Revealed: Tragic victims of the Berlin Wall

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The Independent Online

Siegfried Noffke wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his wife and baby daughter. It was the summer of 1962 and less than a year earlier, the 22-year-old had been separated from his family by a momentous, tragic event that took the world by surprise.

On the night of 12 August 1961, armed units of Communist police and militiamen began cordoning off the eastern sectors of Berlin with barbed wire, and started reinforcing the divide with hastily erected breezeblock barriers.

That was the beginning of Berlin's infamous Wall, the concrete and barbed wire Cold War barrier that divided Germany's biggest city for 28 years until its fall in the winter of 1989.

Noffke, an East Berliner, had been visiting relatives in capitalist West Berlin that evening. Like hundreds of others, he returned to a crossing point into East Berlin on the morning of 13 August but found it barred by border police with machine guns. His only chance of contact with his wife and daughter, left in the east, was to wave at them across the barbed-wire divide.

He decided his only chance was to to smuggle his family into the West. He joined a group that had started to dig a tunnel from West Berlin's Sebastianstrasse in the rundown district of Kreuzberg that aimed to break through under the Wall into East Berlin's Heinrich Heine Strasse, a distance of some 200 yards. On the morning of 28 June 1962, the tunnel diggers had almost reached their goal. Less than a yard of earth separated them from a cellar in a house in the East Berlin street. But when Noffke and his team broke through, they were met by East Germany's notorious Stasi secret police.

Noffke, one of the first out, instantly machine-gunned to death. His colleagues were arrested and put on trial for "anti-state provocation". Unbeknown to the tunnel-diggers, Jürgen Henning, a Stasi mole had joined the group early on and had kept the East Berlin authorities fully informed of their activities. Noffke's wife was jailed in East Germany for "anti-Communist conspiracy".

Then came scores of similar acts of murder perpetrated by the former East German authorities at the Berlin Wall. They were formally confirmed this week, 16 years after its collapse, to coincide with the 45th anniversary tomorrow of the Wall's construction.

The findings are the result of extensive research by a German government-backed commission into deaths at the Berlin Wall which has established that at least 125 people were killed trying to cross the barrier that divided the city during the Cold War.

"These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg," said Hans-Hermann Hertle, a director of the commission organised by the Potsdam Centre for Historical Research. "The numbers are certain to rise, given that an estimated 100,000 people were jailed in East Germany for trying to flee to the West."

Dr Hertle said his researchers had combed East German archives and interviewed scores of witnesses during their investigation into 268 suspected Wall deaths. Sixty-two cases were dismissed as hearsay and 81 others are still being investigated. "It is often very difficult to confirm that individuals were killed because the East German authorities often tried to cover up the circumstances because they were a serious embarrassment for the regime," Dr Hertle said.

Statistics on the number of people killed at the Wall vary. Berlin's privately run Checkpoint Charlie museum puts the toll at 238 and estimates more than 1,000 people were killed at the Wall and in the heavily fortified and mined former East-West German border between 1961 and 1989.

But even if the Potsdam commission's tally is conservative, the circumstances of its now officially confirmed Wall deaths make grim reading. In scores of cases, would-be East German escapers were shot dead at point-blank range or left in the no man's land between the Wall's fortifications to bleed to death from wounds inflicted by Kalashnikov assault rifles or machine guns.

Most of those killed were in their early twenties. Twenty-one year-old Christian Buttkus and his fiancée Ilse were typical victims. Both were working as chemists in an East Berlin state-owned company and both wanted to escape to a better life in the West.

On the night of 3 March 1965, a year after their engagement and three years after the construction of the Wall, they drove to the East Berlin suburb of Kleinmachnow and began their attempt to breach the barbed wire and watchtower fortifications on the south western edge of the city.

It was snowing heavily and the pair hoped that by wearing their white chemists' coats they would be able to escape detection by the border guards. They managed to penetrate the first fence with wire-cutters, but when they reached the middle of the barrier, they set off a wire trip-alarm. Christian Buttkus died in a hail of bullets. A total of 199 shots were fired. Ilse suffered a leg wound and was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

The last person to be shot dead at the Wall was Chris Güffroy, a young East Berliner who decided to try his luck at escaping on 5 February 1989, months before the Wall finally fell. He had wrongly assumed the East German regime had suspended its order to shoot would-be escapers on sight.

Yet Chris Güffroy was not the Wall's final victim. Four weeks later, 33-year-old Winfried Freudenberg died fleeing East Berlin in a gas-filled balloon.

Freudenberg's balloon crashed in the West Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf and killed him instantly.