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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
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: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee