Wall hero is now on trial in Berlin

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IN THE simplistic mythology of the Cold War, East German border guards were the villains and those battling against them heroes. But yesterday this world was turned upside down when one such hero found himself in the dock for the murder of a guard shot in cold blood 36 years ago.

Rudolf Muller, a baker who in 1962 had brought his family to the West through a tunnel he dug under the wall, is believed to be the first West German to stand trial for a crime which until now was considered legitimate. It is another twist in this moral maze in which hundreds of East Germans have been convicted for carrying out orders to shoot refugees, whilst the Politburo members issuing those orders have mostly wriggled out of jail.

Mr Muller's case is all the more glaring because it illustrates how Cold Warriors on both sides of the barbed wire manipulated people and events to suit their propaganda purposes. Mr Muller was allowed to dig his tunnel from the West Berlin basement of the rabidly anti-communist newspaper publishers Axel-Springer Verlag. Then, upon his triumphant return to West Berlin, the authorities adjusted the story of his escape, blaming the death of a 20-year-old East German private, named Reinhold Huhn, on a fellow guard.

According to the statement he gave to West Berlin police after his escape, Mr Muller crossed to the East on 18 June 1962 to bring his family to the building near Checkpoint Charlie where his tunnel led. They were stopped by the guard, who was armed with a machine gun. While the soldier was searching his bag, Mr Muller claims to have knocked him down. Another border guard then allegedly opened fire, hitting his colleague accidentally.

The East German version was quite different. They claimed Mr Muller reached into his breast pocket pretending to be fumbling for documents, pulled out a gun and shot the guard at point-blank range without warning.

Pte Huhn was proclaimed a true-grit Communist hero, a street was named after him, and a plaque erected. Mr Muller, meanwhile, was feted by the West for his daring raid.

Now, nine years after the fall of the wall, Berlin prosecutors believe the enemy might have had a point. Witnesses have come forward describing the event as a simple case of shoot-and-run, with Mr Muller, now 67, cast as the man who fired the fatal bullet. In the light of the new investigation, Mr Muller's first press conference in the West, before the final, radically different, version, is construed as a confession. Asked by reporters how many times he had pulled the trigger, he had replied: "Once. The man fell down immediately."

The trial is expected to continue until late February.