Günter Litfin was born in Berlin in 1937. He had a twin brother and three younger brothers. The family had lived in the Wedding district before moving to Weißensee in 1940, which later became part of East Berlin. Günter was very fashion-conscious and dreamed of a career as a theater tailor. He was often mocked because of his elegant appearance. After completing his tailoring apprenticeship in 1957, he worked in a tailor shop near Bahnhof Zoo in West Berlin. He became one of the many people who commuted between the east and west sides of the city. These daily “border crossers” came under increasing pressure in the GDR. To avoid conflict, he rented an apartment in West Berlin, but did not register his new address with the police because he wanted to be able to return home to visit his family. After his father died in May 1961, Litfin postponed the final move so that he could be at his mother’s side. When the Berlin Wall was built on August 13, 1961, his plans for the future were suddenly shattered. Günter Litfin lost his job as a result of the closed border. He began thinking about fleeing to West Berlin.
Escape Plans and Escape Attempt
In the days after the Wall was built, Günter Litfin and his brother Jürgen cycled along the border looking for possible escape routes. There had been many successful escapes in these early days. Some people found an opening in the border and slipped through when no one was looking. To many, including Litfin, it seemed inconceivable that the border guards would use their guns. On August 24, 1961, shortly after 4 p.m., Litfin began his escape: he crossed the grounds of the Charité hospital and reached the banks of the Spree between the Friedrichstrasse and Lehrter stations. When East Berlin policemen spotted him and fired warning shots, Litfin jumped into the basin of the nearby Humboldthafen. The police fired their guns directly at him. Just before he reached the West Berlin bank, he was hit in the back of the head by a fatal bullet. Some 250 people gathered on the West Berlin side and waited there until Günter Litfin’s body was recovered by the East Berlin fire brigade.
Reactions from East and West
Günter Litfin's death sparked outrage in the West, reflected in the news reporting in the days after his escape attempt: The Berliner Zeitung ("BZ") ran the headline “Ulbricht's human hunters have become murderers!” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung condemned the border guards’ “brutal cold-bloodedness.” At Humboldthafen, West Berlin residents protested in spontaneous demonstrations. In 1962, one year after Günter Litfin’s death, a memorial stone was erected at the site.
The reaction in the GDR was quite different. Press reports portrayed Litfin as a criminal and spoke of him disparagingly. Neue Deutschland reported that his death had been caused by drowning but it failed to mention the fatal shots. He was vilified for his alleged homosexuality and for having contact with people in West Berlin. Accusations that Litfin had sexually harassed a nurse before he fled were used against the family. On August 26, the Litfin family learned from West television that their beloved son and brother had died. His family members were interrogated and harassed by the police and forbidden from speaking about the circumstances of his death.
In unified Germany in 1997, the two transport police officers responsible for Günter Litfin’s death were put on trial. The verdict stated: “The accused are guilty of manslaughter.” But both men, including the one who fired the shots, received light sentences that were suspended by the Berlin Regional Court to one year of probation.