For the 28 years from 1961 to 1989, the ghastly barrier known as the Berlin Wall divided the German city of Berlin. It sealed off the only escape hatch for people in the communist East who wanted freedom in the West.
No warning was given before Aug. 13 when East German soldiers and police first stretched barbed wire and then began erecting the infamous wall, guard towers, dog runs, and explosive devices behind it.
By one estimate, a total of 254 people died there during those 28 years—shot by police, ensnared by the barbed wire, mauled by dogs, or blown to bits by land mines—most of them in the infamous “death strip” that immediately paralleled the main barrier. One of them was young Peter Fechter, a fitting hero to note this week, the 56th anniversary of the week the Wall went up.
Fechter was a strapping 18-year-old bricklayer who yearned for so much more than the stifling dreariness of socialism. He hatched a plan with a friend, Helmut Kulbeik, to conceal themselves in a carpenter’s woodshop near the wall and watch for an opportune moment to jump from a second-story window into the death strip. They would then run to and climb over the 6-1/2 foot high concrete barrier, laced with barbed wire, and emerge in freedom on the other side.
It was Aug. 17, 1962, barely a year since construction on the Wall began, but Fechter and Kulbeik were ready to risk everything. When the moment came that guards were looking the other way, they jumped. Seconds later during their mad dash to the wall, guards began firing. Amazingly, Kulbeik made it to freedom. Fechter was not so lucky. In the plain view of witnesses numbering in the hundreds, he was hit in the pelvis. He fell, screaming in pain, to the ground.
No one on the East side, soldiers included, came to his aid. Westerners threw bandages over the wall, but Fechter couldn’t reach them. Bleeding profusely, he died alone, an hour later. Demonstrators in West Berlin shouted “Murderers!” at the East Berlin border guards, who eventually retrieved his lifeless body.
The world must never forget this awful chapter in history. Nor should we ever forget that it was done in the name of a vicious system that declared its “solidarity with the working class” and professed its devotion to “the people.” Similar horrors are happening right now in another socialist nightmare, Venezuela.
Peter Fechter, the 253 others who died at the Berlin Wall, as well as countless other victims of socialist tyranny, must be remembered and the lessons of their suffering must be learned. No one should ever be so smugly self-righteous in their beliefs to forcibly dragoon the rest of society into their schemes.
I still get a rush every time I think of Ronald Reagan standing in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and boldly declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” So on Aug. 13, remember Peter Fechter and celebrate the fact that the Berlin Wall is no more.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education—www.fee.org—in Atlanta. Each week in this space, he writes about the men and women from past and present whom he regards as heroes, including many from his recent book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction”).