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1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard

July 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Manfred Smolka was guillotined in Leipzig.

Smolka was among three million East Germans or more who escaped over the border to West Germany in the 16 years after the defeat of the Nazis divided the country.

In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.


One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.

Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany

The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.


Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.

According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)

West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.

Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.

There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.

* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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10 thoughts on “1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard”

  1. Kevin M Sullivan says:

    Too bad West German border guards didn’t shoot the Stasi thugs as they crossed over. On a personal note, I travelled through East Germany in 1972, and you could tell these people don’t play around. If your papers are out of order, or if they perceive anything that isn’t just right about you, you’re likely to be harassed by them. The US soldiers warned us at what was known as Checkpoint Charlie, that once we crossed over to their side there was nothing they could do for us. We crossed anyway, lol!

  2. Meaghan says:

    My dad, as a college student in the 1960s, toured several countries in the Communist Bloc. (I found some letters he wrote from Czechoslovakia, addressed to “Dear Free World…”) He told me that while he was in East Berlin, his tour group had handlers and one the handlers prevented him from going into a bookstore.

  3. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    We drove from West Germany, traveled about 120 miles through East Germany and entered West Berlin. We did not drive out because we didn’t want any additional trouble from the East German military at the check point. Flying out of Tempelhof airport, we breathed a sigh of relief, lol!.

  4. JCF says:

    My God, a nation was still using the *guillotine* in 1960?!

    At some level it doesn’t matter—I oppose all forms of capital punishment, and I’m sure they all have their horrors—but this still turns my stomach uniquely.

  5. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    The Guillotine was used in France until September of 1972. I remember joking when I was in Paris in July of 1972, how, if I committed murder, they might give me the guillotine, and I shuddered to think of it, LOL!

    BTW: The Guillotine is probably one of the best modes of execution ever invented. It exceedingly quick, painless, and it never botches the execution like other forms designed to remove life from a body.

    Thank you, Antoine Louis, creator of the Guillotine, you had a good run! (I know, Dr. Guillotine gets the credit, but he’s not the inventor of this unusual killing machine).

  6. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Make that “It’s exceedingly quick…”

  7. Meaghan says:

    Yeah, if I had my choice of execution methods, I’d pick either the guillotine or a bullet to the base of the skull. With either one of them it’s lights-out in seconds or less — although both of them are not nice to watch.

    (It’s remotely possible to survive the latter; see Szymon Srebrnik whom I wrote about on this blog. But I’ve never heard of someone surviving the guillotine.)

  8. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Yes, bullets to the head are not always fatal. The Guillotine, however, has a 100% success rate.

    Long live the Guillotine! (Oh, that’s right, it’s no more, LOL!)

  9. Meaghan says:

    A few years ago, Kevin, I woke up one day quite literally screaming in pain with the worst headache I’d ever had in my life. Long story short, the headache never went away and all the diagnostic tests, MRIs and such revealed nothing wrong. It was one of the worst periods of my life.

    I went to the Cleveland Clinic’s special three-week intensive headache treatment program 15 months later. While in the program I joked that it seemed the only thing I hadn’t already tried was decapitation. I was sure it would work, I said, but the side effects didn’t seem to be worth it.

    Without missing a beat, the lead psychologist said, “Yeah, and the peer-reviewed studies didn’t turn out too well either.”

  10. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Yes, the cure would be worse than the problem, lol!

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