One of the best known victims was Peter Fechter,who was 18 when he became one of the first victims of Berlin Walls’s border guards.
He and several friends approached the wall near Checkpoint Charlie,a gateway from East Berlin to West Berlin. Once they entered the border zone,the guards started shooting at them,with no warning,firing a total of 35 shots.
His friends made it across,but Fechter was shot and fell to the ground just before the final barrier. He lay there bleeding and crying out for help but,no one did a thing. His ordeal continued for 50 minutes before he died. TV cameras captured the entire event live for the world to see.
Following World War II,the United States and its other allies divided Germany and Berlin into administrative zones. The Soviet Union controlled East Germany and East Berlin. In August 1961,East Germany built a wall dividing the city,claiming it wanted to keep Western influences out. The wall came down in 1989.
Fechter’s death was front-page news in West Germany,with headlines such as “Come on help me,help me.” A memorial was set up for him on the West Berlin side of the wall. Fetcher was born on Jan. 14,the date of a discussion about the documents at the National Archives. He would have been 70.
More than 11,000 pages of documents about Berlin from 1962 to 1986 have been released,along with videos and photographs. Some are available online,and there is a booklet and DVD.
Fechter’s death was just one of several examples Hope M. Harrison,associate professor at George Washington University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center,cited to tell the plight of the people of Germany.
She and other historians told stories about how 40,000 people escaped from East Germany to West Germany. Clips from the movie “The Tunnel” showed how some of them escaped through ingeniously designed underground tunnels.
Neil Carmichael,program manager at the National Archives’ National Declassification Center,led the symposium and talked about the historic speeches given by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy’s speech in June 1963 that he,too,was a Berliner united the people of Berlin and the United States.
And Carmichael cited Reagan’s famous words,“Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope,even in the shadow of this wall,a message of triumph.”
Near the end of his 1987 speech,Reagan uttered one of his most-famous remarks: “Mr. Gorbachev,tear down this wall!”
From 1963 to 1989 the West Germans started the policy of “Freikauf” or “buying free,” the political prisoners of East Germany. This policy turned out to be a success with about 250,000 cases of family reunification.
“As we gathered the documents,we understood that the story of Berlin was not so much political or economic but was a struggle and triumph of the human spirit,” Carmichael said.
Reach reporter Kritika Gadhvi at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.