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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas