Rolf Henniger
Rolf Henniger was born on November 30, 1941 in Saalfeld in East Thuringia. After finishing school he trained with the German railway company to become a train driver. He had just gotten married when he received his draft notice to serve in the border troops in November 1967. After completing his training he was assigned as military driver and border guard to a border regiment in Potsdam-Babelsberg. In October 1968, on the 19th anniversary of the East German state, Rolf Henniger was promoted ahead of schedule to the rank of private for “exemplary achievement,” something that was not uncommon on such occasions.[1]

Two weeks before his 27th birthday, on the evening of November 15, 1968, Rolf Henniger was driving his guard leader in a Trabant “Kübel” along the security strip through the border territory of Babelsberg Palace Park. His superior would be the only witness to survive what happened next. Shortly before reaching the command post situated on the bridge that crossed the Teltow Canal into the Klein Glienicke enclave, the guard leader noticed a man in uniform standing behind a tree. He first assumed that he was a local member of the Klein Glienicke East German police force. Since the entire area was border territory, Rolf Henniger received the order to put the vehicle into reverse and to drive back 15 meters. As they were driving backwards, the guard leader called out to the unidentified soldier and asked him who he was.[2]

The man hiding behind the tree was Horst Körner, a 21-year-old constable of the East German police force who was fleeing to West Berlin with a loaded machine pistol. When he saw that he had been seen, Horst Körner opened fire on the army vehicle.[3] He shot automatic fire at the driver through the front windshield at close range. Hit by a number of bullets in the head and chest, Rolf Henniger collapsed behind the steering wheel. The soldier in the passenger seat was able to drop out of the vehicle. He put his machine pistol into firing position and brought Horst Körner down with numerous bursts of fire.

That, at least, is how the investigation report of the East German secret police documented the incident. Years later, the Berlin public prosecutor did not question its accuracy, but at the time, the details were not made public.[4] The East Berlin press agency, ADN, merely reported the following day that “an armed agitator” had tried to violently break through the East German state border and that a border soldier was fatally injured. The agitator was also shot and killed.[5]

Rolf Henniger was buried in his hometown of Saalfeld amidst an elaborate display of propaganda on November 21, 1968. The family was not allowed to participate in any of the funeral arrangements.[6] His coffin was wrapped in the East German flag, placed on an open truck and paraded through the city, accompanied by the NVA guard of honor, local brigade groups and members of the Soviet Army.[7] The Berlin city commander, Helmut Poppe, stated that the heroism displayed by Rolf Henniger served to foil a criminal attack on socialism and peace. He added that “this cowardly act of murder” fills “the hearts and heads of the army members and workers of East Germany with an overwhelming hatred toward the imperialist henchmen and wirepullers.” The East German television program “Aktuelle Kamera” and other East German media reported on this.[8] Rolf Henniger was posthumously promoted and awarded the National People’s Army medal of achievement in gold. Later, the BSG locomotive stadium in Saalfeld and a number of youth collectives in factories and schools were named after him.[9]

The Berlin city commander instructed the guard leader who had witnessed Rolf Henniger’s death and shot Horst Körner to pay a visit to Henniger’s bereaved family on his birthday. Staff sergeant Wolfgang B. was not only a soldier in the border troops. He was also an informant of the Stasi who operated under the code name “Helmut Anton.” The Stasi arranged with him a “line of conduct,” which called on him to investigate the mood of the family and conceal from them the fact that the deceased had been shot by an East German police constable.[10] Although the perpetrator had not been officially identified and it was not known where the weapon had come from, the truth was not easy to conceal. Countless rumors and speculations spread about Rolf Henniger’s death. The East German secret police collected and documented all the various views on the case that were circulating in the different Saalfeld factories and determined that, in general, the people in Saalfeld felt they had been fed half-truths and given abstruse official information; some even wondered whether one of Henniger’s comrades or perhaps Henniger himself had tried to flee to the West.[11]

The family also had their doubts about the official version of his death. The Stasi learned that Rolf Henniger’s stepfather believed his son had “wanted to flee the republic, which led to his being shot down by a member of the NVA border guards.”[12] Apparently, Rolf Henniger had confided to close family members that he intended to flee. Even his relatives in southern Germany, who had requested information from the West Berlin police about what had really happened on the night of November 15, had been aware of Henniger’s plans to flee.[13] But the West Berlin police could not provide any information. They had heard shots being fired that night, but did not know what had transpired.

Year after year Sergeant Rolf Henniger was officially commemorated in East Germany. His gravesite was decorated and the myth of a hero was kept alive by the military, party and state. But for years the question of how Rolf Henniger had really died continued to pre-occupy his closest relatives.

When the East German archives were opened and the police and public prosecutor opened an investigation in the 1990s, the background of the incident finally came to light. The truth - that a desperate East German policeman had killed a border soldier while fleeing – was not suitable “as a warning or as a reminder to more vigilantly protect the border and prevent further attacks by the imperialist class enemy of East Germany.”[14] It was also not a good tale of heroism, which is why it was concealed from the family as a state secret.

But the heroic border soldier Rolf Henniger only existed in the propaganda. His closest relatives kept the family secret from the state that the young man whose life was taken on November 15, 1968 had probably been waiting for his own opportunity to flee.

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

[1] See “Kurzbiografien ermordeter Grenzsoldaten, o. D.,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 131/91, Bd. 3, Bl. 192; “Unvergessen sind, die ermordet wurden an dieser Grenze,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 131/91, Bd. 3, Bl. 193–196.
[2] “Information des MfS/HA IX/9, 17.11.1968,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 34/70, Bl. 30–31.
[3] On this and the following see ibid., and “MfS/KD Potsdam/Abt. VII, Versuchter Grenzdurchbruch unter Anwendung der Schusswaffe mit Todesfolge,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 34/70, Bl. 34–38.
[4] See “Vermerk der Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin, 25.1.1994,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 131/91, Bd. 3, Bl. 114–117, here Bl. 114.
[5] “NVA-Grenzsoldat von Provokateur ermordet,” in: Neues Deutschland, 17.11.1968.
[6] See the files on Rolf Henniger’s burial, in: BArch, VA-07/18353, Bl. 453 ff.
[7] See “Bericht des MfS/HA I/Abwehr B über die Beisetzung des ermordeten Unteroffiziers Rolf Henniger, 22.11.1968,” in: BStU, MfS, ZAIG Nr. 10713, Bl. 186–187.
[8] See Neues Deutschland, 22.11.1968; Berliner Zeitung, 22.11.1968; Volksarmee Nr. 48/1968. The speeches held at the funeral are presented in: BArch, VA-07/18353, Bl. 490 ff.
[9] See Neues Deutschland, 16.11.1978.
[10] See “Bericht des MfS/HA I/Abwehr B über die Beisetzung des ermordeten Unteroffiziers Rolf Henniger, 22.11.1968,” in: BStU, MfS, ZAIG Nr. 10713, Bl. 187; see also “Abschrift eines Berichtes über den Besuch der nächsten Angehörigen des Uffz. Rolf Henniger, 2.12.1968,” in: BStU, MfS, ZAIG Nr. 10713, Bl. 160–161.
[11] “Informationsbericht des MfS/KD Saalfeld, 21.11.1968,” in: BStU, MfS, ZAIG Nr. 10713, Bl. 180–182.
[12] Ibid., Bl. 181.
[13] See the letter and questioning of Rolf Henniger’s family, 20.12.1968, 16.1.1969 and 28.8.1969, in: StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 131/91, Bd. 1, Bl. 23/24, 26 und 44.
[14] See Märkische Volksstimme, 21.11.1968.