IN the middle of a cold night in February 1989, two 20-year-old East Germans were inching their way toward the Berlin wall, toward freedom.Just before reaching their goal, sirens sounded and lights flooded the area. The East Germans were ordered to halt. But moments later, Chris Gueffroy, a waiter, and his friend, Christian Gaudian, were shot. Gueffory died; his friend was severely injured. According to press reports, both men had already given up, turned their backs to the wall, and raised their hands when the first shots were fired. The four border guards who delivered those shots are standing trial in Berlin, charged with manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. This is the first trial in Germany that addresses shootings at the border and is considered precedent-setting. Over 300 cases involving border shootings are being investigated. The trial is controversial. When it opened on Sept. 2, defense lawyers demanded that the case be thrown out of court. In order to be found guilty, the lawyers argue, the defendants must be convicted of breaking the law of the land in effect at the time of the crime. Because crossing the border illegally was a crime which could be prevented by using firearms under East German law, the guards are innocent, their attorneys claim. They do not contest that their clients fired the shots. But Judge Theodor Seidel ruled the trial could proceed, and said it was still possible that the shootings violated East German law. The prosecution is also under attack for going after the "small fry" while letting the "big fish," such as former East German leader Erich Honecker, get away. In a letter to members of the German Parliament published Aug. 28, four former East German generals took reponsibility for the shootings and said the border guards were only following orders. A commentary in the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost wondered whether the young guards themselves weren't victims of a perverted society. Former border guard Andreas Kuhnpast, who fought back tears when he first entered the courtroom, testified calmly Sept. 2 that he had shot only at the base of the fence near the two victims. He said he accidently fired bursts from his machine gun, because he didn't notice that his gun was set on automatic until after he started shooting. Peter Schmett, a guard who fired single shots, said he aimed only at the legs of the escaping East Germans. Both ex-guards, in their late 20s, said that two weeks after the shootings they were each given badges of honor, 150 East German marks, and a couple of days off. But Mr. Kuhnpast said he felt like throwing away everything he received. Karl Dietrich Bracher, a scholar of Nazi history and the Nuremberg trials, says the border guards, although carrying out orders, should be punished - but less severely than those who gave the orders. The guards, he says, are participants in "crimes against human rights." Ideally, according to the Berlin justice department, the border guards' superiors and the political leaders who authorized the shooting policy should be standing trial first. The justice department considers members of the National Defense Council, formerly headed by Mr. Honecker, to be the authors of the policy. Those council members still living are under arrest, though investigators do not have enough evidence to indict them. Honecker, meanwhile, is still in the Soviet Union, though Bonn again demande d Sept. 3 that he be extradited.