Border guards in East Germany during the Cold War were given clear orders to shoot at attempted defectors, including children, a senior official says.
Guards shot dozens of people trying to cross the Berlin Wall
A newly discovered order is the firmest evidence yet that the communist regime gave explicit shoot-to-kill orders, says Germany's director of Stasi files.
The Stasi was the security ministry of the East German government, which always denied there was such a policy.
The order "is a licence to kill", said the head of a Stasi victims' memorial.
Hubertus Knabe called for a criminal investigation and possible murder charges to be brought against whoever drew up the order, saying nearly all the Stasi's 91,000 former employees had gone "practically unpunished".
The seven-page document dated 1 October 1973, was found last week in an archive in the eastern city of Magdeburg, among the papers of an East German border guard.
"Do not hesitate with the use of a firearm, including when the border breakouts involve women and children, which the traitors have already frequently taken advantage of," it reads.
Officially, East German border regulations said use of a weapon was to be considered an "extreme measure".
But Marianne Birthler, director of the government office that now manages Stasi archives, said the order proves that the top echelon of the regime expected attempted runaways to be killed.
"The document is so important because the political leaders of the time continue to deny there was an order to shoot," she told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
"We have a long way to go in reckoning with the past," she added.
A prominent victims' group said last week that at least 1,245 people had been killed trying to flee East Germany, more than half of them after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.
The figure is far higher than the official total.