On August 17, 1962, the Wall was built in Berlin almost exactly a year ago. A gray monster not only divides the capital, but also separates the GDR and the Federal Republic from each other – even after a year, this situation is difficult for many citizens on both sides to grasp. Border crossings from East to West are strictly forbidden, the border troops of the GDR had permission to shoot at fugitives in these cases.

So on August 17, 1962, a young man tried his luck: He wanted to cross the Wall from East to West Germany. 18-year-old Peter Fechter is a journeyman bricklayer from East Berlin who left school at the age of 14 and has been working in construction ever since. “He was very open-minded and interested in everything. He was spontaneous, funny,” his sister Gisela Geue recalled decades later.

Together with his friend and colleague Helmut Kulbeik, Fechter wants to leave the GDR. “I guess it was all too tight for him,” said his sister. During construction work in Berlin-Mitte, the duo inconspicuously spied out the strip of Wall, in Zimmerstrasse near Checkpoint Charlie they found a spot that they considered suitable for an escape. In the early afternoon around 2 p.m. they dare to escape and climb over the barbed wire.

When Fechter and Kulbeik reach the wall, however, NVA border guards notice them. The soldiers open fire. Kulbeik later spoke in a police interrogation of “five or six shots”. He manages to escape, escapes the shots and climbs over the wall to West Berlin. But Fechter is hit several times in the stomach and back. He falls off the wall and stays on the East Berlin side.

Dramatic minutes follow. Fechter is badly wounded and his cries of pain can be heard from afar. Before that, the shots in broad daylight in the middle of Berlin had startled many citizens, and more and more passers-by on both sides of the wall were watching what was happening. NVA soldiers break up the crowds in East Berlin with tear gas. Fechter is bleeding profusely, screaming and whimpering in pain, calling for help. But the young man waits in vain for support.

The East Berlin soldiers do not care about the shot refugee. And the West is only hesitant to help. Although West Berlin police officers throw bandages at him from a ladder, they do not dare to climb over the wall and rescue the victim – neither do the US soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie, who do not conjure up a diplomatic conflict with East Germany and the Soviet Union want, in which they enter GDR territory.

Peter Fechter’s public agony right next to the Berlin Wall lasted 50 minutes. Cameramen and photographers from the West recorded his death. Only when he has stopped screaming do GDR border guards and police take him to the hospital. “Murderer, murderer” calls resound at them from the west side. Fechter’s death was announced a little later, the 18-year-old bled to death. His sister only found out about it the next day. For the bereaved, a time full of reprisals begins: they are shadowed by the Stasi, Gisela Geue loses her job, the parents can never get over the death of their son.

According to the Berlin Wall Foundation, 140 people were killed between 1961 and 1989, 101 of them trying to escape. Peter Fechter’s death is one of the best-known cases of this kind. A memorial commemorates him at the spot where Fechter died. It says, “He just wanted freedom.”

Sources: “Chronicle of the Wall” / Axel Springer / German Historical Museum / MDR / Federal Agency for Civic Education / Berlin Wall Foundation