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GERALD THIEM

Gerald Thiem
Gerald Thiem, born on September 6, 1928 in Berlin, lived with his wife and two daughters in Britz, West Berlin. The professional pipe layer worked as a foreman for a building company.

August 7, 1970 was a Friday. His wife was not concerned when he did not come home after work that afternoon. She knew that he liked to have a drink on payday, but when it got late she began to worry. He had promised to take his daughters on a steamboat on Saturday. At this point she did not know that her husband would remain missing for the rest of her life.

Gerald Thiem had had a lot to drink that evening as he walked on the east side near the Wall between Neukölln and Treptow.[1] It is not known why he was there, but it is documented that he insulted the border soldiers at 11:15 p.m. and proceeded to climb over the old and then the new Wall barrier in a rather complicated area of the border. He continued in the direction of East Berlin. When a border soldier called out to him with the intention of arresting him, he fled beneath a railway underpass which brought him right into the shine of the border lights and range of fire of two other guards who immediately began shooting. In the end six border guards fired a total of 177 bullets at Gerald Thiem from different positions until he collapsed into the anti-vehicle trench.[2]

The border guards retrieved him from the grounds and brought him to the rear border area at about 11:35 p.m. He was taken in an ambulance to the People’s Police Hospital in Berlin-Mitte [3] but by the time he arrived there, shortly past midnight, he had already died from shots into and through his chest.[4]

The most zealous of the guards were awarded the “Border Troop Medal of Merit” the following day. Although Gerald Thiem could easily have been arrested without the use of weapons, all the border guards involved were given gifts as a bonus.[5] In mid-1998 two of the guards were tried as youths for joint manslaughter by the Berlin district court and sentenced to a year and three months in prison. The sentence was commuted to probation.[6]

The East German secret police was able to identify the dead man from papers he had on him. Officials in the East decided to conceal his death since no one on the west side had made a connection between his sudden absence and the shooting at the Wall. The Communist Party leadership feared that the shooting of Gerald Thiem might jeopardize the détente diplomacy that it was hoping would bring international recognition to the state. Just a few days later, on August 12, 1970, the Moscow Treaty was to going to be signed by the Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet Union, normalizing relations and strengthening the renunciation of force. A Stasi file note written on August 10, 1970 on the “Thiem corpse issue” stated: “After examining all the circumstances it has been decided that the corpse should be treated as an unidentified body and the case closed. It has been directed that all measures be taken to keep this secret.”[7] The East German secret police had a death certificate issued that listed “Berlin-Mitte” as the place of death.[8]

Under strict secrecy and Stasi surveillance, Gerald Thiem was cremated in the Baumschulenweg Crematorium as the “unknown dead man,” register number 353105. His ashes, identified as Number 15, were dispersed in the grove of ashes at the neighboring cemetery on September 22, 1970.[9] Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy and monitored thereafter by the East German secret police.[10]

At the same time the search for Gerald Thiem continued in West Berlin where the shots from August 7, 1970 had also been heard. The bullets that hit West Berlin territory were examined by the criminal investigation department. The American city commander protested the use of weapons at the Wall.[11] But the West Berlin police had no reason to connect the shots that had been fired that night with the missing persons’ report filed by Gerald Thiem’s wife. Over the following weeks and months his wife extended the search for her husband to include East Berlin as well, but all attempts to learn anything about what had happened to him from the East German authorities were in vain. The East German attorney general only provided the information that “her husband Gerald Thiem was not within the national territory of the German Democratic Republic.”[12]

The search remained unsuccessful and upon the request of his wife, Gerald Thiem was officially declared dead on June 10, 1981. His death date was set as December 31, 1975.[13]

It was not until the West Berlin criminal investigation department stumbled upon the case within the files of the East German border troops and Stasi that Gerald Thiem’s daughters learned in the fall of 1994 the truth about their missing father.[14] His wife Charlotte Thiem had already passed away by then.

[Martin Ahrends/Udo Baron/Hans-Hermann Hertle]

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[1] On the establishment of facts concerning circumstances of events see: “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 16.6.1998,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 190/94, Bd. 4, n. pag. (pp. 9–11).
[2] See “Bericht des MfS/HA I/Grenzkommando Berlin/Abwehr/UA 1. Grenzbrigade, 8.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr. 1, Bl. 3–5.
[3] See “Bericht der NVA/Grenzregiment 35/Der Kommandeur zum verhinderten Grenzdurchbruch Bewegungsrichtung Westberlin – DDR am 7.8.1970 im Abschnitt des GR-35, 8.8.1970,” in: BArch, VA-07/8378, Bl. 52–56.
[4] See “Obduktionsgutachten des Instituts für Gerichtliche Medizin der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 8.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr.1, Bl. 27–40, here Bl. 40.
[5] “Bericht der NVA/Grenzregiment 35/Der Kommandeur zum verhinderten Grenzdurchbruch Bewegungsrichtung Westberlin – DDR am 7.8.1970 im Abschnitt des GR-35, 8.8.1970,” in: BArch, VA-07/8378, Bl. 52–56.
[6] See “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 16.6.1998,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 190/94, Bd. 4, n. pag. (pp. 1–19).
[7] See “Aktenvermerk [der VfS Gross-Berlin]/Abt. IX, 10.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr.1, Bl. 55.
[8] See “Totenschein („Familienname: unbekannt“), 8.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr. 1, Bl. 20; see also “Sterbeurkunde („ein unbekannter Mann, etwa 50 Jahre alt“), 11.8.1970,” in: Ibid., Bl. 22.
[9] See “Aktenvermerk [der VfS Gross-Berlin]/Abt. IX, 22.9.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr.1, Bl. 156.
[10] “Aktenvermerk [der VfS Gross-Berlin]/Abt. IX, 12.8.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr. 1, Bl. 58.
[11] See Der Abend, 8.8.1970; Berliner Morgenpost, 9.,10. und 11.8.1970; Die Welt, 10. and 11.8.1970.
[12] See “Schreiben des DDR-Generalstaatsanwalts an die Ehefrau von Gerald Thiem, 13.11.1970,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 1, Nr. 1, Bl. 214.
[13] See “Beschluss des Amtsgerichts Neukölln, 10.6.1981,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 190/94, Bd. 1, Bl. 158.
[14] See Berliner Morgenpost, 8.10.1994; Der Tagesspiegel, 8.10.1994; Berliner Zeitung, 8.10.1994; Die Tageszeitung, 8.10.1994; Bild-Zeitung, 8.10.1994; Berliner Kurier, 8.10.1994.