Strasse ripped a large hole in a section at Schwedter Strasse further setting people on edge and causing West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt to issue a call for calm.
These events had registered with Hynna, but undaunted, he set out to the sectoral border, heading first to Bernauer Strasse, by then the site of many previous escape attempts, not to mention the bomb attack the previous day. He remembers:
I went for a walk starting at Bernauer Strasse and walked along the West Berlin side of the Wall where it became a canal that marked the dividing line
[Spandau shipping canal – ed.]. On the eastern bank there was a barbed wire fence. So I walked along it and it was a sort of industrial district with a freight
yard along that stretch. There were piles of coal sitting there along the bank.
At one point I was coming up and there was this bupp, bupp, bupp, bupp, bupp and I said to myself, ‘That’s machine gun fire.’. So I continued on and
quickly came across some policemen, West Berlin policemen, peeking out from behind the piles of coal. The firing had stopped, but they were still very
vigilant, looking to see what was going on over there.
I came upon the scene and it turned out that a young fellow had tried to escape. Right on the other bank was a hospital, some university clinics and what not.
Close to the canal there was a long, low building like a carriage house or something like that and apparently this fellow had been on the roof of that. He left his
coat there and it was still there. He had gone for the canal but he was shot before he got to the fence. And the body laid there for at least an hour. I stayed
Eventually an armoured car came around and picked up the body. I guess they were on the east side as much afraid of the West Berlin police opening fire as
anything else because a week before, and this was all over the papers, a 16 year old boy had swum across the canal, was badly shot up by the Vopos [ed. – slang for
East German People’s Police], but he got to the other side because the West German police opened covering fire. So that was a very intense spot as it turned out.
For George Hynna, the experience has coloured his memories of his time in Berlin. “It was an exciting place to be at that moment, but [the violence at the Wall] was a dreary aspect of the time.”
The Historical Record
Since German unification, there have been considerable efforts made to remember the victims of Germany’s division, in particular those who lost their lives at the Berlin Wall or inner-German border. One of the most impressive such efforts is the Chronicle of the Wall website which tells the history of the Wall and provides detailed documentation of the cases of individuals who attempted to cross.
Thanks to the Chronicle of the Wall, we know that the victim that May Sunday in 1962 was one Lutz Haberlandt, a 24-year old and native Berliner who resided with his parents in the East Berlin’s central Prenzlauer Berg district. On the day in question, he had been drinking at a local bar with a friend at midday after which he made his way, likely drunk, onto the grounds of the Charité hospital which skirted the border area. Once there, Haberlandt climbed onto the roof of an outbuilding where he removed his jacket and shoes and relaxed. During this time, Haberlandt was under observation by both East German transit police guarding a nearby train bridge (see photo above) and border guards in a nearby watch tower.
After a time, Haberlandt suddenly leapt down from the roof and scaled the wall marking the hospital grounds. Once over it, he was in the patrol strip adjacent to the canal, but had clear a second, barbed-wire fence in order to get into the water. Before he could, a warning shot sounded from the watch tower. When Haberlandt didn’t stop his progress, further shots were fired, one of which hit him in the head. Halberlandt fell to the ground, likely dead, where he remained for approximately 40 minutes until border guards removed the body.
A motive for the escape was never identified. Haberlandt’s Stasi file labelled him “uninterested in politics” and recorded that his parents claimed to have known nothing of any plan to leave.
In 1996, the GDR border guard, who had fired the lethal shot was convicted of the shooting. Taking into account his young age at the time of the incident, the court gave former-border guard K. a sentence of one and a half years probation.
(Chronik der Mauer – accessed on Feb. 23, 2016 – http://www.chronik-der-mauer.de/en/victims/180497/haberlandt-lutz)