A Death in Berlin

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Dennis L. Bark

A Death in Berlin

photo: ©Bettmann/CORBISEighteen-year-old Peter Fechter lies dying in the no-man’s-land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall, August 1962. ©Bettmann/CORBIS  
I visited Berlin in 1962, when I was twenty years old. On the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie, on a Friday afternoon in August, my brother and I passed the border control, gave our coins to the East German Red Cross, and were walking through the no-man’s-land, toward the white line on the pavement dividing the Soviet sector from West Berlin.

Suddenly we heard gunshots and saw people running. A Vopo pointed his machine gun at us and told us to stop. My brother and I didn’t know why, of course. But an eighteen-year-old boy, Peter Fechter, had just been shot and was bleeding to death at the wall, one hundred meters from where we were standing, because he wanted to go from one part of Berlin to another, from dictatorship to democracy.

The Vopo kept us standing there for thirty minutes—I learned later that, during this half hour, the East Germans were permitting Peter Fechter to bleed to death—then he told us to cross the border. When I put my foot over that white line, I had a feeling in my stomach that I still remember. I was free again, and, for the first time in my life, I began to think about why people fought wars and revolutions and defended peace to protect liberty. I thought that Peter Fechter knew how precious freedom was, which is why he risked his life to get it.