Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Cold War Martyr

Fifty-four years ago today, 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. 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 for four guards, taken by Wolfgang Bera, made the front pages of newspapers around the globe and  quickly became iconic.  He would remain perhaps the martyr of the Cold War, until and beyond the all of  the Wall in 1989.

My upcoming book The Tunnels (see cover at upper right on this blog) is dedicated to Peter Fechter and it tells much more of this story. 


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