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The German term Schießbefehl ("order to fire") was the common term to refer to a standing order that instructed border patrols of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) to prevent border penetration by all means including lethal force.
The GDR border troops (Grenztruppen der DDR), who were not formally integrated into the regular armed forces (the Nationale Volksarmee), typically carried Kalashnikov assault rifles or SKS semiautomatic carbines, and were instructed to follow certain rules of engagement when encountering persons moving illegally within the border strip:
- First, to call out "Halt, stehenbleiben, oder ich schieße!" ("Stop, stand still or I will shoot").
- Next, to fire a warning shot.
- Finally, if the fugitive failed to comply, to fire an aimed shot, preferably at the legs, to stop the person.
After stopping a potential escape attempt, the shooter would be rewarded and granted a special leave. All occurrences at border outposts were kept secret. Often the soldier would be transferred to another military unit and ordered to keep silent. By contrast, when a fugitive was successful and crossed the border into West Germany, disciplinary measures taken against those border guards who had failed to prevent this "Grenzverletzung und Republikflucht" (border violation and desertion from the Republic), which often included prison terms in the infamous military prison at Schwedt. Many soldiers tried to let fugitives escape while deflecting such accusations by deliberately shooting off-target.
Each attempted or successful escape was followed by a formal investigation by the military prosecution authority and the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS, or "Ministry for State Security", better known as the Stasi). When would-be escapees were killed, strict regulations were imposed on the family regarding the funeral; for instance, no obituaries were to be printed in the local newspapers.
East German law only allowed crossing the border at so called Grenzübergangsstellen ("checkpoints"), such as the famous Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was special, since this was one of the few border crossing points in Berlin where foreigners could enter East Berlin. Elsewhere, warning signs were posted telling people not to enter the border zone. Any violation was considered a criminal act. However, these are only the formal aspects of the law. After construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, authorized travel by East Germans into West Germany and West Berlin was very limited; many young people were motivated to attempt a desperate flight over the inner German border. Overall, a total of about 260 people were killed attempting to cross at the Berlin Wall, at the main East-West border, or via the Baltic Sea (though the exact number of fatalities is difficult to estimate; see Inner German border deaths). In Berlin alone 190 people were killed in the course of 28 years. An unknown number were heavily wounded and later arrested. The last victim of the Berlin Wall was Chris Gueffroy. On 6 February 1989, Schießbefehl was formally abolished.
The victims of this system also include border police soldiers who were shot by fugitives.
To avoid negative press, the Schießbefehl was suspended for public holidays or state visits. Border occurrences were recorded by the Bundesgrenzschutz (BGS or Federal Border Guard, the West German border guards), the West Berlin police, and by the military police of the Allied Forces. Files were collected in the central registration office at Salzgitter.
After German reunification, the Todesschützen ("death shooters": soldiers who allegedly killed those attempting to escape East Germany) were brought to trial in the federal courts in what were known as the Mauerschützen-Prozesse (Berlin Wall shooters trials). Also, high-ranking officers of the border police and of the Nationale Verteidigungsrat (National Defense Council of the GDR) were charged in court. The verdicts generally agreed that even the common soldier should have and must have recognised that the GDR border laws were so fundamentally in conflict with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the GDR had signed and ratified, that they were not law at all but formalized injustice, and thus the soldiers ought to have disobeyed their commanding officers.