Gunter Litfin: Berlin Wall Casualty and Cold War Hero

Gunter Litfin
Günter Litfin (19 January 1937 – 24 August 1961) was a Cold War hero and the first casualty of the Berlin Wall when he was shot by a guard while attempting to leave East Berlin. He later succumbed to his gunshot wounds and became the first person to be shot while attempting to escape across the Berlin Wall.

Litfin was a tailor by trade and was not supportive of the East German government’s mission to “establish socialism.” In fact, the young tailor’s entire family shared similar political allegiances. Namely, Litfin was a member of the subversive local branch of the West German Christian Democrats. The young artisan had lived a divided life in Berlin. He was one of the city’s 50,000 Grenzgänger (border jumpers), who were known for taking maximum advantage of each side’s (West and East Berlin) benefits. As such, he worked his day job in West Berlin where he earned its currency, Westmark, which he exchanged on the black market at a five-to-one rate for East German currency (Ostmark).

Litfin, who was 24-years-old at the time of his death, worked near West Berlin’s Zoo Station, where he had established himself as a tailor to the stars of the Cold War elite. While living his double life, the young man plotted his escape from East Berlin. He had found and furnished a new home in West Berlin, which was located near his workplace. The young artisan planned and dreamed of his newfound liberation, which was close at hand.

However, the border closure overnight on Aug. 13, 1961, dramatically altered numerous lives in the city of more than 3 million Berliners. Barbed wire fences appeared out of nowhere and individuals, such as Litfin, were compelled to take drastic measures. As families and loved ones were separated from each other, people like Litfin were separated from their dreams and livelihoods. While some Cold War captives would quietly accept the new restrictions imposed, others felt they had no other choice but to flee for their freedom.

Driven by his desire to live on his own terms and disillusionment that the Americans would not intercede, Litfin attempted an escape in broad daylight via swimming a small harbor in the River Spree, which bridges West and East Berlin. Alas, the young tailor was discovered by Trapo (transit police) in the water and ultimately shot dead. On August 24, Litfin became the first victim of shots fired at the border between East and West Berlin after the Berlin Wall was erected on August 13.

The reactions to Litfin’s death were varied and conflicting due to muddled as well as misleading reports from West and East Berlin news agencies. While West Berlin news outlets portrayed his death as a Cold War travesty, sources in East Berlin deemed the young tailor as a “criminal.” Moreover, Litfin’s family was not only kept in the dark about his fate for several days following his death, but also interrogated and harassed by authorities in the aftermath.

In recognition of Litfin and other victims who sacrificed their lives to escape the Berlin Wall, a memorial was established in honor of their efforts in 1992. This memorial was established in honor of all those individuals who were killed or injured during the Cold War construction of the Berlin Wall. Moreover, a street in Günter Litfin’s home district of Weißensee was named in his honor and one of the crosses at the White Crosses memorial site, which is located next to the Reichstag building, is also devoted to Litfin’s memory.

By Leigh Haugh

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GLV–Leigh Haugh

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