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FRIEDHELM EHRLICH

Friedhelm Ehrlich, born on July 11, 1950 in Nägelstedt in Thuringia, grew up with his parents in Gräfentonna as an only child. He trained to become a machinist and was drafted into the National People’s Army in May 1969. In early August 1970 he was serving the last weeks of his duty in the Glienicke/Nordbahn border company of the Schildow border regiment.[1] A report written by the secret police after his death stated that Friedhelm Ehrlich’s duty supervisor regarded the young man as showing “satisfactory work,” but that there had also been signs of a “lack of military discipline.”[2] His “unstable conduct in basic ideological issues” was regarded as a consequence of the fact that he read “western literature, glorified beat groups” and listened to “enemy radio stations.”[3]

Friedhelm Ehrlich was close to his parents and wrote to them regularly. They even received a letter from him on the day he died. Later his parents reported to the Berlin state prosecutor that their son did not really like being a soldier, but nothing had suggested that he was planning to flee, not even his last letter.[4]

Friedhelm Ehrlich was scheduled for time off in Schildow on a warm summer afternoon on August 2, 1970, but the approval for his leave was delayed: Due to a “minor lack of discipline” he was assigned to “barrack cleaning” although it was not his turn.[5] Later that evening, when he met up with other members of his unit at a bar, he was noticeably revved up. He began bar hopping with his barrack comrade, who had completed the cleaning chores with him. Since they were both up for release from the military soon they no longer took the official rules very seriously; perhaps they were eager to avenge the humiliation to which they had been subjected.[6]

On the way home Friedhelm Ehrlich suddenly ran off, leaving his comrade, who assumed that his friend was in a hurry to get back to the barracks.[7] In truth, however, Friedhelm Ehrlich had entered the border grounds at around 10:15 that night. But he did not behave like a fugitive. The drunken 20-year-old broke the wooden slats of the interior fence[8] and whistled loudly as he moved towards the guard road. Border guards heard him and ordered him to stop.[9] He obeyed the second time they called out to him, was arrested and led back away from the border. He was forced to lie face down on the street. Two other guards who had been notified arrived on motorcycle and took over. The fugitive was flinging around insults common among NVA members (“you badger, you red ass”), but which were usually reserved for the new arrivals in the barracks when they were initiated by soldiers about to be released.

The two guards stood about five meters away with locked guns and kept an eye on the man lying face-down on his stomach on the unlit street. It was so dark that Private T. repeatedly asked his sergeant if he could shine the light on the man.[10] At this point Ehrlich is said to have suddenly sat up and threatened: “Go on, go ahead and shoot, or I will shoot,” and stretched his hand out to a hip pocket. The Stasi report stated: “This gesture from Ehrlich and his excited comment” led Private T. “to conclude that the border violator had a weapon and was about to use it on him.”[11] The private released the safety on his gun and fired a shot at the man on the ground. He hit the man’s thigh and the main artery of his left leg. The sergeant examined the injured man, determined that he did not have a weapon on him and took his papers from him. He did not, apparently, administer any first aid. The ambulance arrived 20 minutes later. Friedhelm Ehrlich was brought to the People’s Police Hospital where he died a short time later. He had bled to death.[12]

The Stasi’s presentation of the facts leaves a few questions unanswered: How was Private T. able to see what Private Ehrlich was doing when he was lying on the ground in the dark? Should he not have known that a private could not possibly take a weapon with him when he had time off from the barracks? Why was no first aid administered to the injured man? The extensive bleeding that ultimately led to his death could have been stopped immediately with a bandage. If Ehrlich, who was soon to be released from his duty, had intended to flee, would it not have made more sense for him to have done so when he was stationed at the border?

