Remembering Peter Fechter and Other Victims of the Berlin Wall

Aug 10, 2012

Death of Peter Fechter Enlarge image An East German border guard carries the body of Peter Fechter on August 17, 1962. (© picture-alliance / United Archiv)

One year after the construction of the Berlin Wall and the complete division of the city of Berlin, one of the most dreadful atrocities on the East-West border occurred on August 17, 1962. As the East German Peter Fechter was trying to climb over the partitions near Checkpoint Charlie and to go into the American sector, he was shot and wounded by East German border guards. He remained lying in the no man’s land and bled to death. 

Nobody came to the aid of the 18-year-old construction worker, in spite of his desperate cries for help. He became one of the 136 victims who died at the Wall until its fall in 1989, according to the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. The West German police had an order not to step on East German land. On the eastern side, too, everyone remained passive. Fechter’s dead body was finally taken away by the border guards when “a higher East German officer appeared and ordered them to move”, according to British historian Frederick Taylor’s research. 

“In Peter Fechter, the Berlin wall had found, not its first, but perhaps its greatest martyr”, writes the British historian. In the following years, desperate, spectacular and often deadly attempts to flee to the West by crossing the Wall only increased in number. NGOs dealing with refugees were constantly busy; dramatic escapes through tunnels dug under the wall moved the public. The American broadcaster NBC gave a group of tunnel diggers 50,000 German Marks and provided them with short-range radios that allowed them to communicate easer and aided in their escape. Thus, NBC was able to record “some of the most moving and dramatic film footage of the Cold War,” Taylor writes. 

Tracing the Berlin Wall's path Enlarge image Today, millions of people walk, drive and ride across the former path of the Berlin Wall. (© picture alliance) Until 1964, dramatic escapes were present in the public’s eye. However, many of the groups helping East Germans to escape were undermined by the Stasi. “The world above the manhole covers had changed,” Taylor writes: after the initial shock of the Wall’s construction came a time of quiet acceptance. No other escape attempt was as shocking as the early and tragic one by Peter Fechter.   

 Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Bernd Neumann asks that Fechter be publicly recognized. “It would be a good thing, and it is long overdue, that a street in Berlin commemorates the harrowing fate of Peter Fechter,” Neumann told the Berlin daily newspaper Berliner Morgenpost. A citizen alliance in the city is campaigning for the naming of a street for Fechter.

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