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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Traffic at the German-German border in Helmstedt in Lower Saxony (1965)

Traffic at the German-German border in Helmstedt in Lower Saxony (1965)

Image courtesy of Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

Defending socialism? Benito Corghi and the inter-German border

Pertti Ahonen, School of History and Classics, University of Edinburgh

The crossing of national borders can be a controversial - and dangerous - enterprise. This axiom holds true in the early twenty-first century, as the wealthy elite of the world's states jealously patrol their frontiers in order to keep out the growing numbers of impoverished would-be immigrants who are willing to risk their lives in adventurous attempts to pierce those border defences. But it was arguably even more apposite during the Cold War, when Europe in particular was still divided by the so-called Iron Curtain, a heavily guarded barrier between socialism and capitalism, constructed and maintained by the socialist states of Eastern Europe in large part to keep their own citizens from leaving for the capitalist West. As people eager to exit the socialist world were routinely held back, punished, and often physically harmed or even killed in the act of trying to escape, freedom of movement became a highly politicized issue. The Cold War West, with its relatively open borders, had an easy time scoring propaganda points by attacking the obvious cruelty and inhumanity of the Eastern bloc's border regime.

The resulting controversies grew particularly intense in Germany, a nation itself split as a direct result of the Cold War. As the German Democratic Republic (GDR) imposed ever-tightening controls on its frontiers with the Federal Republic, its western nemesis, from the early 1950s and then perfected those controls into a well-nigh impenetrable fortress once the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 had closed the only remaining loophole in the system, Western denunciations accompanied the GDR's every move. In West Germany in particular politicians, journalists and various other commentators kept the GDR's oppressive border regime in the limelight, highlighting the violence regularly committed against individuals caught up in the border zone, usually in attempted flight from East to West Germany. The maiming and killing of unarmed civilians whose only crime appeared to have been the desire to move from one part of Germany to another gave the Federal Republic plentiful opportunity to portray the GDR as a brutal gangster state devoid of any legitimacy amongst its own population. For the East German regime, such attacks posed serious problems. Particularly at the height of the Cold War, before the onset of a noticeable European detente in the late 1960s, they severely undermined the GDR's attempts to enhance its international prestige and respectability in its desperate drive for parity with its much more widely recognized western neighbour.

By the mid-1970s the situation had changed significantly. The arrival of detente had brought about a limited normalization of relations between the two German states and a high degree of international recognition for the GDR. East Germany's general prestige had also grown, thanks in good part to cultural charm offensives, including impressive, doping-fuelled sports successes that had transformed the GDR into a veritable sporting superpower. At the same time, violent incidents at the German-German border had decreased, largely because of the GDR authorities' improved capability to catch would-be defectors well before they reached the frontier zone. But violent episodes at the border could still wreak havoc with the GDR's normalization campaigns and significantly harm East Berlin's cause in ongoing Cold War propaganda battles. A particular incident from the summer of 1976, fiercely debated at the time but now largely forgotten, will illustrate these dynamics.

The events began to unfold shortly before 4am on 5 August 1976 as West German officials at the Rudolphstein/Hirschberg border station in Bavaria, on the main motorway linking Munich and Berlin, heard gunshots from the East German side. Although the foggy weather conditions and forested terrain prevented the officials from observing first-hand what exactly had happened, their immediate assumption was that a violent border incident had taken place. Quite possibly someone had been killed or at least wounded. After hours of uncertainty and growing speculation in West Germany, a brief GDR news announcement on the evening of 5 August confirmed these fears: a man had been shot and killed 'while trying to avoid border controls.' (1) Such a tragedy was in itself nothing extraordinary. According to contemporary West German reports, at least 167 others had been killed at the German-German border since the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and although violent episodes had decreased significantly during the 1970s, they still remained relatively common. (2) The previous deadly shooting at the inter-German frontier had taken place on 30 April 1976 (3), and there had been other, less fatal incidents since then. Usually such cases provoked short-lived political and media battles, with sharp West German recriminations and delayed East German responses that ranged from the defensive to the defiantly combative. In the detente atmosphere of the mid-1970s, however, these controversies typically faded from the main headlines quickly, often within days, lingering only as minor news stories on the back pages of media reports.

