He was not the first to be killed as he tried to flee East Berlin, but Peter Fechter’s death – in full view of horrified and helpless passers-by – crystallised Western opinions about the Berlin Wall.
Fechter, an 18-year-old apprentice bricklayer, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump the wall, days after discovering a yet-to-be-boarded up window in a carpentry workshop overlooking the border.
One lunchtime, he and a colleague, Helmut Kulbiek, returned to the workshop and fled through the window, in their stockinged feet.
But as the pair made their way across ‘no-man’s land’, they were spotted by guards in the surrounding watchtowers, and a volley of shots rang out as they reached the bottom of the wall at the western edge of the border.
Kulbeik managed to clamber up and over the six-foot-high barrier to safety, despite the hail of bullets, but Fechter was hit.
No help from East or West
Seriously wounded, he fell back into the so-called ‘Death Strip’ where, bleeding profusely, he called out for help.
The sound of gunfire had attracted the attention of dozens of passers-by, who pleaded with authorities on the western side of the wall to go to his aid.
But terrified that any incursion into East Berlin would provoke an angry reaction from Soviet authorities, Western police did nothing more than throw bandages to the gravely injured Fechter.
When one man begged US soldiers and military police from the nearby Checkpoint Charlie to act, he was reportedly told “It is not our problem”.
Angry Westerners began yelling at Eastern guards, begging them to do something to help him, and accusing them of murder when they did nothing.
Gradually, Fechter’s cries for help faded, as he bled to death in front of the appalled crowd.
Finally, almost an hour after he was shot, a group of guards emerged into no-man’s land and carried the builder’s body away.
‘Forgotten by no-one’
Fechter was buried in East Berlin, beneath a gravestone declaring him to be ‘forgotten by no-one’.
He remains a tragic symbol of the lengths many East Germans were willing to go to, the risks they were willing to take, to try and make it to the West.
Fechter’s death also led to a change in policy for Soviet authorities.
In future, they ruled, “injured parties should be removed from the immediate border area quickly, to avoid furnishing opponents with any opportunity to cause trouble”.
A memorial to Peter Fechter now stands at the spot where he was killed.
In 1997, two former East German guards were charged with manslaughter over Fechter’s death, 35 years on.
The pair admitted shooting him, and were sentenced to 20 and 21 months probation. It has never been proven who fired the fatal shot.