Roles Mixed in Berlin Wall Shooting
BERLIN (AP) _ In 1962, with the Cold War at its frostiest, a young baker risked his life to get his family out of communist East Germany by tunneling under the newly built Berlin Wall.
In the West, he was hailed as a hero. On the other side of the wall, however, Rudolf Mueller was called a killer because he made his getaway by shooting point-blank at a startled young border guard.
The Wall is gone now, as is East Germany, but the case has been revived. Mueller, now 67, goes on trial today in Berlin charged with murder.
His case is believed to be the first to reverse the pattern since German unification in 1990: hundreds of convictions of former East German border guards and officials on charges related to shooting those trying to flee to the West.
The apparent one-sidedness has prompted many in eastern Germany to complain of ``victor’s justice.″ Berlin officials hope the Mueller trial will help them refute that charge.
``Whatever is there to be pursued, prosecutors have to pursue it and they do so, no matter which political side the perpetrator and victim were on,″ Justice Ministry spokesman Matthias Rebentisch said. ``It’s solely about clearing up crimes.″
Rebentisch denied prosecutors had dragged their feet in bringing charges against Mueller, blaming the heavy workload borne by the agency, which is charged with sorting through the miles of secret files kept by East Germany’s security apparatus.
Mueller was held briefly after being charged in June 1997, then released on $60,000 bail. He no longer lives in Berlin, and he and his lawyer declined to comment before the trial.
Muller had made it out of East Germany before the Wall went up, then spent weeks digging a 72-foot tunnel with plans to rescue his family.
On June 18, 1962, he crossed to the East to bring his family to the building near the Wall where his tunnel led. As they approached, they were stopped by the guard, 20-year-old Reinhold Huhn, who was armed with a machine gun.
Muller later told West Berlin police Huhn asked to see their papers. Huhn was looking through a bag when Mueller said he punched him, knocking him down. Before Huhn could get up, another border guard opened fire, hitting the guard, Mueller claimed.
The family fled and made it to the West.
The East Germans told a different story _ one that prosecutors now believe.
Citing witnesses, they say Mueller was stopped, pretended to reach into his breast pocket for his ID card and pulled out a gun, shooting Huhn point-blank before the guard had time to react.
Mueller himself muddied the case during a celebratory post-escape news conference at one of West Germany’s biggest publishing houses, Axel Springer, which had allowed him to dig the tunnel from its basement.
With whiskey flowing, Mueller was asked about how many times he had to ``pull the trigger.″ He was quoted as saying: ``Once. The man fell down immediately.″ In the jovial atmosphere it was not clear if he was being serious.
East Germany demanded Mueller be handed over. West Germany refused, insisting, with Cold War dogmatism, that the guard was shot by one of his own comrades during the frenzied escape.
Mueller soon left Berlin and eventually became a union official and businessman. His case slipped from memory in the West.
But the border guard, Huhn, became a martyr for the East German propaganda machine, a symbol of the threat from the West for a regime seeking to justify its erection of the Wall less than a year earlier and to draw attention away from its own citizens being killed on the border _ nearly 1,000 in all by last official count.
Huhn, who earned his living milking cows, had helped build the Wall while doing his military service. East Berlin named a street after him near the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing and hung a plaque pledging to bring his killer to justice.
The tablet is gone today, but the street name remains.
Mueller’s trial is scheduled to last until Feb. 26.