Why you should care

More than 30 years on, brutal killings of East German refugees are being investigated.

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When teenager Hartmut Tautz would have looked at the border between the small, Western European country of Austria and what was then communist Czechoslovakia in 1986 — three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall — he’d have seen a hostile no man’s land: High fences of barbed wire, patrol towers and border guards with dogs, all to stop any citizen of communist countries in Eastern Europe to flee into the democratic West. 

Hundreds of East German citizens had already lost their lives trying to flee communism, but in the decade between 1976 and 1986, more than 43,000 made it out. Hartmut Tautz hoped he’d be part of the latter group. 

At 18, Tautz had spent his entire life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He knew that the inner German border that separated East from West, communism from democracy, was notoriously insurmountable. But on the outskirts of the Czechoslovakian capital Bratislava, the lights of the small Austrian village behind the Iron Curtain must have seemed within reach, experts say in the documentary Justice 2.0, which reconstructs Tautz’s final hours.

Berlin Wall In Germany

Many, like this East German, died while trying to flee the tyranny of German communism.

Source MUR DE BERLIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Through a cornfield, the young man dashed to the first fence, passed it, and advanced to a second fence. When he cut a hole into the wire, he triggered an alarm. Seventy feet from the border, guard dogs caught up with him. They mauled him.

“It was the most gruesome thing,” Tautz’s mother, Christa Brunis, says in the documentary, produced by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, an organization researching, documenting and raising awareness of crimes committed by totalitarian regimes. When Czechoslovakian guards arrived at the scene, they found the recent high school graduate with bite and tear wounds, parts of the tissue of his face and scalp ripped off, and injuries to his legs and torso. 

At least 327 men, women and children, aged 6 months to 81 years, died as a result of trying to cross the East German border.

Tautz arrived at the hospital 90 minutes later, where he died of blood loss. The coroners later found that he could have survived if he’d received first aid right away. Instead, the guards had searched his pockets for an ID and questioned Tautz to find out whether he knew of others who would be trying to cross that night. Nobody was ever charged in his death.

But Tautz’s gruesome death and those of three other Eastern German citizens killed — a man shot trying to swim across a border creek and two men who tried to cross from Czechoslovakia into Bavaria — are now being investigated, as detectives try to determine the chain of command that led to those deaths and who was responsible for ordering the killings. 

“They were unarmed, they were civilians, and they were brutally murdered,” says Peter Rendek, the managing director of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, which pushed for the investigation.

It’s the first time German and Czech prosecutors have formed a joint task force to find those responsible for the killings and hold them to account, says Gerd Schäfer, spokesperson for the public prosecutor in the small Bavarian city of Weiden, which is tasked with the German side of the investigation.

Though Schäfer says he can’t talk about details as the prosecutors’ work is ongoing, “it makes a huge difference that we have this cooperation with the Czech side. It’s difficult to get access to files, and it can be a long process, but this is certainly a unique cooperation and it helps the cases,” he says. 

While it’s important to recognize that these crimes happened and to serve justice, the cases are also about bringing closure to the victims’ families, Rendek says.  

“We must think about the victims who are still alive. They are still among us. It’s caused a lot of trauma for the people who lost sons or daughters, so it’s very important to think about them and help them,” he says. 

A 2017 study found that at least 327 men, women and children, aged 6 months to 81 years, died at the inner German border. While the vast majority were shot or fatally injured by mines, some committed suicide after failed escape attempts, and a few were killed accidentally. Cases in other Communist countries are still being collected, and no database exists to track the Communist regime’s murders at the border, says Rendek.

Injured refugee with children from the GDR

A father was badly injured by mines and shots from GDR border guards in 1964.

Source Karl Schnoerrer/picture alliance via Getty

“It’s been 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain,” he says, “And we are still finding new cases.”

In the case of Tautz, Rendek and his colleagues tracked down the senior commanders who, at the time, would have been responsible for the section of the border, as well as lower-ranking officers who were involved. Some of them are still alive, enjoying retirement. So far, they haven’t publicly spoken about the accusations, but some are now being investigated.

“I could forgive them, if they acknowledge their wrongs and would say that they are sorry for the way they acted back then,” Brunis says in the documentary. “But until this very day, they haven’t done that.”

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