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Cetin Mert Cetin Mert was born on May 11, 1970 and lived with his Turkish parents and two brothers in the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg.

May 11, 1975 was his fifth birthday, a Sunday, and the parents planned to take their children on a picnic in the countryside. Cetin went to play ball with other children in the neighborhood on Gröbenufer until the family was ready to leave; he had just gotten new sneakers for his birthday.[1] When the ball rolled down the embankment into the Spree River, the birthday boy ran after it and tried to fish it out of the water with a stick, but he fell into the Spree, which in this stretch belonged entirely to East Berlin.

A few minutes later, at about 12:30 p.m., the West Berlin police and firemen arrived at the site of the accident. Firemen searched the bank with a rod trying to find Cetin Mert. At the same time a fire chief tried in vain to get permission from the East German authorities on the Oberbaum Bridge to have his team take rescue measures. Passersby also called out to the East German border guards, trying to draw their attention to the accident. But none of the West Berliners dared enter the heavily guarded waters. An East German border security boat did not arrive at the site until 1:10 p.m.[2] An hour later border troop divers retrieved the body of Cetin Mert from the water, just five meters away from the west bank.

Stasi files reveal something that no one at the time knew: Two border troop guards, so-called scouts, had watched as Cetin Mert fell into the water and even photographed the accident. But because they had no communication link, they did not report the incident until much later.[3]

Cetin Mert was the fourth child in three months to drown in the Spree while playing near the Oberbaum Bridge. Despite angry protests from his family and other people who had gathered at the Gröbenufer, the child’s body was not brought to the West Berlin side, where he had fallen into the water. It was brought instead to the forensic institute of Charité Hospital in East Berlin.[4] Another four days passed before the dead boy was delivered to his parents.

Intense protests against the East German regime repeatedly erupted at the site of the accident over the following days. The East German secret police noted teenagers chanting in unison “murderers, murderers, child murderers!”[5] About 2,000 members of the West Berlin Turkish community demonstrated against the conduct of the East German border guards and handed out fliers with the heading “Down with the Wall of Shame – Down with Murderous Communism.”[6]

To prevent any more accidents at the Gröbenufer in Kreuzberg, the West Berlin Senate took action for the first time and erected a barbed wire fence along the four entrances to the bank slope and in front of the quay wall. Large warning signs in German and Turkish were also put up.[7] The East German border troops also received the secret order to have a boat positioned downriver from the Oberbaum Bridge across from Gröbenufer from 8 a.m. until sundown so that “ should the crew ascertain or be notified of an accident [...], it is to approach the accident site at once, provide immediate first aid and take the first rescue measures.”[8]

The West German federal government and the Berlin Senate expressed their consternation over the conduct of the East German authorities. The federal government in particular felt duped by East Germany with regard to its efforts to achieve a better climate between the two German states. It demanded that the negotiations with East Germany over first aid measures in the area of the sector border, which had been going on for over two years by then, finally be concluded with successful results. At the beginning of the talks in June 1973, East Germany presented a treaty draft that allowed for first aid to be provided during accidents along the entire border around Berlin, but the terms were phrased in such a way as to raise the status of the sector border to a state border which, given the four-power status of Berlin, was unacceptable to the Senate and the Allies.

After the West Berlin Senate, in agreement with the Allied protective powers, rejected East Germany’s proposal in 1973, subsequent negotiations remained fruitless.[9] Still more children had to drown after Giuseppe Savoca and Cetin Mert before the Senate and East German government finally signed an agreement on October 29, 1975 regarding rescue measures to be taken during accidents in the Berlin border waters. It declared that when people from West Berlin “were in an emergency situation,” rescue measures could also be taken from the West Berlin side. But before this plan could take effect, rescue poles had to be erected on the bank so that the border guards would be able to recognize such situations as emergencies.[10] These rescue poles were finally installed along the water border between East and West Berlin in the spring of 1976.

The memorial service for Cetin Mert in West Berlin became a mass demonstration against the Communist Party border regime, particularly for the West Berlin Turkish community. Cetin Mert was buried in Düzce, the hometown of his Turkish parents.[11] Since then the family has held a religious ceremony for him each year on the day of his death.

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

[1] See “Ein Maueropfer aus dem Westen,” in: Berliner Zeitung, 13.5.2000.
[2] See “Information des MfS/HA I/Grenzkommando Mitte/Abwehr über die Bergung einer Kindesleiche aus dem Grenzgewässer, 11.5.1975,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 14878, Bl. 215–216.
[3] Ibid., Bl. 216, and “Information des MfS/HA I/Grenzkommando Mitte/Abwehr über die Bergung einer Kindesleiche aus dem Grenzgewässer, 12.5.1975,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 14878, Bl. 218. This Stasi report stated flippantly that “there was no chance for the two guards to save the child” (ibid., Bl. 218). Later the two guards noted the time of the accident as 11:27, off by an hour.
[4] See “Information des MfS/HA I/Grenzkommando Mitte/Abwehr über die Bergung einer Kindesleiche aus dem Grenzgewässer, 12.5.1975,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 14878, Bl. 217–218.
[5] “Bericht des MfS/HA I/Grenzkommando Mitte/Bereich Aufklärung, über die Untersuchung der Provokation an der Staatsgrenze zu Westberlin im Grenzregiment 35, 14.5.1975,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 14878, Bl. 232–233.
[6] “Bericht des [MfS]HA I/Grenzkommando Mitte über die Situation an der Staatsgrenze vom 19.5. bis 20.5.1975, 20.5.1975,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 14878, Bl. 229.
[7] See Berliner Morgenpost, 15.5.1975.
[8] “Befehl Nr. 47/75 des Kommandeurs des Grenzkommandos Mitte über Massnahmen zur Rettung und Bergung von Personen aus dem Grenzgewässer im Abschnitt des Grenzregimentes 35, 8.7.1975,” in: BArch, GT 5662, Bl. 256/257.
[9] See Berliner Morgenpost, 13.5.1975.
[10] See exchange of letters between East Germany and the Berlin Senate on rescue measures for accidents at the sector boundary from October 29, 1975, in: Bundesministerium für innerdeutsche Beziehungen (ed.), Zehn Jahre Deutschlandpolitik, Bonn, 1980, p. 287. Background information from the West Berlin perspective: see Gerhard Kunze, Grenzerfahrungen. Kontakte und Verhandlungen zwischen dem Land Berlin und der DDR 1949–1989, Berlin, 1999, pp. 404–405, from the East Berlin perspective: Joachim Mitdank, Die Berlin-Politik zwischen 17. Juni 1953, dem Viermächteabkommen und der Grenzöffnung 1989. Erinnerungen eines Diplomaten, Berlin 2003, pp. 100–108, and “Der nasse Tod,” in: Peter Pragal/Eckart D. Stratenschulte, Der Monolog der Lautsprecher und andere Geschichten aus dem geteilten Berlin, München, 1999, pp. 58–65.
[11] See “Ein Maueropfer aus dem Westen,” in: Berliner Zeitung, 13.5.2000.