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Siegfried Kroboth Siegfried Kroboth, born on April 23, 1968 in West Berlin, lived with his parents and his 13-year-old brother in the West Berliner district of Kreuzberg. The family had fled East Germany many years earlier and settled in the West.

On the afternoon of May 14, 1973, the boy was playing with a friend on the Kreuzberger Ufer, a riverbank of the Spree River near the war-damaged Brommy Bridge. They had advanced as far as the quay wall when the five-year-old boy suddenly fell into the water.[1] His friend immediately called out for help and a 12-year-old girl ran to a fire alarm box located 200 meters away and pulled the alarm at 11:55 a.m. The first West Berlin police car arrived at the scene of the accident a few minutes later. Siegfried Kroboth managed to keep himself above water and tried to hold his breath by placing his hand over his mouth. But then he ran out of energy and went under the water just before the Schilling Bridge.[2] It might still have been possible to save the child at this point, but the police did not have the authority to enter the water because, in this section of the border, the entire width of the Spree belonged to East Berlin.[3]At 12:07 a water rescue vehicle of the West Berlin fire department arrived. The divers were ready to begin their rescue operation, but had to wait until they received authorization to enter the water. They had no choice but to remain inactive on the Gröbenufer.[4]

The crew of an East German border boat had apparently also noticed the accident. When the boat approached the site of the incident, the West Berlin police called out to the border soldiers, telling them where the boy had fallen into the water and where they could probably find him. The border guards, however, did not react. The mother, who had also arrived by then, had to watch in tears as the retrieval of her son continued to be delayed.

The officer in charge of the West Berlin firemen first needed to inform an East German border officer on the Oberbaum Bridge before the East German border troops sent another boat with divers on board to the site. It was already 12:45 p.m. when the first diver entered the water; a half hour later he was joined by a second one. At 2 p.m. another boat of the East German border troops arrived to drop off a third diver. The West Berlin firemen offered their assistance but were ignored, as the border guards were forbidden from engaging in any contact with people on the west side. As they searched for the boy they followed the tips offered by the people on the west bank but did not show any other reaction. “During the rescue operation the East German boat acted in accordance with the information provided by the West Berlin police but never once did the crew respond.”[5] A strange feeling of helplessness set in on the west side. The officer in charge of the West Berlin firemen spoke to the East German divers through a megaphone, asking for at least a sign that they could hear him but received no reaction. Four hours after the accident occurred, at 3:50 p.m., the East German divers pulled the body of the five-year-old boy out of the water and transported him to East Berlin.

The young boy’s death, which occurred just shortly before the German-German basic treaty was to take effect on June 21, 1973, put a strain on inner-German relations, not least of all because this was the second time within six months that an incident of this nature had occurred. In West Berlin loud demands were made for a binding agreement to be made with the East German government that would allow for first aid to be issued more quickly and without complications in the future. The incident was also discussed in the Berlin parliament. One parliament representative said angrily: “It simply cannot be that for the rest of the 20th century something like this happens here that stinks to high heaven just because two sides could not agree soon enough on how to do the very minimum.”[6] Kurt Neubauer, the West Berlin interior minister, pointed out that the Senate had already “engaged in preliminary talks” with the western Allies “immediately following the first incident of this kind.” After receiving a green light to proceed it had also established contact with the East German government.[7] West Berlin politicians sought to find a solution through long and drawn out discussions with the Allies, who were responsible for these border issues, and through negotiations with East Berlin. If it had been up to East Germany, a second wall on the other Spree bank would have been erected, but the Allies were of the opinion that “the wall does not represent a border for us or for West Berlin.”[8]

Eight days after the five-year-old died, Gerhard Kunze und Joachim Mitdank, representatives of the West Berlin Senate and the East German government, met in the Schöneberg town hall for preliminary talks on how to provide prompt assistance during accidents that occurred at the Berlin sector borders.[9] It took another two weeks before Heinz Annussek, the West Berlin Senate administration councilor, and Joachim Mitdank, division head of the East Berlin Ministry of Foreign Affairs, met on June 6, 1973 to conduct official talks.[10] But another two and a half years passed before an arrangement went into effect. Rescue posts with a light on all sides, which were also visible from the border watchtowers, were finally installed in West Berlin along the entire length of the six-kilometer- long water border in the spring of 1976.

In the early morning of May 16, 1973, East German border guards handed over Siegfried Kroboth’s body to his parents at the Oberbaum Bridge border crossing.[11] It was the second major tragedy to affect Siegfried Kroboth’s parents. Five years earlier, to the very day, their daughter, 21 years old at the time, was murdered in East Berlin and thrown into the Spree from the other side.[12]

[Udo Baron]

[1] See “Rapport der West-Berliner Polizei Nr. 134/74, 15.5.1973,” in: PHS, Bestand Grenzvorkommnisse.
[2] See Der Tagesspiegel, 15.51973.
[3] See Bild-Zeitung, 15.5.1973.
[4] See BZ, 15.5.1973.
[5] See Der Tagesspiegel, 15.5.1973.
[6] Speech of Dr. Haus (SPD), in: Plenarprotokolle des Abgeordnetenhauses von Berlin, 6. Wahlperiode, 50. Sitzung vom 17. Mai 1973, p. 1829.
[7] Speech by Minister of Interior Kurt Neubauer (SPD), in: Plenarprotokolle des Abgeordnetenhauses von Berlin, 6. Wahlperiode, 50. Sitzung vom 17. Mai 1973, p. 1829.
[8] Statement made by the U.S. liason officers to the Senate, quoted in: Der Spiegel Nr. 28, 8.7.1974, p. 49.
[9] See DPA, 25.5.1973.
[10] See Berliner Morgenpost, 13.5.1975.
[11] See “Fernschreiben der PdVP Berlin, 15.5.1973,” in: BStU, MfS, HA IX Nr. 4875, Bl. 4–5.
[12] See ibid.