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Dorit Schmiel Dorit Schmiel was born in Berlin during the war in 1941. Her father died serving as a soldier in the Second World War. She and her older brother were raised by her mother and stepfather in the East Berlin district of Pankow. Ever since she was a child, Dorit Schmiel had traveled regularly to the western part of the city to visit relatives, go shopping, watch movies or go dancing. She experienced the sealing off of the sector border and the loss of freedom to visit the West as a painful turning point in her life.[1]

Dorle, as she was called, was twenty years old at this time. She worked as a seamstress in a state-run manufacturing company and had recently moved in with her fiancé, Detlef T. She was also friends with the brothers Eberhard and Dietrich B. and the latter’s girlfriend, Brigitte K. None of them was able to relate to the political situation and the ideological demands of the communist state. The situation became unbearable for them when the Wall went up. Eberhard B. recalled later that her friends were convinced that, regardless what the party and government promised, there was going to be less freedom and fewer economic improvements.[2] They decided to leave East Germany in early 1962 when it became apparent that the division of the city was going to remain permanent. News of successful escape attempts was heard about daily. One of Dorit Schmiel’s cousins had managed to get through the barbed wire at the border in the north of the city. They wanted to try to escape at the same spot on the night of February 19, 1962.

It was already past midnight on a misty, cloudy night when the five friends approached the border to West Berlin’s Reinickendorf district from the east side at Rosenthal in Pankow. They observed the movement of the border guards from a good distance before approaching the security area along the cemetery grounds. Using a wire cutter, they cut a hole in the first fence and, one after another, they crawled through the fence into the security strip on the other side. They then lay down flat on the snow and slush-covered ground and began gradually crawling forward. They had almost reached the last two rows of fences when three border guards noticed them and began to shoot at them.[3] Although the official East German reports claim otherwise, the guards opened fire without calling out first or firing warning shots to the defenseless fugitives who were lying on the ground.[4] A bullet hit Dorit Schmiel in her stomach and she cried out. Only then did the guards stop firing and approached the young people, ordering them to stand up. Detlef T., Dieter B. and Brigitte K. obeyed the order. The 16-year-old Eberhard B. was also able to get up by himself although a bullet had wounded his shoulder. But Dorit Schmiel remained on the ground, to the horror of her friends. She was bleeding profusely and crying in pain. Detlef T. recalled that the guards finally grabbed her by her arms and legs and carried her off like a piece of meat.[5]

She was brought to the next street, Wilhelmsruher Damm, and placed on the ground. It took at least 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. The two wounded people were taken to the People’s Police Hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Eberhard B. reported that Dorit Schmiel kept asking “Do I have to die? Do I have to die?” all the way to the hospital, but once they arrived she did not utter a sound and was breathing weakly.[6] The hospital files show that she had suffered from a shot through the stomach and died from internal bleeding just a short time later.[7]

The other fugitives were interrogated for hours that very night. A month later they were put on trial. The indictment said that their joint escape attempt represented an act “that seriously endangered society” and which could have endangered the peace by inciting “provocations from the class enemy.”[8] The Pankow district court sentenced them to prison terms ranging from ten months to two years.

Thirty years later Dorit Schmiel’s friends saw the three border guards who had shot her held responsible for their actions. During the trial, at which the friends served as witnesses and joint plaintiff, it was not possible to determine which guard had fired the shots that killed Dorit Schmiel and wounded Eberhard B. The court was nonetheless convinced that all three defendants had willfully accepted the death of the fugitives. They were found guilty of joint manslaughter in coincidence with attempted manslaughter and were sentenced to 18 month in prison, a sentence that was commuted to probation.[9]

Everyone who had known Dorit Schmiel was deeply shocked by her death. As long as she lived, her mother held her cousin partially responsible for her daughter’s death, falsely believing that he had enticed her daughter and friends to attempt the escape.[10] But both family and friends have no doubts about the circumstances under which the 20-year-old lost her life. News of the East Berliner’s violent death also reached West Berlin through relatives. When the Wall still stood there were a number of memorials erected to preserve the memory of her fate.[11]

[Christine Brecht]

[1] See conversation conducted by Christine Brecht with Marianne K., Dorit Schmiel’s cousin, 15.11.2006.
[2] See “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung eines Mitflüchtlings von Dorit Schmiel durch die Berliner Polizei, 29.8.1991,” in StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 146/90, Bd. 1, Bl. 195–202, here Bl. 195.
[3] See “Abschlussbericht des MdI/Bepo/1.GB (B)/1. Grenzabteilung betr. Versuchter Grenzdurchbruch, 19.2.1962,” in: BArch, VA-07/8461, Bl. 1–4.
[4] Conversation conducted by Christine Brecht with Dietrich B., 1.12.2008; Conversation conducted by Maria Nooke with Eberhard B., 3. 12.2008. See “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin, 23.3.1994,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 146/90, Bd. 4, Bl. 46–99, here Bl. 65.
[5] See “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung eines Mitflüchtlings von Dorit Schmiel durch die Polizei in Esslingen, 16.8.1991,” in: Ibid., Bd. 1, Bl. 180–182, here Bl. 181.
[6] Conversation conducted by Maria Nooke with Eberhard B., 3.12.2008. See also “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung eines Mitflüchtlings von Dorit Schmiel durch die Berliner Polizei, 29.8.1991,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27/2 Js 146/90, Bd. 1, Bl. 195–202, here Bl. 197.
[7] Entry in hospital sheet, People’s Police Hospital, department of surgery, 19.2.1962, in: Ibid., Bd. 1, Bl. 144–145.
[8] “Anklageschrift der Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin-Pankow, (I Pa 195/62), 7.3.1962,” in: Ibid., Bd. 1, Bl. 206–208, here Bl. 207.
[9]“Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 23.3.1994,” in: Ibid., Bd. 4, Bl. 46–99.
[10] Conversation conducted by Christine Brecht with Marianne K., Dorit Schmiel’s cousin, 15.11.2006.
[11] See “Junge Union für Gedenkstein für Maueropfer,” in: Berliner Morgenpost, 20.2.1987.