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WOLFGANG HOFFMANN

Wolfgang Hoffmann Wolfgang Hoffmann was born on September 1, 1942 in Berlin. He and his brother Peter, who was five years older, grew up with their mother in Berlin-Johannisthal. Their father, in the soldier in Second World War, was reported missing in 1944.[1] Wolfgang Hoffmann was a trained lathe operator and worked as a toolmaker for the institute for measuring and testing technology at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof.

Like most residents of Johannisthal und Adlershof, the Hoffmann family routinely crossed the sector border and entered the neighboring West Berlin district of Neukölln to go shopping or see a movie. This ended when the Wall was built in the summer of 1961. Soon after that, on August 24, 1961, Wolfgang Hoffmann fled across the barbed wire to West Berlin with a colleague from work. He did not speak to his mother or his brother beforehand about his plans to leave or his reasons for doing so. He may have wanted to avoid having to serve in the National People’s Army because, at that time, young men in the FDJ, the Communist Party youth organization, were under tremendous pressure to enlist.[2] The East German police of Berlin-Treptow investigated him in September 1961 for a “passport offence” which led to an arrest warrant a year later.[3]

Evidently Wolfgang Hoffmann adjusted quickly to life in the West. He was athletic and played soccer for the 1st FC Neukölln team. He wrote letters to his mother about his success. She was saddened to hear that he had broken up with his girlfriend, but in general the family knew little about his new life in West Berlin. Because mail was read by the Stasi it was difficult to convey any private information through letters. Later he was quoted in his interrogation as having said that he had been without a permanent residence or job since the late 1960s. He had moved into a hotel room at the Sportpalast and played his luck at roulette.[4] His relatives in East Berlin knew nothing of this.

He was almost 29 years old and had lived apart from his mother and brother for almost ten years when, on the evening of July 14, 1971, he was overwhelmed by the desire to visit his mother in East Berlin. After the Berlin border pass negotiations between the two German states failed in 1966, there was practically no way for West Berliners to travel to East Berlin. A former refugee risked being arrested even if he was only traveling through East Germany to West Germany.

Wolfgang Hoffmann stood at the control gate of the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing at 10:40 p.m. Although he did not have a visa, he demanded entry; he had probably been drinking.[5] He was sent away but continued to insist that he be allowed to visit his mother. When the border inspector demanded to see his identification, he presented it to him. Not until that moment did he seem to realize the danger that he was putting himself in here as a “fugitive of the republic.” He abruptly tried to leave the checkpoint, but was followed and arrested on platform B, to which only travelers from the West had access. Numerous people watched passively as he was taken away.[6]

It was not long before the East German passport inspectors found out that Wolfgang Hoffmann had been wanted since 1962 for “fleeing the republic.” The man under arrest was transported to Berlin-Treptow and subjected to an interrogation at 2 o’clock in the morning and then locked up in a basement cell. On the morning of July 15, 1971, just past 8 o’clock in the morning, a policeman escorted him to the forensic room on the second floor of the police building.[7] That is where personal data was recorded. He was supposed to wash his hands before his finger prints were taken. He was asked to stand up. Wolfgang Hoffmann suddenly climbed up onto a table, jumped head first out of the closed bay window and fell ten meters down. He suffered a basal skull fracture and a number of broken bones and remained motionless on the ground in front of the police building. He died a short time later on his way to the hospital.

The doctor on duty gave instructions to have Wolfgang Hoffmann’s body delivered immediately to the kidney transplantation center of the Friedrichshain Hospital, where it could be determined whether his kidneys could be removed. But when the doctors realized that he was a West Berliner, they decided against removing his organs.[8]

For the East German police in Treptow the case was clear: Wolfgang Hoffmann had not known that he was on the second floor when he tried to escape. He had probably thought that he could hold on to the tree outside the window. A suicide was deemed out of the question and hence the incident was established as a fatal accident.[9] Peter Hoffmann argued that his brother may very well have known exactly where he was since, as a boy, he had passed by the East German police building for years on his way to school.[10]

