Fifty-four years ago, almost exactly one year after the emergence of the Berlin Wall, an 18-year-old East German youth named Peter Fechter attempted, with a friend, to escape to the West in broad daylight not far from Checkpoint Charlie. The friend made it over the barrier but Fechter was shot by East German guards and collapsed at its base.
Despite his cries for help, no one came to his assistance–not the guards who shot him, nor the West German police and American soldiers on the other side of the Wall. A frantic call was placed to the White House. Crowds gathered on both sides and urged action, to no avail. Finally, after about fifty minutes, under a cloud of tear gas, the guards retrieved the limp body of the boy and carried him to a car–not even an ambulance–for transfer to a hospital.
Two hours later, an East German in a high apartment held a sign to a window to inform the large, angry crowd now gathering in the West: “He is dead.”
The murder of Fechter drew international attention, as I explore in my new book, The Tunnels. The worst riots in West Berlin since the division of the city then broke out and continued for four days. Many of them were, shockingly, anti-American in character. Fechter seemed to symbolize the entire tragedy of Berlin, the helplessness felt in both East and West, the inability of the Americans to help those trapped in the East. A photo of him being carried away by four guards, taken by Wolfgang Bera, made the front pages of newspapers around the globe and quickly became iconic (that’s it above, now credited to Getty Images). Fechter would remain the martyr of the Cold War, until and beyond the fall of the Wall in 1989.
The Wall began to crumble 27 years later. Egon Bahr, one of the top aides to Willy Brandt when he was mayor of West Berlin and then leader of West Germany, declared that the end of the Wall, and the division of Germany, began on the day Peter Fechter died. You could draw “a direct line” from that moment to the end of the Wall, he said. Such was its symbolic power, angry legacy and stirring inspiration for change, two decades in the making.
My book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, is dedicated to Peter Fechter and it tells much more of this story. His death also inspired the other young men digging the main escape tunnel nearby (funded by NBC) featured in the book. Below, my photo of the Fechter memorial in Berlin today. The cobblestone line near the bottom shows the path of the Wall, with the sad, red, circle marking the spot where Fechter fell. You can read much more and order the book by clicking this link or the cover at the upper right of this page.