Communism's Tragic Twilight The Forgotten Last Victims of East Germany

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Part 2: Imprisoned For Attempting to Flee


But in Bethmann's case, the idealization of West Germany became an obsession. "He believed that roast pigeons would just fly into your mouth over there," says his father. Even as a young boy, Frank became extremely excited when his uncle and aunt came to visit from Hamburg. He was beside himself with joy when they brought along grapefruits and oranges and gave him presents, such as chewing gum, a cap gun and matchbox cars.

Bethmann was 18 the first time he tried to escape. In October 1979, he and a workmate planned to flee to West Germany through Czechoslovakia, but the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, had been tipped off and arrested the two men on a train.

After spending 10 months in prison, Bethmann gained a foothold again, finished his apprenticeship, got a job at the mill and fell in love with and married a woman at work. She already had a child from a previous marriage, and then she had a second child with Bethmann. They were able to move into an apartment in a new building. For a while, Bethmann lived a relatively content life in East Germany.

But the marriage fell apart after he was drafted into the army and sent to Berlin. At the end of May 1989, Bethmann submitted an application for an exit visa. The Stasi ordered that he be placed under surveillance. As an East German police officer concluded, "the relocation request is probably the result of an urge to escape the growing problems in his life."

'Endangered Citizens'

In September 1989, when Stasi officers asked him why he wanted to emigrate, he told them that it was because there wasn't enough freedom of expression in the GDR. He also said that he wanted to be able to travel freely the way people did in West Germany.

He had recently been personally affected by East Germany's travel restrictions, having been denied a visa to travel to Hungary. On Sept. 12, 1989, the politburo of the East German Communist Party, the SED, had decided to no longer grant exit visas to Hungary to "endangered citizens." A day earlier, Hungary had opened its border to Austria for thousands of East German citizens.

When Bethmann saw his father at work on Oct. 3, 1989, he confided in him: "I'm getting out of here." The father remembers that he told his son: "Don't do anything stupid." The son responded: "I want to swim across the border." And the father said: "No, don't do that. If you have to do it, go through Czechoslovakia."

A friend bought him a train ticket to Dresden, but then Bethmann found out that the East German government had just introduced a new visa requirement for Czechoslovakia that day in an effort to stem what had become a mass exodus. From then on, East German citizens needed a passport, at the very least, to travel to all neighboring socialist countries. Instead, Bethmann went to the Oder River.

To this day, the father blames himself for not having convinced his son to not go through with his plans. He has kept a document over the years, an invoice from a funeral home in Berlin for transporting and cremating his son's body: 1,476.25 East German marks, payable into an account with the national bank of the GDR.

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