THE PAPERS ran stories last week to mark the 40th anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall went up, but you would have been hard-pressed to find in most of them any sense of what it was that made the wall so hateful. Few of the stories had much to say about the lives it shattered, the families it ripped apart, the totalitarian hell it entrenched. But how can you think about the Schandmauer, as the Germans called it -- the wall of shame -- if you don't think about its victims, or about the evil system it was built to protect?
In its anniversary piece, The New York Times quoted Jurgen Litfin, one German who does think about the victims, since his brother Gunter was among them. It recorded that Litfin was shot on August 24, 1961, as he tried to swim a canal that separated East and West Berlin. And then came this:
'Helft mir doch,' Peter Fechter cried. But no help came, and he slowly bled to death.
In fact, Fechter was not a waiter; he was a construction worker. He did not die, like Gunter Litfin, in August 1961, when the wall was new; he died a year later, on August 17, 1962. And he was not the second person to die at the wall. He was the 50th.
That is a lot of error to pack into a single sentence. And if the death of Peter Fechter -- which did indeed draw worldwide attention -- is so easily bollixed, what hope is there that any of the other victims will be remembered?
Fechter was 18 years old, an East Berlin bricklayer who was desperate to join his sister in the West. With another teen-ager, he made his dash through a deserted lumberyard that faced a relatively low stretch of the wall. The friend made it across the no-man's-land and over the barbed wire. Fechter wasn't so lucky.
Two submachine guns fired. Fechter fell to the ground, bleeding from the bullet wounds in his back. He lay at the foot of the wall for nearly an hour, in full view of the East German border guards -- and of the horrified West Berliners on the other side. "Helft mir doch," he kept crying. But no one helped him, and he slowly bled to death.
Schandmauer. A kid murdered for wanting to live in freedom -- murdered not by accident but as a matter of policy, and not the first it had happened to, not the second, not the 10th, but the 50th in a single year -- this was the hideous shame of the Berlin Wall and of the savage ideology it epitomized. This was communism reduced to its essence: Accept slavery, or die.
But it wasn't only Germans who had reason to feel shame. The wall was our shame, American shame, too. Fechter died just 300 yards from Checkpoint Charlie, the US command post at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing. Among those watching him bleed, hearing him cry for help, were American MPs. They could have intervened.
"One conscience-stricken US second lieutenant," Time magazine reported the following week, "could stand it no longer, picked up the 'hot line' to Major General Albert Watson II, the US commandant in West Berlin. Back came the order: 'Lieutenant, you have your orders. Stand fast. Do nothing.' Not knowing the reason for the Americans' inaction, an agonized crowd swirled around the command post crying, 'For God's sake, go get him.' When a German reporter asked why the American troops did not rescue Fechter, one GI replied, 'This is not our problem.' "
That had been the American attitude from the start. On July 25, 1961, President Kennedy had broadcast a stirring speech on the Berlin crisis, making it clear -- or so it seemed -- that the United States would not permit the Soviet Union or its East German satellite to alter the status quo in West Berlin. Lying deep inside East Germany, surrounded by Soviet troops, the city was "an island of freedom in a communist sea," Kennedy said, "a link with the free world, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees."
For that reason, he told the nation and the world, Berlin had "become -- as never before -- the great testing place of Western courage and will." His warning was blunt: "We cannot and will not permit the communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force."
But when the communists began to seal off West Berlin less than three weeks later -- posting troops at the border crossings, halting crosstown subways, erecting a blockade of paving stones and barbed wire -- the United States did nothing. There was no demand that Berlin be kept open. There was no stiffly worded ultimatum. There was no Allied show of force. To make the communists stand down would have taken very little -- perhaps no more than two or three US tanks showing up to bulldoze a few of the barricades.
But JFK refused to act. The barbed wire -- reinforced in time with concrete, watchtowers, attack dogs, floodlights, tank traps, and 1.6 million mines -- stayed. Two years later, Kennedy went to Berlin to deliver another stirring speech, one the world remembers to this day. Those words, too, were never matched by deeds. And Berliners, craving freedom, went on dying at the wall.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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