The Cold War's Forgotten Victims Avenging East Germans Killed in Bulgaria

They are the forgotten victims of the Berlin Wall. The East Germans who were killed attempting to flee through Bulgaria. At least 18 were shot by border guards, mowed down with as few scruples as those murdered along the death strip that was Germany's inner border.

By and

It starts with the smell, the cloying odor of decay, growing behind the brown steel doors, its dull impact becoming more penetrating in the semidarkness. Finally, the next steel door reveals the source of the smell, the bodies of three men, shockingly naked, ready to be autopsied. The walls and floor of the basement room, the size of a large kitchen, are tiled. This is Sofia, and this is the old autopsy chamber at the city's Military Medical Academy. The room is still in use today.

He was lying in this room, on one of these tables: 19-year-old Michael Weber, 1.70 meters (5' 6") tall, a muscular young man with a normal build and little body fat. Weber's body was brought in discreetly through an access tunnel and removed just as inconspicuously. His parents came to Sofia to see their son one last time, before the body was incinerated and the remains flown back to Leipzig via Berlin. According to the report filed by Bulgaria's notorious State Security Agency on July 14, 1989, both parents behaved "very reasonably." They gazed at their dead son. They were shown the body from the side that had remained relatively recognizable.

What they couldn't see is detailed in the autopsy report, prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Slatko Nikolov Kolev, the head of the forensic medicine division of the Bulgarian People's Army. The Webers' son was killed by a bullet fired at close range, perhaps 1.5 to 2 meters (5 to 7 feet). It crashed through the left side of his face, his neck and his chest, before coming to rest in the back, just below the right armpit. It shattered his cheekbone, upper jaw and two cervical vertebrae, crushed his spinal cord and ripped apart his chest aorta and his right lung. Michael Weber bled to death in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains in southern Bulgaria, 150 meters (492 feet) from the Greek border. The autopsy report states that he died quickly.

Weber died as one of the last fugitives from the communist German Democratic Republic. He died, and other than informing his parents, his death was to be kept a secret. His death remained unavenged.

Like several thousand fellow East Germans, Weber had believed that it would be easier to get across the Bulgarian border than the border between East and West Germany. Most of those who chose the Bulgarian route failed. The attempted escape left perhaps two dozen of them dead.

It is a forgotten, brutal chapter in German and European history, a chapter that now-unified Germany and especially post-Soviet Bulgaria is having trouble processing. It is a subject for which files, documents and records are required -- and people who are interested in these files.

"The law now states: Open the files. But the reality…" Yekaterina Bonsheva, a member of a government panel established to process Bulgarian secret police records, stands in front of a wall of labeled boxes in a wing of the National Opera building in Sofia, at No.1 Wrabcha Street, and sighs.

Stefan Appelius, 45, a German political scientist and expert on fugitives and Bulgaria, has come to this office to look at files. Bonsheva informs Appelius that he'll need consent forms from the victims' relatives, signed, notarized, translated into Bulgarian and notarized again. It's the law, she says.

The law she is referring to is relatively new. It was enacted on Dec. 19, 2006, just in time for Bulgaria's accession to the European Union. It was intended as a show of good faith.

Bonsheva, as dedicated as she is talkative, leads the way through the cramped space on Wrabcha Street. It consists of two-and-and-a-half walls stacked high with file boxes, and a reading room for six, but no more than eight people. She says: "We have 20 kilometers (12 miles) of files. In other words, we don't have them here." Most of the records are still kept where they have always been: in the archives of the Defense Ministry, the intelligence service and the military.

Bonsheva rolls her eyes and says: "You are looking for files? Tell me, how many cases do you have? 18? We don't even have that many. Do you think we could take a look at your files?"

Appelius has documented 18 deaths so far, the deaths of Germans killed at the Bulgarian border. He has already accumulated far more material on the cases than Bonsheva can offer. He is permitted to review one of her two boxes on the killings. They contain information about four cases, with which Appelius is already is familiar. There is nothing, for example, on Michael Weber, whose body was laid out on a metal table in front of Lieutenant Colonel Kolev in July 1989, in the autopsy room of the Military Medical Academy.

Dr. Kolev is a soft-spoken man, not very tall, hunched over and polite. The head of the military's forensic medicine division until a year ago and now an independent consultant, he gave up his military rank years ago. When he meets us in a café in downtown Sofia, he is cautious and hesitant at first, but after some reflection he agrees to talk about his memories.

Yes, he says, the clinic did receive inquiries from Germany, and there were rumors that parents had traveled to Sofia. He hadn't met them. Meeting the family of those whose autopsy he performs isn't such a good idea for a medical examiner. He should not see the corpse as the human being he or she once was, otherwise it would be difficult for him to do his work as a medical examiner. He always tried to remove external influences from his work, says Dr. Kolev.

"I try to be objective," he says, smiling quietly.

He does concede that several bodies of East German citizens were brought to the military forensic medicine division. Several bullets were found in most of the bodies. The dead were usually male and young. Dr. Kolev says that he has performed autopsies on 10,000, perhaps even 12,000 corpses in his life. He can no longer recall how many of them were German.

In the vernacular of the secret police, these East Germans were known as "border violators" or "barricade busters," and their attempts to flee were defined as "assaults on the national border of the People's Republic of Bulgaria." The reasoning was that they had to be stopped because, after all, they posed a "high risk to society" -- just as those seeking to cross the inner German border were officially seen as a threat.

The real threat to East Germany was that it was bleeding out and losing its workers. About 2.6 million people left East Germany 1949 and the construction of the Berlin Wall on Aug. 13, 1961. After that, most fugitives tried to escape through other socialist countries. Between 1961 and 1988, an estimated 7,000-8,000 East Germans successfully fled through Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The "Iron Curtain," as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the line of demarcation between East and West during the Cold War, was not as well protected everywhere as it was along the East German border.

But most would-be escapees were caught and flown back to East Germany. According to records of the GDR's former Ministry of State Security (MfS), more commonly known as the Stasi, 14,737 fugitives whose escape attempts had failed in other Soviet bloc countries were returned to East Germany between 1963 and 1988.


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