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“I didn’t even think about shooting past”

The defendant had not expected this sentence.

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“I didn’t even think about shooting past”

The defendant had not expected this sentence. On October 11, 1963, the Stuttgart jury sentenced the former GDR border guard Fritz Hanke to 15 months in prison for attempted murder of 19-year-old Peter Reisch. The most well-known court reporter in the Federal Republic, Gerhard Mauz, commented on the decision in WELT: "Hanke had to be convicted, although an increasing number of points of view exonerated him in the eyes of the audience and observers as the trial progressed. There would not have been a demonstration of indignation in the large hall of the district court in Stuttgart if Hanke had been acquitted.”

The verdict needed explanation. Because Reisch was dead, shot on June 5, 1962 on the inner-German border in the Harz Mountains, more precisely between the Wernigerode district of Schierke in the east and Wurmberg in the west, and died five weeks later in the Medical Academy in Magdeburg. So why an "attempted" manslaughter? And why did the GDR border guard stand before a West German court in 1963 at all?

Born on January 7, 1941 in Silesia, the youngest of nine children in a working-class family, Fritz Hanke had left primary school after the seventh (instead of the usual eighth) grade because he had failed. Reading and spelling were particularly difficult for him.

His certificate was not sufficient for an apprenticeship as a locksmith. So he first hired himself out for 300 GDR marks a month (a lot of money for an unskilled worker) with unskilled work at the Reichsbahn. At the end of 1958 he was approached by recruiters from the East German army, which called itself the "National People's Army" (NVA) - there was no official conscription in the SED dictatorship at that time. Hanke refused to "voluntarily" become a soldier.

Still. "The recruiters wouldn't let me rest, and in January 1959 I couldn't help but sign it," he testified in Stuttgart. With effect from February 20, Fritz Hanke joined the GDR border troops. First he was deployed on the Oder, ran patrols against smugglers who were traveling between Poland and the GDR. Then, shortly after the Berlin Wall was built, his unit was moved west, to the inner-German border in the Harz Mountains.

But he turned out to be "extremely under-talented", according to a trial observer, and therefore only made it to the post of corporal. "Not exactly a rank that expresses a particularly high assessment of his abilities by his superiors," wrote the WELT reporter Mauz and summarized his impression: "Hanke is a nice, not unsympathetic young man. But to be a converted fanatic, a person who, plagued by a conflict of conscience, chose one way and another: you just don't have the intelligence for that.”

But that's what it was about. Eight months after he shot the fugitive, who was not known in the West by name at the time, Hanke himself had successfully fled to the West. At the beginning of February 1963 he reported to a reception center and concealed the fatal events of June 5, 1962. However, other GDR border guards who had fled knew that Hanke had been the shooter, because he had received an honor and a 200 GDR mark bonus for “failing to flee the Republic”. So they reported him. After a few weeks in freedom, Fritz Hanke was arrested in Stuttgart on March 29, 1963.

He was held in custody for six months before his trial began. The procedure was prepared by the central registration office of the state justice administration in Salzgitter, which was set up in November 1961, three months after August 13, to document (state) crimes in the GDR and, if necessary, bring them to court. By the summer of 1963, there were files on 1,874 different cases in the industrial city in Lower Saxony, and Hanke's case was the 598th.

In order to demonstrate the seriousness of the federal German efforts to punish injustice in the SED dictatorship wherever possible, Hanke was charged. But it was clear from the outset that the judiciary only saw him as a henchman and not the main perpetrator - the accusation was not murder, but manslaughter, with a sentence of five years to life imprisonment.

But was this charge reasonable? Didn't Fritz Hanke shoot when there was an emergency? After all, it was known that GDR border guards who managed to escape while on duty had to reckon with punishment. However, the defendant undermined this line of defense himself: "I was a good shot," he said to the presiding judge of the chamber. And he added: "I didn't even think about shooting past." What he (maybe) as a good marksman could have done on June 5, 1962 to stop the fugitive with one shot without injuring him life-threateningly.

Before the verdict was announced, the trial observers considered anything between three years imprisonment (the prosecutor's request) and acquittal (according to the defense attorney's plea) to be possible - so little could they assess this case. The jury decided, after a surprisingly short deliberation, in the late afternoon of October 11: 15 months for attempted manslaughter.

The presiding judge needed more than an hour and a half to justify the verdict. The accused adopted "the slogans of the ruling regime" in the GDR "without hesitation". During his political training he was persuaded that a person who wanted to flee the "achievements of the so-called GDR" was a criminal - precisely because he wanted to flee. The court gave the accused credit: “Hanke thought about it within the limits of his moderate mental abilities; he did not think that refugees should be equated with criminals.”

That was ultimately decisive for the sentence. The accused had fulfilled the “criminal act of a homicide” with his targeted shot. And he shot both knowingly and willingly; but according to the conviction of the court he had no intention of killing. In his favour, the fact that the fugitive's death five weeks after Hanke's shot could not be unequivocally attributed to his act was assessed in his favour.

According to Gerhard Mauz, the verdict was difficult for the judges: "Their faces showed extreme exhaustion." Fritz Hanke had to spend another six months behind bars, because four months of his time in custody were counted towards the sentence. After his release, he never appeared again.

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