On this day: Guenter Litfin is killed trying to escape to West Berlin

On this day in 1961: Günter Litfin became the first person to be shot and killed whilst trying to escape to West Berlin following the construction of the Berlin Wall.

As one of around 80,000 Berliners who regularly commuted across the border of the divided city from East to West before the Wall was built, 24-year-old 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 although not without its rewards. Working in the West meant Litfin could count his days in highly desired Deutsche Mark, whilst maintaining a certain level of comfort in East Berlin thanks to a favourable five-to-one exchange rate on the black market.

Having found an apartment in the district of Charlottenburg, Litfin was already in the process of resettling in the West when the Berlin Wall was constructed on August 13th 1961. 

In fact, visiting West Berlin with his brother to furnish his new apartment the previous day, he had returned to the East of the city 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 British, American, and French sectors of West Berlin, 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.

The date he chose for his escape – August 24th 1961 – was two days after the death of Ida Siekmann, considered the first victim of the Berlin Wall.

Litfin first climbed over the western wall of the Charité hospital at around 4pm and headed to the Lehrter station before being spotted by East Berlin transport police, at which point he jumped into the Spree canal at the Humboldt Harbour.

As the guards shouted at him to stop, Litfin continued to attempt his escape, desperately trying to swim to the West.

Günter Litfin - the first victim of the Berlin Wall being pulled from the river Spree
Günter Litfin - the first victim of the Berlin Wall being pulled from the river Spree

Two warning shots were fired before he was sprayed with machine gun fire and fatally hit in the back of the head – sinking into the water only metres away from West Berlin.

Three hours later his body was retrieved by the East Berlin fire brigade, as hundreds of people gathered to watch the spectacle on the western side of the water.

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 simply state that he died suddenly “from a tragic accident”.


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