The Power of Remembrance

October 9, 2008 Updated: October 12, 2008
Vestiges of the former border tower and wall at Hoetensleben remain in the original condition, preserved as monuments (Thilo Gehrke)
Vestiges of the former border tower and wall at Hoetensleben remain in the original condition, preserved as monuments (Thilo Gehrke)

Before the reunification of East and West Germany, in the years between 1950 and 1990, about one-third of the East German population were routinely monitored, arrested, detained and tortured by the East German secret police [Stasi] in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The Stasi was responsible for domestic and foreign surveillance and espionage, working through more than 200,000 informers. Children were pitted against parents, family members against each other and friends against friends. During the process of German reunification, the Stasi was disbanded.

In 1991, the German government passed the Stasi Records Law, which enabled East and West Germans as well as foreigners who had been subjected to Stasi surveillance to view the files left behind by Stasi personnel. They could also verify the names of agents and informers who had spied on them.

The sensational findings – the so-called “Shoot to Kill” documents from the Stasi archives, were obtained by the Federal Commission for the Records of the State Security Services of the former GDR on October 1, 1973, when the documentation process was already ten years old (see the Birthler Office2).

Former veteran Stasi cadres, during heated discussions, denied the existence of the “Shoot to Kill” documents, as did Egon Krenz, the final head of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, post-communism attorneys and Lothar Bisky, leader of the PDS/Let Party (also formerly known as the Party of Democratic Socialism), which was a leftist-oriented party.

They claimed that from 1961 to the fall of the Berlin Wall no “Shoot to Kill” GDR mandate for border patrol guards existed at the border that divided the two Germanys.

Marienborn has been preserved as a memorial landmark of the divided German border era (Thilo Gehrke)
Marienborn has been preserved as a memorial landmark of the divided German border era (Thilo Gehrke)
“Such a directive would have been contrary to GDR law,” was the unanimous response by the former GDR officials. Dr. Hubertus Knabe, the head of the Stasi-Knast Memorial in Berlin-Hohenchoenhausen, has persistently defended the position that such a directive existed. He stated, “It was common knowledge that GDR border patrol guards would shoot at those trying to escape from the communist block. Whoever denies this is like the Neo-Nazis, who maintain that there never was a directive by Hitler that espoused the annihilation of the Jewish people.”

From the Stronghold of the Cold War to the Commemoration Site

Today, almost all evidence of the divided German border has been destroyed. The period after the fall of the Berlin Wall was intended to be one of upheaval and wiping the slate clean. Landmarks of the previous German border division that remain somehow intact are the former highway checkpoint Marienborn at Helmstedt, and the former checkpoint in the small town, Hoetensleben in Saxony-Anhalt (one of the sixteen German federal states), just a few kilometers from Marienborn.

The border checkpoint Marienborn was open between 1972 and 1974. There were more than 1,000 people assigned to the checkpoint: it was the most significant crossing point at the border that divided the two Germanys. Even at night, this demarcation line was lit up to simulate daylight.

Most West German travelers on their way from the West to East Berlin or other places in the eastern region experienced anxiety and fear while passing through this soulless place. It was a grueling experience to endure the erratic and taunting behavior of the border patrols.

Marienborn, the largest border checkpoint between the former German Democratic Republic and non-communist Germany (Thilo Gehrke)
Marienborn, the largest border checkpoint between the former German Democratic Republic and non-communist Germany (Thilo Gehrke)
The border patrol was under the auspices of the GDR State Security, who viewed West Germans as the “Enemy of the People.” Here the travelers, their vehicles and the goods they transported had to pass through real X-Ray equipment. No one escaped scrutiny and nothing was sacred — the border patrol even opened coffins.

All the official buildings in this region were built much larger than necessary to intimidate travelers. They referred to this strategy as “Psychology in Operation.” Escape attempts by GDR citizens were nearly impossible. Deep into the communist backcountry, surveillance systems were installed, as well as mine fields and areas where weapons  would fire automatically. Only after the two Germanys were unified was the true extent of the operations revealed.

The five kilometer wide blockade at the “border to the West” could be entered only with a special identification card. If one managed to reach the border with his automobile, within a matter of seconds the communist personnel would throw up a solid concrete barricade. The intent was for the vehicle to smash into the barricade, killing any occupants and destroying the vehicle. Over 34 million travelers crossed the checkpoint from 1974 up until the German economic collaboration occurred, before the scheduled German reunification date of July 1, 1990.

After years of neglect, the Marienborn and the Hoetensleben checkpoints are being transformed into a place of political education. Visitors to the area can walk around without a guide, but the buildings cannot be viewed without a guide. In Hoetensleben, the entire construction and its systems are in the original form. Those responsible for the area were able to conserve the entire 6.5 hectares, including the wall, watchtower and shooting field. It is very unusual for Europe that the barricade in Hoetensleben was situated directly behind the village’s homes. Near borders it was often the case that the villages were torn down, forcing the locals to relocate.

“Little Berlin” — The Divided Town

Near the town of Hof, the German border division even bisected the small Franconian village, Moedlareuth, with the eastern side in Saxon and the other side in Bavaria. The community became well-known, as the people spoke Saxon on the one side and Bavarian on the other, and the border division was so conspicuous with its wall and watchtowers. Families were torn apart overnight when the wall was built. To hug one’s former neighbors, one had to go through bureaucratic hurdles, driving for hundreds of miles just to reach the other side of the town.

“Fugitives Had to be Killed!”

Author, Thilo Gehrke (Thilo Gehrke)
Author, Thilo Gehrke (Thilo Gehrke)
Clear evidence of the “Shoot to Kill” directive was evident since 1989. During the collapse of the former GDR, Erich Honecker, the last leader of communist Germany, gave the order to cease and desist with the “Shoot to Kill” directive. Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, complained on a recording about this final order. Mielke had equated fugitives from the GDR to “vermin” that had to be killed. Although there was no evidence of genocide in the GDR, the communist state system mocked human rights and systematically deprived others of their right to develop and grow freely.

Many will never forget that communism within Germany brought turmoil, misery, stunted development and bitter recollections to its people over the forty-six years it maintained control, and huge challenges in the seventeen years after the "real existing socialism on German soil."


1. Thilo Gehrke, 41, is a journalist, photographer and freelance writer who lives in Hamburg. He extensively covered the German reunification. His areas of specialization are social economics and security politics. He is a member of the Scientific Forum of International Security for the Steering Committee of the German Federal Armed Forces.

2. Birthler Office: The Birthler Office was created to research Stasi documents. The office was named for the archive commissioner Marianne Birthler. Birthler held jobs in foreign trade, offices of the Evangelical Church and was General speaker of the Green political party in the 1990s. She has held other honorary positions, including on the German UNICEF Committee and the Advisory Board of Transparency International.

The Birthler Office was given the Rosenholz files, which contain information about the former GDR, including the names of agents that operated in Western Germany. The files were turned over to the Birthler Office by the CIA in 2003. The Rosenholz files contain microfilm versions of some 317,000 personal records and 77,000 files of GDR operating procedures.