Three decades after unification, Berlin Wall death toll is revealed: 139

Aged between six month and 81 years, all died while fleeing from East to West Germany

The youngest victim was just six months old, the oldest 81. Nearly three decades after Germany’s postwar division ended, its death toll has been confirmed at 327.

After decades of speculation, and five years’ work, German researchers presented the “book of the dead” on Wednesday in Berlin, looking at about 1,500 incidents recorded on the border between the two separate German states.

Peculiarities of history and geography meant the two states had two separate borders: the 1400km north-south border between the socialist east and capitalist West Germany; and the 155km wall that surrounded West Berlin, turning it into an island within East German territory.

The Berlin Wall, which fell in November 1989, was nine times shorter than the inner German border – it witnessed 139 deaths, about 40 per cent of the total.


The oldest victim, 81-year-old farmer Ernst Wolter from Lower Saxony, wandered into the mined no man’s land between East and West Germany in June 1967. He stepped on a land mine, which blew off his legs. An East German border guard was afraid to enter the minefield and looked on for three hours as the man bled to death.

Youngest victim

The youngest victim was a six-month-old Emanuel Holzhauer, hidden by its parents in the boot of a car, who suffocated on the journey across the border.

Some 80 per cent of those who died fleeing west were young men aged up to 35, just 10 per cent were women, while 18 children and teenagers also died.

A research team from Berlin’s Free University began its period of study on October 7th, 1949, when the (East) German Democratic Republic was founded and took control of its borders. Cross-border traffic was throttled from August 1961, when East Germany reinforced its borders with land-mines, razor wire and self-firing machine guns.

It doesn’t include an estimated 200 Germans who died fleeing over the Baltic Sea or via other borders, such as between Hungary and Austria.

Researchers blamed a two-year delay presenting their results on “considerable persuasion” required to gain access to East German border guard files.

German culture minister Monika Grütters said the report betrayed the “mercilessness” of the East German dictatorship and gave the border dead back their identities. It also served as a reminder that “freedom needs defenders”, she said, and must not be allowed end “at walls, barbed wire and mine fields”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin