Berlin paid tribute Thursday to the last person shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Chris Gueffroy died in a hail of bullets as he tried to flee East Germany on the night of Feb. 5-6, 1989. He was the last person to fall victim to the East German policy of shooting people trying to flee across the Berlin Wall -- although more were to die trying to escape from East Germany before the borders were opened on Nov. 9, 1989.
Gueffroy's mother, Karin Gueffroy, lit a candle to her dead son at a service marking the 20th anniversary of her son's death Thursday in Berlin's Chapel of Reconciliation, which is located on the site of the former Berlin Wall "death strip." Gueffroy was just 20 years old when he died.
The young barman, who wanted to avoid his approaching military service, decided to try to escape after hearing from a border guard that the shoot-to-kill order had been revoked. Gueffroy and a friend set out to cross the border in the Treptow district of East Berlin. After getting through the first sets of barriers without any problems, the pair were spotted by guards. Gueffroy was hit by 10 bullets and died shortly afterward. His friend was seriously injured and seized by the guards.
East Germany's ex-leaders always denied they had ordered soldiers to shoot people trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. However, documents which surfaced in 2007 proved without doubt that such an order did exist. "Don't hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children, which traitors have often exploited in the past," reads an order dated Oct. 1, 1973.
There is no universally accepted figure for the number of people who died trying to escape East Germany, either across the Berlin Wall or through the minefields along the 1,380-kilometer (860-mile) border between East and West Germany, as the East German state manipulated records in a bid to cover up the deaths. The August 13 Working Group, a private initiative, puts the death toll at over 1,200.
Gueffroy was not the last person to die trying to flee East Germany. Winfried Freudenberg fell to his death trying to fly over the Berlin Wall in a hot-air balloon on March 8, 1989. Later in the year, several people died trying to escape from East Germany to Poland. East Germany had closed that border after the Solidarity movement came to power in June 1989.
The corpse of the last known victim of the East German regime, Frank M. from Bad Freienwalde, was retrieved from the Oder River on the German-Polish border at the beginning of November 1989, just days before the Berlin Wall fell. This year will feature a series of events in Germany commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.