50 Years On, Germany To Try Ex-Stasi Officer For Murder Of Pole

The 80-year-old defendant, an ex-member of the East German secret police identified by the court as Martin N., is accused of murdering Czeslaw Kukuczka at a border crossing in Berlin.

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A former Stasi officer will go on trial in Germany on Thursday for shooting a Polish man attempting to flee to West Berlin almost 50 years ago, a case that could impact how killings committed in the communist era are dealt with.

The 80-year-old defendant, an ex-member of the East German secret police identified by the court as Martin N., is accused of murdering Czeslaw Kukuczka at a border crossing in Berlin.

The delay in filing the charges illustrates the challenges Germany has faced in bringing East German officials to justice for crimes committed by the communist government in its bid to stop citizens from escaping to the West.

At least 140 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989, but border guards and other East German officials who have faced trial so far have usually been charged with manslaughter — a lesser charge on which the statute of limitations would have run out in the case of Martin N.

He is accused of gunning down Kukuczka as he made his way through the border control post on March 29, 1974, at the Friedrichstrasse train station in East Berlin, one of the best-known crossing points in the divided city.

Earlier that day, Kukuczka is said to have gone to the Polish embassy in the communist capital to demand passage to the West, according to the court in Berlin.

Carrying a fake bomb, Kukuczka threatened to detonate the device unless his demand was met.

– Render ‘harmless’ –

Details of the incident are laid out in research work by two historians, Hans-Hermann Hertle and Filip Ganczak.

According to the research, staff at the Polish embassy alerted the East German secret police to Kukuczka’s threat.

Stasi officials are said to have decided to lead Kukuczka to think he would be allowed to leave the country and escorted him to the nearby Friedrichstrasse crossing.

But instead of facilitating his passage to the West, the officers were under orders to render Kukuczka “harmless”, according to the historians, employing a common euphemism in Stasi documents for the elimination of political opponents.

Kukuczka was making his way through the border crossing to West Berlin when Martin N. allegedly shot him in the back “from a hiding place”, the court said.

The victim’s children are joint plaintiffs in the case but will not attend the trial.

A lawyer for Kukuczka’s daughter, Hans-Juergen Foerster, said Martin N. was “the last link in a chain of command” that ordered the killing.

Foerster and the family want the investigation into Kukuczka’s death to be extended to include all those who might have had a hand in the murder and to have them called as witnesses.

“Some are still alive,” Foerster told AFP, though two of the officers involved have already died.

– Historic trial –

Even if the two officers were still living, it would “not have been easy” to have them stand trial for the killing, Daniela Muenkel, the head of the Stasi archives in Berlin, told AFP.

“It was not them who carried out the orders,” Muenkel said.

Even Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989, avoided punishment for his role in the secret police after the fall of the Wall for lack of evidence.

But Mielke was sentenced to six years in prison in 1993 for the murder of two police officers in 1931 as a young communist militant.

The trial of Martin N., which will be recorded for its historical importance, comes at the end of years of investigation.

A European arrest warrant for the former Stasi officer was issued by Poland in 2021, which spurred German authorities to pick up the stalled case.

Martin N. was finally charged with murder in October 2023.