BERLIN, SEPT. 9 -- They killed for their country, as their country had asked them to. Then their country was dissolved. Now four young former East German border guards sit in a dank courtroom in western Berlin, waiting to hear if they must go to jail for doing what they regarded as their jobs.

Appearing bewildered and depressed, the four men slump in their chairs, avoiding eye contact with lawyers and judges who surround them, ignoring a woman in a corner who stares relentlessly at them. She is the mother of Chris Gueffroy, who was shot in the heart while trying to make a run through the death strip that divided east from west -- the last East German to die trying to flee.

These are the men accused of killing her son nine months before the Berlin Wall burst open and the communist system he sought to escape collapsed. Now Germany must decide whether to hold these guards accountable for manslaughter even as their superiors, the men who gave the orders, remain free.

The defendants in the first major political trial since the fall of the wall appear frightened and pale, quick to weep on the witness stand. They have mumbled answers in eastern dialects so thick the western judges have repeatedly interrupted to seek clarification.

East German border guards shot and killed about 200 fellow citizens during the 28 years in which fences, walls, dogs, mines, automatic weapons and elite sharpshooters divided the two German states. They were following orders issued secretly by East Germany's top leaders: Shoot anyone who tries to flee. Shoot to kill. Stop the flight and get a 150 mark bonus; fail to shoot and face punishment.

These four have been charged with shooting at Gueffroy and a fellow defector, killing Gueffroy and wounding his friend. The guards' commanding officers are said to have treated them like heroes, showering them with medals, cash bonuses, extra holidays and a buffet dinner.

The four guards were, they repeatedly have told the judges, only following orders.

In this country -- where less than half a century ago, war crimes trials sought to establish the concept of crimes against humanity -- those words sparked intense reactions.

Defense counsel Rolf Bossi angrily insisted that the border guards, like executioners, had no choice but to shoot. Chief Judge Theodor Seidel, visibly offended by the comparison, sternly reprimanded the prominent lawyer.

Bossi said in an interview today that his client, 26-year-old border guard Andreas Kuehnpast, "followed the rules and wanted to do everything right. These are simple conscripts, young men with only the slightest responsibility being made scapegoats for the real political powers. Now they all go free and he sits here. The boy doesn't understand the world anymore."

In court, members of the all-western panel of judges today peppered defendant Mike Schmidt, 26, with questions designed to show that he, like every East German, had choices.

Weren't there others who chose to oppose the communist system? "I didn't know about any," Schmidt responded.

Weren't there churches in East Germany? "I never went."

Weren't there other children in school who refused to attend military training? "Possibly, but if you refused, you got two years in prison."

Didn't you know that in West Germany there were great anger and sadness about the border shootings? "No." Didn't you listen to Western radio? "Never."

What did you think about the automatic firing devices installed along the border? "I thought they were a good thing to protect our security," Schmidt said.

The trial, expected to last two months, is a complex proceeding, with 16 lawyers and judges shouting back and forth about whether people from one country can be judged by the laws of another.

The ex-guards, including Ingo Heinrich and Peter Schmett, the other two defendant, face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of manslaughter. If they are convicted, prosecutors expect to go ahead with trials involving about 300 other eastern Germans -- from top party officials to former soldiers and policemen -- accused of border shootings, corruption, espionage and other acts.

Supporters of the prosecution say Germany has an obligation to hold East German criminals responsible whether they gave or received orders. Many western German lawyers say they believe their country did not do enough immediately after World War II to make it clear that following orders from above during the Nazi era could not justify immoral acts.

"The same justice used to judge Nazi crimes must be applied," said Reinhard Goehner, a top official in the German Justice Ministry. "There are clear parallels."

But from the courtroom gallery to the German legislature, many have expressed doubt about what they view as the wisdom or fairness of using these four young men to show western indignation over the East German system.

Reinhard Hoeppner, a mathematician and church leader who became a popular reformer in East Germany's short-lived elected, non-communist government, has argued that while those who gave the orders should be prosecuted, those who followed them should not. The government, Hoeppner contended, is trying to make scapegoats out of "the little people because it is incapable of punishing the big guys."

"Guilty?" asked Monika Kuehnpast, mother of defendant Andreas Kuehnpast. "Those are totally different people who are guilty, people I don't see in the defendants' box. Why isn't {former Communist leader Erich} Honecker here?"

Earlier this year, after prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest for manslaughter in the border shooting cases, Honecker was flown to Moscow from his refuge at a Soviet army base in eastern Germany. After last month's failed Soviet coup, the Bonn government renewed its request for Honecker, now 79. Honecker's lawyer said Sunday that he may soon accept asylum in China.

Markus Wolf, East Germany's top spy who now faces espionage charges here, emerged from hiding in the Soviet Union last week, flew to Austria and was reported today to have moved on to Cuba.

Nevertheless, Dieter Teichmann, former chief of the East German border guard, recently told the east German television network DFF that he is "ready to face the legal consequences" and is "burdened with moral guilt."

In court, the former guards, who graduated from a special training program and earned 80 percent more pay than regular soldiers, have portrayed a system designed to encourage shooting and to maintain secrecy about such orders. Secret police were reported to have monitored conversations among guards and threatened soldiers with prison terms if they expressed reservations about shooting. "Our superiors classified those who sought to flee over the border as criminals and pigs," said ex-guard Schmett.

Today, Kuehnpast told the court he had tried to avoid signing an agreement to shoot at border violators. He accepted kitchen duty rather than sign the paper, he said. But finally, he added, he could no longer take his fellow soldiers' taunts of "Kitchen cockroach!" and he signed.

"I always knew that I could never kill another person," he said. "I only signed to get out of kitchen duty."

But on Feb. 5, 1989, according to the court proceedings, he did shoot, along with three other guards.

Last week, with Kuehnpast in the witness chair, his lawyer read the court a letter from a retired west German recalling tribunals of the late 1940s. "Hold your head up high," the letter advised Kuehnpast. "Once again, they're trying to hang the little people and let the big shots run free." Kuehnpast broke into sobs.

Today, as the judges walked him through his decision to shoot at Gueffroy, Kuehnpast began to speak, then stopped. For 40 seconds, he wept while the audience stared in silence at his heaving back. Chief Judge Seidel waited. Finally he announced a one-hour break in the proceedings.