But the incident of 5 August 1976 turned out to be different – and more enduring – in several ways. As even the GDR's initial press release acknowledged, the shot man had been moving from west to east, into East Germany rather than out of it. This was somewhat unusual but by no means unprecedented. Over the years numerous West Germans had been wounded or killed while making an unauthorized entry into the GDR, some by intent, others by accident. Considerably more unusual were the broader circumstances surrounding the incident. The border crossing point in question, located on a major highway, had been designed for motor vehicles only. But as West German media reports soon revealed, the killed man had driven his meat transport truck from East Berlin to the frontier, passed through the East and West German control points, parked in a lay-by on West German soil, and then walked back into the GDR, only to be shot down on the road leading to the checkpoint he had already cleared. All of this raised the question of why he had behaved in this fashion, lending the case an unusual aura of mystery.

But ultimately it was the victim's identity and background that made his case truly exceptional - and nightmarish for the East German regime. The dead man turned out to be no German at all but an Italian, the only non-German Westerner ever killed at the inter-German border: Benito Corghi, a 38-year professional truck driver from the town of Rubiera in central Italy, married with two teenaged children. Even more remarkably, Corghi had been a man of the working class, a committed, long-term member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), employed by a Communist-run Italian transport co-operative. Nor had he made any secret of his ideological convictions; the chain that bore the keys to his truck proudly displayed an engraving of the hammer and the sickle, and his wife, too, was an engaged member of the PCI. (4) As vocal condemnation of the incident rapidly mounted, not only in the Federal Republic but, predictably, also in Italy and – to a lesser degree – throughout the rest of the non-Communist world as well, the East German authorities faced a major public relations crisis. How would they cope when even the Italian Communist Party, traditionally relatively sympathetic towards the GDR, condemned the shooting as 'unjustifiable' and demanded East German compensation for the Corghi family? (5)

East German efforts to respond to the situation constituted a confused mishmash of procrastination, evasion, conciliation, and verbal aggression. The authorities' general embarrassment was evident in their initial hesitant silence: for several days their only official statement about the case amounted to just four sentences that admitted the fatal shooting of 'the Italian citizen Benito Corghi' as a result of his attempt to evade border controls. (6) Such public hesitation was combined with partial conciliation behind the scenes, however, as GDR authorities adopted a relatively accommodating stance towards Italian representatives. In their initial meeting with the Italian charge d'affaires on the evening of the shooting, for example, East German diplomats expressed 'deep regret' over the incident. (7) More symbolic accommodation of Italian sensibilities followed through the GDR authorities' handling of the dead man's body. Corghi's corpse was presented to Italian diplomats lying in state, bedecked with flower bouquets and attended by a Catholic priest, who even proceeded to say mass for the deceased. (8) Condolences of a more public nature ensued a few days later, as the GDR's top diplomat in Italy took Corghi's funeral as an opportunity to visit the Italian Communist Party's local headquarters in his hometown of Rubiera, proclaiming the case 'a tragic mistake' and suggesting East Berlin's willingness to provide financial compensation for the bereaved family. (9)

The GDR's relative moderation vis-à-vis the Italians contrasted with its much more militant posture towards West Germany, as evidenced by the official version of the events presented by the East German authorities within days of the incident, once the initial hesitation had passed. All expressions of regret notwithstanding, the GDR insisted that it had done nothing wrong. The government newspaper spoke of a 'tragic chain of circumstances' and 'mysterious events' that had ultimately claimed Corghi's life, and official investigative reports concurred. (10) According to them, the GDR border guards had acted correctly. The unidentified man had approached them in the foggy early morning hours, in an unauthorized area, moving in an 'unusual fashion, sometimes bending down' and carrying an unidentifiable object in one hand, making him appear potentially dangerous, possibly even armed. He had failed to respond to repeated calls to stop and had instead abruptly turned and run away, ignoring further shouts and warning shots. (11) In the official East German view, the mystery was therefore not why the foolhardy Italian had ended up being shot but why he had tried to return to the GDR in the first place, on foot, in an unauthorized area, having passed the border controls in the opposite direction just minutes before. According to the GDR, there was no apparent reason for him to have acted in this fashion, which raised the question of West German complicity, even culpability. In official public statements, the East Germans restrained their speculation somewhat, accusing the Federal Republic of manipulating the incident for unscrupulous and irresponsible propaganda attacks against the GDR. (12) Behind the scenes, they went considerably further. In notes intended as possible discussion points for meetings with Italian diplomats, for example, they suggested that West German border officials might have deliberately sent Corghi into harm's way in order to provoke a border incident. And they speculated that the hammer and sickle motif on his key chain might have been the immediate cause of his victimization. (13)

