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Michael Kollender It was a mild night in late April. The border guards on the Teltow Canal were in good spirits because they were going to be discharged in a couple of days and only had an hour left of the shift that evening. Although it was against the rules they stood together and chatted. The young men were expressing their relief over the fact that no attempted escapes had occurred while they were on duty and that they had not had to make use of their weapons.[1] At about 3:45 in the morning the flare signal “5 star white” was suddenly set off near the watchtower at Wrede Bridge. They saw the shadow of a fugitive in the light of the flare. One of the border soldiers thought he recognized fatigue clothes, the summer uniform of the National People’s Army. A moment later he realized that the fugitive was holding a gun in his hand.

The fugitive was the NVA soldier Michael Kollender, who had duty on the night of April 24 at the former Hentschel factory halls in Berlin-Johannisthal, where his unit’s combat equipment was housed. He fled during his duty shift while in uniform and ran with his loaded machine pistol across the grounds of the former Johannisthal landing strip towards the border grounds. He had already passed through the interior security fence.

Michael Kollender, born on February 19, 1945 in Silesia, grew up in a Catholic family as the oldest of three children in Oberlungwitz, Saxony. He worked as a tractor driver in the machine and tractor station of a neighboring town. He was drafted into the National People’s Army in early November 1965 where he was trained as a gunner in the anti-aircraft missile regiment of the air force. He was scheduled to participate in the May Day Parade in East Berlin on May 1, 1966.[2] This could not have pleased the Catholic soldier, who was regarded by his supervisors as “pigheaded.” In one report it stated that he was “extremely undisciplined,” engaged in “discussions over orders” and carried out “his duty grudgingly.”[3] Kollender had thought about fleeing ever since he had joined the army. He evidently had once confided in his younger brother that “he was going to cross the border to West Berlin illegally if he ever had the chance.”[4]

When they saw the fugitive, the four guards removed their machine guns from their shoulders and set the safety lever on automatic fire. They pursued him and encircled him, firing scores of salvos into the air to try to get him to surrender, but Kollender continued crawling through the security strip and had only one more barrier to cross – the triple barbed wire fence. The bank slope of the Teltow Canal behind it already belonged to West Berlin. As they caught up with the fugitive, the border guards fired curtain fire parallel to the border to prevent him from getting farther away. “Man, stay down!” a guard called out to him.[5] Michael Kollender was only a few meters away from the border line and continued crawling forward. No less than 109 shots were fired by the border guards. They were not poor marksmen and could have hit him had they wanted to do so. The shots could be heard from quite a distance. The crew of a barge on the canal was so startled that they lay down on the floor of their cabins.[6] A shot hit Michael Kollender in his head. It may have been aimed directly at him, or it could have ricocheted off the concrete post of the border fence. He remained on the ground motionless two or three meters from the barbed wire fence. The border soldiers dragged the injured man into the trench, administered first aid and notified their headquarters. Michael Kollender had not fired a single shot from his unlocked machine pistol.

A half hour later he was wrapped in a sheet, pushed beneath a medical truck that had arrived and loaded onto the side that was out of view from the West so that no one on the West Berlin side could see him being transported away. Michael Kollender was brought to the People’s Police Hospital in Berlin-Mitte where he died at around six o’clock in the morning.

That same day one of the border guards was awarded the “Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border.” Each of the other three was awarded a gold wristwatch.[7] The NVA city commander Poppe reported to Communist Party Politburo member Erich Honecker that the border soldiers had exhibited “correct,” “consistent” and “exemplary” conduct.[8]

In the fall of 1995 the guard presumed responsible for the fatal shot was acquitted by the Berlin district court because “desertion is a legal wrong that is criminally prosecuted in accordance with the rule of the law.” By deserting, Michael Kollender had allowed for a “legitimate legal claim to prosecution by the responsible East German organs.”[9] Hence the border guard did not act in a manner contrary to the law.[10] Shooting NVA deserters was legitimized by the highest judicial authority during proceedings on appeal before the Federal Court of Justice: The court stated that according to the East German military law of 1962, military desertion was regarded as a crime. Killing a deserter was therefore excusable because, in this “special case,” the illegality of the marksmen’s action could not have been evident to them.[11]

Two days after his death, NVA officers informed Michael Kollender’s parents that he had been shot and killed while trying to escape.[12] They did not learn any details but were “advised” to keep quiet about the circumstances of their son’s death. The files that the family had concerning his military service were confiscated.

Michael Kollender was buried in his hometown in the presence of his immediate family and under the watchful eyes of the Stasi.

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

[1] On the establishment of facts concerning circumstances of events see: “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 12.9.1995,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 79/91, Bd. 3, esp. Bl. 226–240.
[2] See “Einzel-Information Nr. 327/66 des MfS/ZAIG über eine verhinderte Fahnenflucht mit tödlichem Ausgang im Abschnitt Berlin-Johannisthal, Wredebrücke am 25.4.1966, 27.4.1966,” in: BStU, MfS, ZAIG Nr. 1305, Bl. 21–23, here Bl. 22.
[3] Ibid., Bl. 23.
[4] “Zeugenvernehmung des Bruders von Michael Kollender durch die Polizeidienststelle Amberg vom 9.7.1979,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 46/95, Bd. 1, Bl. 137.
[5] See “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 12.9.1995,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 79/91, Bd. 3, here Bl. 236.
[6] Ibid., Bl. 237.
[7] Ibid., Bl. 239.
[8] “Meldung von NVA-Stadtkommandant Poppe an SED-Politbüromitglied und NVR-Sekretär Erich Honecker, betr.: Verhinderung eines Grenzdurchbruchs durch Anwendung der Schusswaffe am 25.4.1966 im Abschnitt 1./GR 42, 25.4.1966,” in: BArch, VA-07/8373, Bl. 109–110.
[9] “Urteil des Landgerichts Berlin vom 12.9.1995,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 79/91, Bd. 3, Bl. 254.
[10] Ibid., Bl. 255.
[11] “Urteil des Bundesgerichtshofs (5 StR 137/96) vom 17.12.1996,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 2 Js 79/91, Bd. 4, Bl. 87–95, here Bl. 93. The first judicial verdict of the Berlin district court from 12.9.1995 and the verdict on appeal by the Federal Court of Justice from 17.12.1996 are documented in: Klaus Marxen/Gerhard Werle (eds.), Strafjustiz und DDR-Unrecht. Band 2/1. Teilband: Gewalttaten an der deutsch-deutschen Grenze, Berlin/New York, 2002, pp. 249–281.
[12] On this and the following see “Zeugenvernehmung eines Bruders von Michael Kollender durch die Polizeidienststelle Amberg vom 9.7.1979,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 46/95, Bd. 1, Bl. 138.