On August 17, 1962—exactly one year after barbed-wire barricades began to be reinforced with the concrete that would become the Berlin Wall—Peter Fechter made an impetuous, and ultimately tragic, decision. The 18-year-old East Berliner had left school four years earlier to begin an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, an occupation to which he brought considerable talent and energy. “Colleague F. is a willing and hardworking craftsman,” his work appraisal stated. “Loafing and absenteeism are not a problem with him.” This was a far cry from the slurs German Democratic Republic officials would later utter.
Finding an unblocked window in a building next to the border, Fechter and a friend jumped into the “death strip” that ran between the wall’s parallel fences. East German border guards, instructed to fire upon any of their fellow citizens attempting to scale the partition, shot Fechter in the pelvis as he rushed towards the wall on Zimmerstrasse, not far from the Checkpoint Charlie crossing. Noise from the gunfire attracted a crowd of West Germans, who watched in horror as the young man screamed for help. East German guards did nothing as he writhed in agony for nearly an hour, while West German guards remained at their posts, under orders not to do anything that might jeopardize the modus vivendi. Only when Fechter’s cries ceased did East German border guards emerge to cart away his corpse.
Of all the events of the Berlin Wall’s 28-year history, few illustrated the inhumanity of the GDR better than the murder of Peter Fechter. His legacy was one of many commemorated last week on the 25th anniversary of the wall’s fall. A magnificent public art display memorialized its presence and destruction, with thousands of lighted white balloons lining part of the route of the 87-mile structure that had divided the once and future capital. The balloons were released into the night sky on November 9 at the precise moment East Germans began freely crossing a quarter-century ago. The city’s promotional materials referred to the events of that night in 1989, which ushered in the reunification of Germany and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as “the only Peaceful Revolution in world history”—a claim to which the neighboring Czechs and Slovaks, whose Velvet Revolution soon followed, might take umbrage.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Stasi state were “peaceful” in the sense that no overt acts of violence brought them about. But this understanding of events, central to Germany’s conception of itself as a country that has learned all the appropriate lessons from its destructive past, leaves out several critical factors. First is the East German leadership’s knowledge that a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown on peaceful protesters—which we now know they were prepared to execute—would not have received the crucial backing of the Soviet Union, whose leader had renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine the year before. A major reason Mikhail Gorbachev retreated from this pledge, which codified armed Soviet imperialism, was the full-frontal foreign policy of the Reagan administration, which was arming anti-Soviet insurgencies as far afield as Central America and Afghanistan and had deployed nuclear-tipped missiles on West German soil.
Revelers at last week’s ceremonies in Berlin, however, might not know that anyone besides the Germans themselves had played a part in the wall’s fall. Even more telling was the lack of attention given to the Soviet Union dividing Germany and the continent in half and occupying it for over four decades. A British friend living in Berlin called the commemoration a “Grimm Brothers fairy tale without the witch.” Gorbachev himself—affectionately known as “Gorbi” to his many German admirers—appeared near the Brandenburg Gate, delivering a speech that mixed the greatest hits of Pat Buchanan and Stephen F. Cohen: “[T]he West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War. Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.”