On this day: Günter Litfin becomes the first person to be shot and killed whilst trying to escape to West Berlin following the construction of the Berlin Wall (August 24th 1961)
As one of thousands of Berliners who regularly commuted across the border of the divided city, Günter Litfin dreamt of becoming a successful clothes designer. After completing his apprenticeship as a tailor in East Berlin he found work in an atelier near Bahnhof Zoo and soon began making a reputation for himself working with some of the most glamorous names in West Berlin showbusiness.
Life as a Grenzgänger (border jumper) was dangerous but not without its rewards. Working in the West meant Litfin could count his days in highly desired Westmark, whilst maintaining a certain level of comfort in East Berlin thanks to a favourable five-to-one exchange rate on the black market for East German Ostmark.
Having found an apartment in the district of Charlottenburg, Litfin was already in the process of making a permanent move to the West when the Berlin Wall was constructed on August 13th 1961. In fact, visiting family in West Berlin the previous day, he had returned to the East of the city with his mother and brother unaware that the border would be sealed only hours later.
After listening closely over the following days to West German radio reports of East Berliners escaping to the West, Litfin eventually decided to flee by following the city’s central train line in a westernly direction from the Friedrichstrasse station to Lehrter station (now Hauptbahnhof), less than 3km away.
Spotted by East Berlin transport police, he jumped into the Spree canal at the Humboldt Harbour and desperately tried to swim to the West.
As the guards shouted at him to stop, Litfin continued swimming. Two warning shots were fired before he was sprayed with machine gun fire and sank into the water only metres away from West Berlin.
His parents would learn of his death from West German radio two days later. Smeared by the East German state police as a homosexual attempting to escape arrest and run away to the West where his deviancy would be welcomed, Litfin’s obituary would simple state that he died suddenly “from a tragic accident”.