Neither the letters to his parents nor conversations with his army comrades gave any indication that Friedhelm Ehrlich was planning an escape. In retrospect, his relatives and friends agreed that it was not likely that he would have attempted to escape when he only had three months left of his military service. They suspected that the 20-year-old had merely wanted to provoke the border guards or that he had perhaps lost his way. The barracks were located only 100 meters away from the border.[13]

A military state prosecutor informed Friedhelm Ehrlich’s parents of his death on August 3, 1970 and handed them the death certificate and his personal documents. The next evening two men appeared claiming to be members of the NVA. They gave the parents information concerning the delivery of the dead body, as well as an advance payment of 250 marks for the burial costs that the NVA would cover. Although the official version was that an “attempted desertion had been thwarted,” the parents’ apartment, where the son had also lived, was not searched and the parents were not interrogated as was usually done in such cases. This unusually gentle treatment puzzled the parents. Over the following years they tried to find out the circumstances of their son’s death but all they were told was that the case was closed. This did not satisfy them.

In late 1990 the public prosecutor’s office in Berlin filed charges and demanded that the circumstances of the death be investigated.[14] The investigation that followed was dismissed in mid-June 1994 because the court accepted the defense’s claim that the man who had pulled the trigger, former Private T. - who also happened to be an informant for the East German secret police - had mistakenly acted in self-defense. The public prosecutor was of the opinion that although, objectively speaking, Friedhelm Ehrlich had not posed a physical threat to Private T., this had not been clear to the soldier at the time.[15]

West Berlin residents had been aware of the events that took place that night. At the time of the shooting, border guards of the border regiment in Schildow were confronted with cries of “You are all murderers, we see everything.”[16]

Friedhelm Ehrlich’s comrades were asked by their supervisors to provide a statement justifying the shooting. What really happened and why was not known but they nevertheless fiercely condemned his supposed “betrayal,” explaining that it was only possible because he “had succumbed to the enemy ideology. He had broken his voluntary oath […] and had thus received the punishment he deserved.”[17]

The body of Friedhelm Ehrlich was transferred from Berlin to Gräfentonna on August 6, 1970. A few days later his parents were able to see their son’s body in the cemetery mortuary.[18] It had been prepared so that no external injuries were visible.

[Martin Ahrends/Udo Baron]

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[1] See “Bericht des MfS/HA IX/6, 4.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 5024, Bl. 674–675.
[2] Ibid., Bl. 675.
[3] Ibid.
[4] See “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung der Eltern von Friedhelm Ehrlich durch die Eisenacher Polizei, 11.8.1992,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 97–98.
[5] Ibid.
[6] See “Bericht des MfS/HA IX/6, 4.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 5024, Bl. 675.
[7] See “Bericht des MfS/HA IX/6, 4.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 5024, Bl. 675–676; “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung von L. M., eines Kameraden von Friedhelm Ehrlich, durch die Berliner Polizei, 18.8.1992,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 106–108.
[8] See “Bericht des MfS/HA IX/6, 4.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 5024, Bl. 677.
[9] See “Protokoll des Militärstaatsanwaltes Berlin-Treptow über die informatorische Befragung des Soldaten D., 3.8.1970,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 25.
[10] See “Bericht des MfS/HA IX/6, 4.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 5024, Bl. 677–678.
[11] Ibid., Bl. 678.
[12] Ibid., Bl. 679.
[13] See “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung von L. M., eines Kameraden von Friedhelm Ehrlich, durch die Berliner Polizei, 18.8.1992,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 110–111; “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung der Eltern von Friedhelm Ehrlich durch die Eisenacher Polizei, 11.8.1992,” in: Ibid., Bl. 98–100.
[14] See “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung der Eltern von Friedhelm Ehrlich durch die Eisenacher Polizei, 11.8.1992,” in: Ibid., Bl. 99–101.
[15] See “Verfügung der Staatsanwaltschaft bei dem Kammergericht Berlin, 23.6.1994,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 261–267.
[16] “Meldung der NVA/Stadtkommandant Poppe an SED-Politbüromitglied Erich Honecker, 3.8.1970,” in: BArch, VA-07/8374, Bl. 140–142, here Bl. 141.
[17] “Stellungnahme des Kollektivs des 2. Zuges [der NVA/Grenzregiment 38/2. Kompanie] zur versuchten Fahnenflucht des ehemaligen Gefreiten Ehrlich, o. D.,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 37.
[18] See “Protokoll der Zeugenbefragung der Eltern von Friedhelm Ehrlich durch die Eisenacher Polizei, 11.8.1992,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 249/90, Bl. 100–101.