Detlef Girrmann: Lawyer who helped hundreds of students escape from East Germany

Detlef Girrmann helped over 500 people to escape from East Berlin after the Wall went up in August 1961. He and his colleagues used everything from false passes, borrowed IDs and tunnels. The Stasi declared him public enemy No 1.

Detlef Girrmann was born in Breslau and brought up in Magdeburg und Halle, which, with the war's end in May 1945 became part of the Soviet Zone of Germany. Girrmann joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED), formed in 1946 by the forced merger of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) with the Communist Party (KPD). He soon became disillusioned and gave up his membership in 1948. Like some others he made contact with the West German SPD's Ostbüro which attempted to maintain contact with its comrades in the Soviet Zone. In 1950 Girrmann fled to West Berlin. He studied law at the Freie Universität [Free University] in West Berlin. With the support of the US it was founded by students and scholars in December 1948 as a response to the persecution of students critical of the system at the Humboldt Universität in the Soviet sector. At that time thousands of East Berliners crossed daily to work, study and shop. Students from the Soviet Sector were assisted with travel money by the Free University. Girrmann worked as a kind of welfare officer handing out grants and giving advice.

On the night of 12-13 August 1961, East German units sealed off the Soviet Sector, preventing those studying or working in the West from going about their business. It is surprising that this had not happened earlier, for example at the time of the popular rising in East Germany in June 1953.

Nine days after the Soviet Sector was sealed off the first death occurred. Ida Siekmann died from her injuries as she jumped from the window of her flat, in East Berlin, into the street below, inWest Berlin on Bernauer Straße. Two days later a transport policeman, Günter Litfin, was shot. Five days later, Roland Hoff was shot attempting to escape. Estimates put the number of victims at between 150 and 250 up to November 1989. Others died of heart attacks at the official checkpoints.

Detlef Girrmann, together with a law student, Dieter Thieme, and theology student, Bodo Köhler, decided to help students trapped in the East, and in August 1961 they formed a student escape assistance group; they did not take these risks for financial gain. News of their help was passed round and demand grew. Friends and family members of those helped asked for assistance. To begin with their method was to use false IDs including passports. They obtained genuine blank identity cards from German officials and blank passports from foreign diplomats sympathetic to their cause; at one point they had collected 300 passports. They favoured the small states like Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands as the SED rulers were not as hostile to them, and passports from the Western powers, US, Britain and France, could embarrass those states if exposed.

One notable example of their success was the case of Elisabeth Schmidt. She made a successful escape in February 1962. Armed with a Swiss passport, she boarded the Nordland Express in East Berlin and hours later arrived in Copenhagen without difficulty. Schmidt was the girlfriend of the writer Uwe Johnson, who had left the GDR before the Wall went up. They married later that month.

Later, Girrmann and his friends were forced to employ a wide variety of escape methods using the sewage system, transit routes, ferries to Scandinavia, secret compartments in converted vehicles as well as official border crossings. Other students offered their skills. Inevitably, the GDR's state security service, Stasi, was ordered to infiltrate this and other groups and the work became ever more dangerous. The SED predictably mounted a propaganda campaign against them and Girrmann was declared public enemy No 1 and denounced as a CIA agent. After many successes, and tragic failures, Girrmann gave up this dangerous work in 1964.

David Childs

Detlef Girrmann, lawyer and welfareofficer: born Breslau, Germany 18 May 1928; died Berlin 11 April 2011.