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

In October 1989, a group of young men decided they'd had enough of East Germany and would try to escape across the Oder River to Poland. But before long, they had either disappeared or died. A month later, the fall of the Wall would overshadow their tragic deaths.

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On Oct. 16, 1989, an officer with the East German People's Police rang the doorbell of Christa and Kurt Bethmann's apartment in Thale, a town on the edge of the Harz Mountains in what is now central Germany. The officer had come to inform the couple that their 28-year-old son was dead and that his body was at the city hospital of Slubice, the Polish city just across the border from the eastern German city Frankfurt an der Oder.

Christa Bethmann says today: "When your child dies, it's as if he had been ripped from your heart."

A day earlier, a major in an East German border patrol unit had written the following in his log: "The border troops of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were informed by the border units of the People's Republic of Poland that a drowned body was found on the banks of the Oder River near border marker 532, approx. 3,500 meters (11,480 feet) east of Reitwein, Seelow County. It is the body of GDR citizen Bethmann, Frank-André."

Two weeks later, on Oct. 29, a Polish angler discovered the body of Uwe Petras, a metalworker, floating in the Oder near the eastern German city of Eisenhüttenstadt, at border marker 453. The next day, a Polish border guard spotted the drowned body of Dietmar Pommer, a farm laborer, nearby.

Bethmann, Petras and Pommer were the last East German citizens to die while attempting to escape from their country. Ironically, then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had already left the East German communists to their own devices when the three men stepped into the Oder to swim to Poland. With East Germany on the verge of collapse, impatience was their undoing.

Wall Euphoria Overshadowed Deaths

The death of the three men shows that the GDR's border regime was murderous to the bitter end. Their fate was unknown until now, and their names did not appear in any official statistics. In collective German memory, Chris Gueffroy is considered the last casualty along the so-called inner German border. A commemorative tablet marks the spot where East German soldiers shot and killed him at the Berlin Wall in February 1989.

The three men, now presumed to be the last East Germans to die along the border, are not commemorated publicly. Their deaths were overshadowed by the widespread elation over the fall of the Iron Curtain in the summer and autumn of 1989 as well as by the rejoicing of East Germans who managed to escape to the West through the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw or through Hungary.

It was a tragedy that unfolded that October along the Oder River, when Frank Bethmann, a toolmaker from Thale, was convinced that he could no longer take it in this country that was coming apart at the seams. A framed photograph of Bethmann hangs over the dining table in his parents' living room. It depicts a withdrawn and serious-looking young man with large glasses and thinning, dark blonde hair. He is carrying a young boy on his shoulders, his foster son. "I couldn't work for months after hearing about his death," says his mother, a retired teacher.

A police report describes Frank Bethmann as follows: "During the school years, he was actually an inconspicuous, orderly young man with a positive reputation, who had caused no difficulties whatsoever." After graduating from the 10th grade at the local polytechnic high school, he completed an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at the Thale state-owned iron and steel works, the biggest enterprise in the area, where his father had also worked. Bethmann was not a rebel or a hero. He dreamed of the golden West, but that was nothing unusual in East Germany.

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