The Hidden Watchtower

Marcel Krueger meets the man who turned a GDR watchtower into a memorial for his murdered brother…

„Gegen Verräter und Grenzverletzer ist die Schußwaffe anzuwenden. Es sind solche Maßnahmen zu treffen, daß Verbrecher in der 100-m-Sperrzone gestellt werden können. Beobachtungs- und Schußfeld ist in der Sperrzone zu schaffen.“

“Firearms are to be used against traitors and those attempting to violate the border. Measures should be taken with the aim of halting the criminal inside the 100-metre restricted area. Fields of observation and fire are to be created within the restricted area.”

-Erich Honecker, 1961

Image by Kai Müller

It’s 9.30 am on a Saturday and too early. Berlin rain has turned to sleet overnight, and walking past the Erika Hess ice rink on Chausseetrasse I wonder if the ungodly hour will have any influence on the interview I’m going to conduct.

At a bus-stop on Scharnhorststrasse I meet my friend Kai, who’s here to help out with a few pictures. We shake hands, agree that Kai’s hangover is worse than mine and walk around the corner.

There’s a small grey concrete tower standing at the end of the cul-de-sac of Kieler Strasse, encircled by apartment buildings on three sides and facing the slushy water of the Berlin-Spandau ship canal. A man with grey hair and wearing a blue outdoor jacket is waiting in front of the tower.

“Herr Litfin?”

Günther Litfin was not the first to lose his life trying to cross the Berlin wall. But he was the first who fell vicitim to the ‘Schiessbefehl’, the standing order that instructed border patrols of the GDR to prevent crossing by all means, including deadly force.

Swimming across the Berlin-Spandau shipping canal at the Humboldthafen on August 24, 1961, just 11 days after the border had been closed and the wall went up, he was shot by GDR border guards stationed on a nearby bridge. The image of his limp body being pulled from the Humboldthafen has become one of the iconic images of the Berlin Wall and its dead.

The day Günther was shot, two Stasi-men arrested his brother Jürgen. “They put me into a cell and left me there overnight without telling me anything. When I returned home the next day, it was a mess. The Stasi had searched our home looking for details about potential accomplices.” They did not, however, tell the family what happened to Günther.

“I heard about it from West TV, two days later!’ Jürgen snorts, taking a pull of his cigarette. We have entered the cold interior of the tower, walked up two flights of metal stairs and are now standing on the top floor. There are windows on all four sides, which allowed the guards stationed within to scan the border in all directions. Other parts of the interior have been adorned with pictures of the Wall, black and white images of Potsdamer Platz, Bernauerstrasse, Humboldthafen.

Image by Kai Müller

The GDR officials also tried to prevent Jürgen Litfin from seeing his deceased brother one last time.

“I went to the forensic offices, but they would not allow me to have a look at my brother and told me the coffin was already sealed. I thought they were hiding the bad state of my brother after they’d shot him up with their machine guns.

“So before he was laid to rest, I managed to sneak in the church and opened the seal, while a couple of friends were standing outside and keeping watch. He only had a band-aid on his chin, covering the spot were the bullet had exited, so it had been a clear shot to the head.”

Since the day of Günther’s death, Jürgen has devoted his life to keeping the memory of his brother alive, and to revealing the inhuman machinations of the GDR regime. He was again arrested in 1980, and expelled from the GDR together with his wife the same year.

He kept on fighting to restore his brother’s name: Chancellor Willy Brandt dedicated a commemorative plaque to Günther in 1961 which was lost during the reunification (“I found it near Checkpoint Charlie, under some bulky waste.”). Jürgen was also there when a street in Weissensee (where the family had lived) was named after Günther in 2000. In 2003, Mayor Wowereit told Jürgen about an abandoned GDR watchtower near the Humboldthafen.

“Wowie helped me a lot in getting things rolling and acquiring all the necessary permissions. And now the tower is a listed building. Like me, it’s not going anywhere soon,” he chuckles. New apartment buildings have been erected around the tower, but so far Berlin gentrification has not threatened this actual piece of the city’s divided history. “Most of the buildings here were built by a Bavarian construction company, and they promised to gift the 100 square meters of land the tower stands to me. Still waiting for the documents, though.”

Jürgen renovated the tower during his spare time – the steps of the metal stairs to the main entrance had been used in local allotments to make chicken coops, and he had to go and find every single one. The beds of the former guard detail were still stored in the basement of the tower, together with a border sign in four languages, and the dysfunctional spotlight still sits at the top, its blind eye turned toward the grey sky.

“There were 12 men stationed here and they worked in shifts; four on alarm duty, ready to leave the tower the very moment the alarm sounded, four on standby on the upper floor and four sleeping.

“And they all came from further afield in the GDR. They did not station any Berliners here out of fear that we would have not shot our friends and neighbours.’

Jürgen Litfin still reserves a particular abhorrence of the regime and its minions. He shows me a manila folder with copied newspaper articles and points to a picture of a bronze-coloured border patrol medal.

“This is the Medaille für vorbildlichen Grenzdienst, the medal for extraordinary border duty. All those murderers at the wall got one of these after they killed somebody, together with 500 Ostmarks and a new posting to their hometowns.”

Jürgen is also strongly opposed to ‘Ostalgie’, the nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany, which has soared in recent years. “Everyone in charge of the DDR…they were all bastards. And I don’t think you can view or understand the GDR without looking at who ran it. And especially young people seem not to understand all those connections. Let me put it this way: there are two schools in Australia, one in Perth and one in Brisbane, which send classes of children here every year. Some Berlin schools do not even know that my tower exists, or even actively prevent pupils from coming here.”

The tower has become one of the main stops on most guided tours following the wall, and is open to visitors from March to October. Jürgen Litfin prefers it if bigger groups phone ahead as there is not really space for more than twenty visitors at once.

As we leave the tower, a group of khaki-coloured Trabis with military stickers and the hammer-and-compass of the GDR flag rattles into the cul-de-sac and noisily drives in circles in front of the tower, seemingly one of the wall-tours.

“Look at them!” Jürgen snorts. “I won’t let them in the tower. Their cars all carry the markings of the GDR and Russian military, and they’ve just slapped them on for fun. They have no idea what the Russians really did.”

We thank Jürgen Litfin and go searching for a place that sells coffee. Walking down towards the tourist sights of Mitte, I realise that the almost secluded location of the museum is an important part of its effect; the decrepit watchtower that has now become something of a fortress of knowledge and memory, hidden from view by the very city it guarded in the past.

Click here to see more photos from the Watchtower

Gedenkstätte Günther Litfin e.V.

Kieler Straße 2, 10115 Berlin

T: 030 23 62 61 83

Open: March – October, 11.30 am – 4 pm

Admission: free

About The Photographer

Kai Müller is a German photographer based in Berlin. He likes music, travel, taking pictures and most humans. For the last thirteen years Kai has been successfully doing stuff with and for the internet; webdesign, writing, photography, consultancy. He has now decided to fully focus on photography, which is a good thing.  

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