Unfortunately for the East Germans, their efforts to defuse the public relations time bomb unleashed by Corghi's demise proved largely ineffectual. One problem was that their conciliatory gestures towards the Italians appeared rather superficial and insufficient when juxtaposed with their repeated dismissal of Rome's requests for a more thorough account of the precise circumstances that had led to Corghi's death. Unfulfilled promises made matters even worse; the compensation for the family of the deceased that East Berlin had seemed to promise never materialized, and the whole affair soon degenerated into undignified haggling over the amount to be paid, with the East Germans refusing to exceed the rather paltry sum of 25 million lira (some 70,000 Deutschmark). (14) Embarrassingly for them, the only payment from Germany that the Corghi family did receive was the 12,000 DM raised by a West German television quiz show shortly after the shooting. (15) Even more damaging to the GDR was the fact the West German version of the events, widely propagated in the Federal Republic's mass media, quickly attained much wider exposure and credibility than its Eastern counterpart, at least outside the Communist bloc. According to this narrative, cobbled together from eyewitness accounts on the West German side, Corghi had returned to the GDR not because of a mysterious death wish or a dark, anti-Communist conspiracy but because of an East German request for him to do so. The Italian had apparently forgotten some of his customs papers at the East German border station, and the driver of a truck that had crossed to the West shortly afterwards had informed him of the situation. In response, Corghi had set out on a mission to retrieve the paperwork, although the reasons behind his decision to go on foot rather than in one of the vehicles that routinely crossed from West to East remained unclear. The shooting itself had probably been something of a nervous over-reaction rather than a pre-meditated ambush, precipitated by confusion among East German border authorities in difficult pre-dawn conditions but ultimately made possible by the GDR border guards' brutal operational orders, according to which the shooting of unauthorized individuals in the border strip was justified. (16)

The fact that the West German public narrative proved considerably more persuasive than its GDR equivalent was partly due to its being much more factually accurate, even if conclusive proof of that point emerged only after the opening of East German archives in the 1990s. As the available evidence indicates, the GDR authorities, spearheaded by agents of the Stasi, the secret police, conducted an extensive cover-up after the incident. Initial investigative reports by Stasi experts and others largely concurred with the subsequent Western version of the events. Corghi had returned to the East German side of the border because he had forgotten 'a veterinary certificate for his meat transport at the [East German] customs office'. (17) The border guards who had stopped him had not perceived him as immediately threatening, and the object that Corghi had carried in his hand had been clearly identifiable to them as a bag, not a weapon. Shots had been fired at him not because he posed any physical danger to anyone but simply because he attempted to flee towards the West. (18) Subsequent statements, formulated by higher-ranking intelligence officers and political operatives with both eyes on PR and propaganda considerations, changed all this. In the resulting official narrative, Corghi had not only appeared suspicious and threatening as he approached the East German guards; he had also lacked any objective reason to return to the GDR at all. As East German representatives mendaciously insisted in a discussion with the Italian Ambassador a few days after the incident, Corghi had been in 'possession of all the papers and documents' necessary for his further travels; he had 'left nothing' at the GDR border station. (19)

