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On Berlin Wall anniversary, somber notes amid revelry

Günter Taubmann, whose only son, Thomas, was killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall, visited the wall’s memorial.Gordon Welters/New York Times

BERLIN — It was the morning after the best party ever, the tumult and joy that marked the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. After 28 years, East Berliners were giddy with marvel that they could visit the West.

Günter Taubmann felt different, as if, he said, “I am in the wrong movie.” Eight years earlier, his only child, Thomas, had been killed trying to cross the wall, one of 138 people who died at the barrier erected by the Communists in 1961 to stop Germans streaming out of the poor, repressive East.

Now, someone at work had been to the West and back during that night and was telling the tale. Taubmann’s Communist colleagues professed to be exultant over the end of the order they had long espoused. Those who had not mourned Thomas at the time of his death were suddenly solicitous.


“I didn’t know what they wanted from me, and then they started, ‘What bad luck! Your son could have waited,’ ” Taubmann recounted, his voice edgy with sarcasm. “I am normally a calm person, but there I got in such a fury. I simply threw them all out.’

Once they were gone, “I poured out my heart” to those colleagues who had braved the intimidation of the secret police to attend Thomas’s funeral.

For most of Germany, Nov. 9 is a day to celebrate not just the opening of the wall but what came after: integration of East and West and the rise of a united and prosperous Germany that now helps lead Europe.

But for some Germans it also summons memories of the East Germany that was a state of informers and suspicions, public rigidity and private despair — none more so than the families and friends of those killed at the Berlin Wall, for whom the anniversary of its fall is tarnished by tragedy, pocked with the holes where a child, a spouse, or sibling once was.


To trace the victims is to delve behind the glamour and groove that is modern Berlin, deep into meticulously neat gardens and homes where most Germans live their ordered lives. The pain still sears, more than five decades after the first victims died.

By far the majority of those killed trying to breach the fortified, 96-mile barrier were young men in their teens or 20s. Contrary to myths of heroism and betrayal attached variously by West and East to each escape, few who fled or tried to had a purely political motive.

Thomas Taubmann was 26, divorced, a college dropout who was drinking too much when, on the grim weekend of Dec. 12-13, 1981, as martial law was declared in Poland and as East and West German leaders met, he tried to scale the wall at a spot where East and West rail tracks ran parallel.

His parents, interrogated separately by the police, never heard the exact truth, but Thomas was apparently crushed by a train.

His mother, Elisabeth, never got over it. “She was sick at heart, and she died of it,” said her husband, now 80.

After his wife’s death in 1999, Günter Taubmann requested the file of the secret police. Only then did he read the note that Thomas had left for his parents in which the son intuited that his father had the stronger nerves, and implored him to help her cope. Only then did the father know for sure that, without warning, his son had tried to escape.


As to what prompted Axel Hannemann to try, at 17, to cross the Spree River to West Berlin in 1962, no one knows. His farewell note said he would reveal the motive “once I’ve made it.” Fifty-two years later, his only surviving sibling, Jürgen, still tears up.

Axel’s escape attempt occurred when the wall was not yet a year old and an object of Communist zeal. Eventually, Jürgen Hannemann said, the secret Stasi police stopped interrogating friends from work. Axel’s daring attempt — jumping on a cargo ship headed for West Berlin, being discovered, then plunging into the Spree and getting shot in view of people on the western bank — receded into history.