The arrest of the West Berliner, and the fact that he had jumped to his death while in East Berlin police custody, was to be kept secret. It was deemed particularly important that it not be leaked to the West. The Four Allied Powers were currently negotiating the Berlin Treaty and the two German states were engaged in a dialogue over a basic treaty and measures to facilitate travel. East German officials feared that the circumstances of his death might disrupt the political climate. The East German secret police arranged to have all information blocked. Everyone involved in the events of July 14 and 15 was sworn to secrecy. This included the staff of the kidney transplant center, the Friedrichshain Hospital morgue, the Johannisthal emergency rescue office, the East German police inspection of Treptow, the Treptow district state prosecutor’s office and the attorney general of Greater Berlin. All these individuals were examined and thereafter their mail was checked.[11] The Stasi neutralized the death certificate that had been issued identifying the place of death as the East German police inspection of Treptow and the cause of death as a “fall from window.” Instead a new death certificate was created that stated the place of death as “Berlin-Mitte (Transport)” and cause of death as a “basal skull fracture.”[12]

The Stasi waited a number of days to see if their measures of secrecy were successful. Wolfgang Hoffmann had claimed during his late night interrogation that he did not have family in West Berlin. He had acquaintances there but no girlfriend or relatives.[13] To the satisfaction of the Stasi, nothing had been leaked to the western press. In West Berlin neither Wolfgang Hoffmann’s disappearance, nor his almost public arrest, not even his death, was made public.

Only then, eight days later, did the Stasi summon Wolfgang Hoffmann’s mother to their headquarters. A “legend” had been created for her about the failed existence of a man who ultimately committed suicide. In truth, his gambling debts had been minimal and the level of alcohol in his blood at the time of his death was zero. The Stasi lied to the mother, telling her that her son had accumulated considerable debt as a consequence of his “deviant moral conduct” and his “passion for gambling” which had “caused a psychological depression”, “leading him to commit suicide […] under the heavy influence of alcohol.”[14] The Stasi’s strategy was to not provide the mother and brother with any details so that at a “later point in time – should they learn the true circumstances of Wolfgang Hoffmann’s death– it would be possible to provide new information without getting tangled in contradictions.”[15]

His mother seemed to accept that her son may have committed suicide under the circumstances presented to her – at least the documents of the East German secret police leave this impression. She was informed of his death while in the offices of the East Berlin general state prosecutor. In a state of shock, she agreed to have her son cremated and buried anonymously. Given the location, she probably thought the Stasi agent was from the state prosecutor’s office. She promised not to speak to anyone about her son’s death[16] after she was perfidiously reminded that otherwise “the people her son owed money to might demand that she pay his debt.”[17] When the conversation was over the Stasi agent handed her the false death certificate.

The mother notified her son Peter, who returned from vacation early.[18] She was intimidated by the threats from the Stasi, and consequently, he only learned from her that his brother was dead and that she had sworn herself to secrecy about it. He was also summoned to speak with the “general state prosecutor.” Peter Hoffmann was brought to an office on the fifth floor of the building on Littenstrasse and told of his brother’s supposed debts, but the Stasi had also thought up an extra lie for him: A man who introduced himself by name informed him that his brother had been found dead in the border territory. He did not provide any details. Peter Hoffmann was in a state of shock when he left the building. The thought that “they shot my brother” kept running through his head as he remained in a trance-like state. Later, when he was able to think clearly again, he had many questions. He returned to the office and asked to speak to the man he had spoken to previously, but was told that no one by that name worked at the general state attorney’s office.

From the very beginning Peter Hoffmann had doubts about the version of his brother’s death that had been presented to him. The lack of information about the cause of death had made him suspicious. His mother died in 1986 and the brother tried as early as 1990 to find out the truth, first from the East German general state prosecutor’s office and then from the Berlin public prosecutor.[19] Peter Hoffmann turned to the district offices of Mitte, Tiergarten and Kreuzberg; he requested information from Charité Hospital, the Central Registry Office in Salzgitter, the association “Working Group 13th of August,” the federal statistics office and the Gauck Authority, responsible for Stasi files. He wrote to the mayor of Treptow and to the minister of internal affairs and the minister of justice. He found it unbelievable that his brother could have disappeared from West Berlin without a trace in 1971 and died under unknown circumstances and that no one in divided Germany or in reunited Germany was interested in looking into the case or felt responsible for it.

He finally learned how his brother allegedly died from the Stasi files and documents of the Berlin state prosecutor’s office. The Berlin public prosecutor ultimately dismissed the case because neither the autopsy records nor the police investigation conducted in the 1990s indicated any legally relevant third party negligence in the death of Wolfgang Hoffmann.[20]

Wolfgang Hoffmann’s body was cremated in 1971 in the Baumschulenweg Crematorium as “secret official business.” His mother and brother were not permitted to identify the body or bid Wolfgang Hoffmann farewell. At the funeral they were presented with an urn supposedly containing his ashes. The East German secret police also interfered with the memorial service on August 20, 1971: They only permitted a small number of guests to attend, and observed them with suspicion at the cemetery.