Given their extensive manipulation of the facts, East German authorities arguably had good reason to remain evasive in their public portrayal of the Corghi case. But although their approach may have worked internally, within the closely controlled Communist camp, it backfired externally, in the world beyond the Iron Curtain. Italian diplomats were left angry and frustrated by their encounters with stonewalling East German officials, which hardly raised the GDR's international prestige. (20) West German politicians and media elites used the case to score a series of easy publicity points against East Germany and its cruel, oppressive system. The wider Western public, particularly in West Germany and Italy – the two countries most immediately affected by the incident – lacked faith in the GDR's account of the events. In the end, the whole episode proved a major embarrassment for the East German regime. The global imperative of detente did, of course, ultimately prevail, and eventually – after a few months – even Corghi began to fade from the headlines. But the case had been more damaging for the GDR than just about any other contemporary incident at the German-German border. Its stinging humiliation was underscored by the conclusions that Corghi's widow Silvana, herself a dedicated Communist, drew in her speech at her husband's funeral: 'What has happened is the result of an absurd and unacceptable way of defending socialism. We, my children and I, have paid a price that is high, too high... Socialism cannot be defended with murder.' (21)

  1. AND report of 5 August, in 'Zwischenfall an der Staatsgrenze', Neues Deutschland (hereafter ND), 6 August 1976. Back to (1)
  2. 'Die Killer an der Zonengrenze', Quick, nr. 35, 1976. Back to (2)
  3. On the death of Michael Gartenschläger, see Lothar Lienicke and Franz Bludau, Todesautomatik (Hamburg, 2001). Back to (3)
  4. 'Grenzprotokoll', Die Welt, 7 August 1976. Back to (4)
  5. 'Italiens Kommunisten und die DDR', Mannheimer Morgen, 7 August 1976. Back to (5)
  6. 'Zwischenfall an der Staatsgrenze', ND, 6 August 1976. Back to (6)
  7. 'Vermerk über ein Gespräch mit dem italienischen Geschäftsträger', 5 August 1976, Archive of the Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, Berlin (hereafter BStU): MfS-HA IX, 1494. Back to (7)
  8. 'Bericht über die Aufbewahrung und Überführung des beim Zwischenfall an der Grenzübergangsstelle Hirschberg verstorbenen italienischen Staatsbürger Corghi', 8 August 1976, BStU: Mfs-HA IX, 1494. Back to (8)
  9. 'Was Frau Corghi zur "DDR" sagt', Die Welt, 11 August 1976. Back to (9)
  10. ND report of 8 August 1976, reprinted in 'Die lange Liste der Bonner Sünden', Frankfurter Rundschau, 11 August 1976. Back to (10)
  11. 'Abschlussbericht', 9 August 1976, BStU: Mfs - HA IX, 1494. Back to (11)
  12. See the ND report cited in note 10. Back to (12)
  13. 'Zur eventuell erforderlichen mündlichen Argumentation gegenüber der italienischen Seite', BStU: Mfs - HA IX, 1494. Back to (13)
  14. 'Noch kein Geld für Familie Corghi', Die Welt, 14 March 1977. Back to (14)
  15. 'Noch kein Geld für die Witve', Die Welt, 15 October 1976. Back to (15)
  16. See, for example, 'Tödlicher Zwischenfall noch ungeklärt', Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7 August 1976; 'Weiter haben noch keine DDR-Schüsse gehallt', Stuttgarter Zeitung, 7 August 1976. Back to (16)
  17. Stasi Hauptabteilung IX/4, 'Erstinformation', 5 August 1976, BStU: Mfs - HA IX, 1494. Back to (17)
  18. See the interviews (Befragungsprotokolle) with GDR border guards in BStU: MfS - HA IX, 1494. Back to (18)
  19. Attachment ('Anlage') to 'Vermerk über ein Gespräch mit dem Botschafter der italienischen Republik in der DDR', 12 August 1976; 'Zur eventuell erforderlichen mündlichen Argumentation gegenüber der italienischen Seite', both in BStU: MfS - HA IX, 1494. Back to (19)
  20. See, for example, 'Vermerk über ein Gespräch des Stellvertreters des Ministers für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten mit dem Botschafter der Italienischen Republik in der DDR', 11 August 1976, BStU: MfS - HA IX, 1494. Back to (20)
  21. 'Was Frau Corghi zur "DDR" sagt', Die Welt, 11 August 1976. In the early 1990s, the case returned to the limelight, as Uwe Schmiedel, the border guard who had shot Corghi, went on trial in the eastern German town of Gera. In May 1994 he was acquitted of the charge of manslaughter as the judges concluded that he had not intended to kill his victim. Back to (21)

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