Berlin Trip Takes Me to the Site of the First Shooting Along the Wall

Jurgen Litfin, brother of Gunter Litfin, the first person shot while trying to cross the border between East and West Berlin after the Wall went up.

Talk about timing.

I spent the last two weeks in Austria and Berlin, in part to do research for my new novel on the Berlin Wall, The Puzzle People (which explains why I have not done a blog for several weeks). Last Wednesday, August 24, I decided to check out one of the few remaining watchtowers, which East German border guards once used to monitor the Berlin Wall and the death strip in front of the Wall. A similar watchtower was going to factor into my new novel, so I trudged along the canal, turned a corner by some high-rise apartments, and found myself staring at a squat watchtower–a former East German command post.

To my disappointment, the watchtower was closed, so I had to settle for some exterior photographs. But a passing tour guide explained to me why the watchtower was closed on this particular day. He said that the man who preserved the watchtower and still maintained the place was Jurgen Litfin, the brother of the first person to be shot attempting to escape after the Berlin Wall went up. This watchtower was a memorial to his brother, Gunter, who had been shot trying to swim across the canal that I had just walked along. What’s more, August 24, the day I showed up, just happened to be the 50th anniversary of the day his brother was murdered by border guards.

On August 24, 1961, only 11 days after the border closed between East and West Berlin, Gunter Litfin tried to swim across the canal, which separated East from West. Frederick Taylor’s book, The Berlin Wall, tells what happened after Litfin entered the water:

“One of the Tropos stumbled after him along the bridge, and fired several shots in the direction of the swimmer, who was soon twenty-five yards or so from the eastern shore and moving fast towards his goal. Then one of the other guards locked his machine-pistol on to automatic and sprayed shots around the young escaper. After he let loose this ‘targeted burst’ (as the Stasi report would call it), Gunter Litfin slumped in the water. A bullet had entered the back of his neck as he swam, emerging through his chin. It was, to all appearances, a deliberate kill-shot.”

I didn’t find Jurgen Litfin at the watchtower on Wednesday because he was honoring his brother’s memory by keeping it closed. However, the next day my wife and I returned to the watchtower where we met Herr Litfin, and he graciously allowed us into the watchtower, where we clambered up three levels.

The watchtower dedicated to the memory of Günter Litfin.

Ever since I started writing The Puzzle People over a year ago, the date the Berlin borders closed–August 13–has been burned into my memory. But until about a month before we left on our trip, it never dawned on me that August 13, 2011, was the 50th anniversary of the Wall; what’s more, I didn’t even realize we would be leaving on our trip only two days after the 50th anniversary. I guess that’s why I am writer and not a mathematician. Adding 50 to 1961 was evidently beyond me.

So it was more Providence than planning that my visit would come so close to the 50th anniversary of the creation of this “surreal cage,” as some called the Berlin Wall.

Talk about timing.

By Doug Peterson

History by the Slice