The Four-Power Treaty on Berlin went into effect in June 1972 and the Berlin Senate and East German government signed an agreement over the facilitation of travel and visitor traffic. East Germany granted an official pardon to all people who had left the country before January 1, 1972.[21]

This amnesty came almost exactly 15 months too late for Wolfgang Hoffmann and his family.

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

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[1] Conversation conducted by Hans-Hermann Hertle with Peter Hoffmann, 29. September 2008.
[2] See “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall eines festgenommenen, zur Zeit in Westberlin aufenthältlichen DDR-Bürgers in der Volkspolizei-Inspektion Berlin-Treptow, 16.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 60–64.
[3] See “Zweiter Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall des Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 20.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 150–154.
[4] “VP-Inspektion Treptow/Abteilung K, Vernehmungsprotokoll des Beschuldigten Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 15.7.1971, Beginn: 2.00 Uhr,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 2, Bl. 46–51. See also “Ermittlungsbericht der VPI Treptow/Dez. II/Komm. TK in der Todesermittlungssache Wolfgang Hoffmann, 15.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 7–8.
[5] See “VP-Inspektion Treptow/Abteilung K, Vernehmungsprotokoll des Beschuldigten Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 15.7.1971, Beginn: 2.00 Uhr,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 2, Bl. 50.
[6] See “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall eines festgenommenen, zur Zeit in Westberlin aufenthältlichen DDR-Bürgers in der Volkspolizei-Inspektion Berlin-Treptow, 16.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 61.
[7] The following description is based solely on East German police and Stasi documents or material witnesses. See “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall eines festgenommenen, zur Zeit in Westberlin aufenthältlichen DDR-Bürgers in der Volkspolizei-Inspektion Berlin-Treptow, 16.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 62. See also “Protokoll der Vernehmung des damaligen Offiziers für Kriminaltechnik der VPI Berlin-Treptow durch die ZERV vom 5.7.1994,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 122/90, Beistück, Bl. 162–175.
[8] See “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall eines festgenommenen, zur Zeit in Westberlin aufenthältlichen DDR-Bürgers in der Volkspolizei-Inspektion Berlin-Treptow, 16.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 60–64.
[9] See “Ermittlungsbericht der VPI Treptow/Dez. II/Komm. TK in der Todesermittlungssache Wolfgang Hoffmann, 15.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 7–8.
[10] Conversation conducted by Hans-Hermann Hertle with Peter Hoffmann, 29. September 2008.
[11] See “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall eines festgenommenen, zur Zeit in Westberlin aufenthältlichen DDR-Bürgers in der Volkspolizei-Inspektion Berlin-Treptow, 16.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 60–64.
[12] Both death certificates are presented in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 92 and 94.
[13] See “VP-Inspektion Treptow/Abteilung K, Vernehmungsprotokoll des Beschuldigten Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 15.7.1971, Beginn: 2.00 Uhr,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 2, Bl. 49.
[14] “Dritte Information zum unnatürlichen Todesfall des Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 23.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 160–163, here Bl. 162.
[15] “Zweiter Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den unnatürlichen Todesfall des Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 20.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 150–154, here Bl. 154.
[16] See the “statement” forced from Wolfgang Hoffmann’s mother by the Stasi, 23.7.1971, in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 2, Bl. 21.
[17] “3. Information zum unnatürlichen Todesfall des Hoffmann, Wolfgang, 23.7.1971,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 1, Bl. 160–163, here Bl. 162.
[18] On the following, see the conversation conducted by Hans-Hermann Hertle with Peter Hoffmann, 29. September 2008.
[19] See “Schreiben des Bruders von Wolfgang Hoffmann an die Staatsanwaltschaft bei dem Landgericht Berlin, 30.7.1991,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 122/90, Bd. 1, Bl. 44–45.
[20] The autopsy findings of the Charité Institute for Forensic Medicine from 16.7.1971 state that “indications of violence by a third party” could not be established (BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 15, Nr. 2, Bl. 25–28, here Bl. 27). See “Verfügung der Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin, 17.9.1991,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 122/90, Bd. 1, Bl. 76–78.
[21] On the agreements, rules and laws resulting from the détente policies of the 1970s, see: Bundesministerium für innerdeutsche Beziehungen (ed.), Zehn Jahre Deutschlandpolitik. Die Entwicklung der Beziehungen zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik 1969-1979. Bericht und Dokumentation, Bonn, 1980.