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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk