The Gymnast Who Died at the Berlin Wall

Over the years this blog has spent countless articles praising the accomplishments of Eastern Bloc athletics. As a result, I don’t want this to overshadow the fact that there was an “other side” to the Eastern Bloc. One that was far greater and far more important to remember. The simple reality that for every person who benefited under the regimes of the Eastern Bloc, a far greater number suffered under them.

Chris Gueffroy wasn’t the only person who died trying to scale the Berlin Wall in an attempt to escape to the West, but considerable attention is paid to his story. Gueffroy has the distinction of being the very last person to be shot dead by East German border guards while attempting to scale the Berlin Wall.

At 20 years old, his time on Earth was so short that writers don’t have much to say about his personal life. There was no wife to talk about, and certainly no children of his own that he raised. Only a brief couple of mentions regarding his educational background, and this is where the story takes a turn into the realm of gymnastics.

Chris Gueffroy is frequently mentioned as a gymnast of extraordinary talent, an assertion that is backed up by his association with SC Dynamo Berlin. For those who don’t know, this club was the powerhouse of the East German program, especially in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). It’s most notable member was Karin Janz, but has also produced East German icons of the 1980s such as Dorte Thummler, Dagmar Kersten, and Maxi Gnauck.

East German border guard helps a child cross the Berlin Wall. The fate of the soldier is unknown. (1961)

On a bad day, Dynamo Berlin would get only two WAGs in the top-6 of the East German National Championships, on a good day they would get four of six spots. On the men’s side, Dynamo Berlin had significant success as well.

As a gymnast who was able to attend this club, but never advanced further Chris Gueffroy represents the thousands of athletes who found themselves in the “middle ground” of East German sports. Someone who had talent that was unusual relative to the general population, but wasn’t a standout athlete relative to the Olympics.

To be an elite East German athlete, you had to be the “1% of the 1%.” The first 1% representing those like Chris Gueffroy who had been selected for the highly prestigious sports schools which were open only to the privileged few. The second 1% representing those from within these exclusive sports schools who were then chosen for elite level competitions such as Maxi Gnauck.

When he failed to develop into a top level gymnast, Gueffroy had to transition into a lifestyle which represented the experiences of everyday East German citizens. For a young male of a proven athletic background, that meant military service. Gueffroy rejected the opportunity to become an officer in the East German military, a decision which would blacklist him from most career options.

Gueffroy wanted to become a pilot, or at the very least attend college. But both options were unavailable to him because of his “politically suspect attitude.” Instead he would find work as a waiter at an airport restaurant which meant he was able to interact with foreign guests. This exposure to those from the outside, particularly Americans only seemed to harden his views and make Gueffroy realize that the East German system was flawed and there was a better life to be found.

In January of 1989 Gueffroy learned he was slated to be conscripted into the East German army. But it was unclear if this meant he’d still have a higher status as an officer or if he would be assigned a more dreadful task because of his unfavorable political label. Gueffroy’s dilemma was he had thrown away so much to avoid a military lifestyle, only to be forced into the military under far less favorable circumstances.

Gueffroy didn’t make his decision to climb the Berlin Wall on an impulse, he had planned his escape with a friend and the pair were banking on two conditions to ensure success. The first condition was on the day they were to scale the Berlin Wall, the Swedish Prime Minister was visiting East Berlin. The two friends had calculated the East Germans would be seeking to avoid a major incident when such a foreign dignitary was in town.

East German border guard successfully escapes to the West resulting in the famed “Leap into Freedom” photograph (1961)

The second condition of the plan rested on the belief that the widespread rumor of the the East German government had ordered a halt to all shootings at the Berlin Wall. Chris Gueffroy’s decision to attempt an escape from East Berlin rested on both of these conditions being true. He was also spurred on by his own gymnastics ability and belief that he had the athletic skills to navigate the difficult obstacles meant to stop would be defectors.

As for the Swedish Prime Minister, he had left during the day and was out of the country by the time Gueffroy attempted his escape under the cover of darkness in February of 1989. As for the rumor that East German border guards were barred from shooting those who attempted to scale the Berlin Wall, it would tragically prove to be nothing more than a rumor of false hope.

It was under these conditions that Chris Gueffroy made his escape attempt. He thought he was risking no more than a couple of years in jail if he did not succeed, not his life.

Gueffroy had left money and identification papers on his desk for his mother to find. His death would put his mother through a terrible ordeal. Among her experiences, being interrogated by the East German police for two hours and then informed her son “attacked a military unit and died.” Against her wishes, Chris Gueffroy’s body was cremated and the mother was billed for the expense.

At the time she was a single and had no husband for support. What followed was the East German police being described as “relentless in their efforts to punish her and extract more information.”

Chris Gueffroy

Chris Gueffroy was not the last person to die at the Berlin Wall. One month after his passing another death occurred after a man attempted to cross the Berlin Wall with an improvised gas balloon. He fell to his death. Nor would Chris Gueffroy be the last time East German border guards fired at fleeing East German civilians.

Shootings at the border wall would continue, but none which resulted in a death. The last shooting incident occurring two months after Gueffroy’s death until finally, the East German government put a halt to the practice. But even then the violence continued elsewhere. There was a shooting death at the Hungarian border and a drowning death as someone attempted to swim across the Polish border.

So much attention was paid to Chris Gueffroy’s case because it represented the East-West German divide at its absolute worst. It represented a young life cut short not by a hazardous obstacle, but by an intentional decision to pull a trigger and shed blood. The unapologetic audacity of the East German government to do it not in the rural country side, but in the heart of Berlin where all eyes would watching. The tragedy enhanced by the fact that within a year, the Berlin Wall and the entire East German system would all come crashing down.

The reason I tell this story is because not only did Gueffroy have a gymnastics background, his gymnastics ability may very well have given him the self-confidence to attempt such an escape in the first place. Nor did Chris Gueffroy perform gymnastics on a casual basis. His association with Dynamo Berlin makes me wonder if he ever passed Maxi Gnauck in the hallway, or ate lunch in a cafeteria a couple of tables away from Dagmar Kersten.

But the other reason I tell this story is because for all the Olympic Champions the Eastern Bloc produced, there was an equal number of athletes who were raised in the Olympic feeder program only to remain in obscurity as they were never selected for promotion into the top level of their respective sport. Athletes who each had a story of his or her own.

Chris Gueffroy was one of those unknown stories, until for historical reasons, he became a significant figure. His place in history has little to do with gymnastics. But gymnastics fans will probably be surprised to learn that there is a gymnastics connection to such significant event in the closing days of the Cold War. And they might be shocked when this tragedy is put into a gymnastics context.

If Chris Gueffroy were alive today, he’d be younger than both Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo.

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