Interview : “I just thought: As long as nothing happens, as long as no one shoots”
Günter Leo was a colonel in East Germany's National People's Army. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9 1989, he kept his nerve.
Günter Leo, former colonel in the National People's Army and chief of staff of border forces, central Berlin, kept his nerve on November 9.
How did you hear about the fall of the Wall?
On November 9 there was a meeting of the Central Committee and that evening we were together with commander Erich Wöllner in our base in Karlshorst and were about to eat when the press conference with Günter Schabowski came on the TV.
What did you eat?
No, just cold food. It was evening after all.
Did you watch the press conference because you knew that new travel regulations would be announced?
No, we just thought they would talk about the Central Committee meeting. We didn't know anything about travel regulations. Not until Schabowski talked about it.
Did you think, in that moment, that it was going to be a bumpy night?
No, because he only talked about the border crossings and as border guards that had nothing to do with us
That was the Stasi, wasn't it?
Yes, passport control was done by the Stasi. They wore border control uniforms, but they had nothing to do with us. We were responsible for the Wall either side of the crossings and thought nothing would happen there, so I went home. And then there was a phone call from Col Geschke and he told us to come back in because something was going on at Checkpoint Charlie and Bornholmer Straße. People were massing everywhere so we deployed one of our squads to the Brandenburg Gate and sent one of our deputies, Col Haase.
And you stayed in Karlshorst?
Yes, somebody had to be in charge. There were new messages coming in constantly. What's going on? What shall we do? We didn't know anything and didn't get any answers from anyone. We phoned up our bosses in the border troops but they didn't know anything either! About 12.30am we were put on high alert.
Well, everyone was getting through the Bornholmer crossing by then and the tank wall at the Brandenburg Gate was covered in people. We tried to stop them with official announcements and a water cannon but nobody took any notice.
What do you mean by a tank wall?
That was the point where the wall was made of anti-tank concrete and was at least 3m thick. A Trabi could have driven along it. Our biggest worry was what was going to happen at the Brandenburg Gate. There were officer cadets deployed there and it was their first time at the border and they wouldn't be up to it. We were worried that they would lose their nerve. We decided that we would stand aside. We would let the people run through and not use our weapons.
What did you feel in that moment?
I simply thought, as long as nothing happens, as long as no one shoots. We said that if anyone shoots at this point then there will be bloodshed. We were right. It all went okay.
Did you get any sleep that night?
No, none. I went home for a little while, got changed and then went back to work at 5am to relieve the commander. Things at the Brandenburg Gate calmed down during the morning. The West Berlin police had managed to get everyone down from the Wall.
So the West Berlin police helped you?
Yes, it was in their interests as well that everything stayed peaceful. About 10am we got a call from the head of the border troops telling our commander to meet with the West Berlin police president Georg Schertz at 2pm.
Egon Krenz had arranged that but our commander Wöllner didn't feel able to do it.
He was mentally kaput. The chief of the border troops then asked me if I could do it. And I said yes and met Schertz at 2pm at Checkpoint Charlie.
On the East or the West Berlin side?
On the GDR side in one of those operational rooms we had, in Zimmerstraße.
What was the meeting like?
I didn't know Schertz at all and I had a look at some of the photos our intelligence people had taken so that I would know who I was dealing with. Schertz rolled up in his big armored Mercedes and I was there in my little service Wartburg. I arranged for there to be coffee and a crate of beer.
And what did you drink?
Beer. Wernesgrüner. Schertz said that he was expecting to meet Herr Wöllner. So I said that Wöllner couldn't make it. Then we went into the room and I thanked the police chief for helping to ensure safety at the Brandenburg Gate. Do you know what he said then? "We thought that the GDR would never give up its most important symbol peacefully. That's why we tried to stop any confrontation." Then he asked if we could set up direct contact between the police in East and West. I said that wasn't up to me but I would look into it. And then we talked for another hour and had a really nice conversation.
I went back to my work and phoned the chief of police to set up direct contact between East and West. I still hadn't had a reply by 5pm. I rang again and then at about midnight some of our technical people and the West Germans met in Heinrich-Heine-Straße. It didn't take long and then there was a connection. That was a beautiful moment. I felt very calm and thought, "Now everything will be better."
What happened to you next?
Wöllner retired, and I became the commander of the force for central Berlin on May 1 1990. Then they told us that we would be taken over by the West German border force and I would be made deputy for border protection in the East. Peter Diestel was named interior minister and he wanted me. But then the newspapers said that former members of the border force were largely responsible for the orders to fire at people trying to cross the Wall and that included a chief of staff.
And that meant you?
Yes. I became unemployed in September 1990. That was a shock. I didn't think it was worth applying for jobs. Who would take on a former colonel from the GDR?
I read that you opened a food market in the old Werner Seelenbinder hall?
Yes. A man from Dortmund in West Germany was the contractor and he was determined to have an ex-military man on board. But that lasted only six months and then the hall was to be demolished and I had to tell the workers that they wouldn't be paid any more, and that I was in the same boat. I was supposed to look for new premises in Storkower Straße. Then the first court cases began and at first it was only soldiers who were prosecuted. Then they started proceedings against me. I received the summons in early 1997 and the trial started in August. I was charged with four counts of manslaughter.
That's how they worked it out because I had been commander of the border regiment for two years in Rummelsburg und Treptow, and as deputy head of the border command in central Berlin I was also responsible for the orders. But there was nothing about the use of weapons in them.
Would you have been able to do anything to stop those fleeing being shot at the border?
There was a law that said that anyone who illegally crossed the border was committing a crime. It was our job to stop people breaking through the Wall and the last resort was to use our guns. That was what our soldiers were taught. What was the question again?
Whether you could have stopped people shooting at the escapees. They just wanted to leave the country and were no danger to anyone.
They were committing an offence. You have to see it from our side as well! Of course I did everything I could to stop them getting anywhere near the border but in Berlin the border strip was sometimes only 10m wide. That meant everything went really quickly. During the trial the judge asked the border guard, 'What were you thinking?' The border guard said, 'What was I supposed to think? I simply followed my training. Shout, warning shot, shoot, in the legs if possible.'
And what was your sentence?
Commander Wöllner got five years and as chief of staff I got three years and three months and the other deputies got three years. We appealed all the way up to the European Court but it was rejected everywhere. I started my sentence on February 8 2000, in the Hakenfelde district of Berlin.
What was it like?
I had a good social worker there and she supported me a lot.
Were you in a one-man cell?
No, at first it was a four-man cell. The others said 'All right, General. Don't worry, we'll look after you.' Schabowski was in the neighboring cell.
Did you have any contact with him?
Yes, we discussed the political situation almost every evening. But Schabowski was released in September and I was released a year later, on probation.
What did you do after you were released?
I worked as a window and door salesman in Friedrichsfelde. I didn't know anything about doors and windows. I mean, I knew how to close them but I learnt how to organise people and to work with them. I enjoyed it. I didn't earn very much, €1100 a month. It has affected my pension.
How much pension do you get?