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Germany

Who Died at the Berlin Wall?

Forty-four years ago, the Eastern German government began blocking off West Berlin with a wall. Historians now want to trace the identities of those who died attempting to cross that barrier and flee the communist state.

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Remnants of the Berlin Wall today

August 17, 1962 - one year and four days after the Eastern German authorities started building the wall, a young man dies in the center of the divided city. 18-year old bricklayer Peter Fechter is shot by Eastern German border police near the new dividing line. For hours the severely injured man lies stranded in "no mans land" - a security strip by the wall - desperately crying for help. He eventually bleeds to death. Neither Eastern German border guards, nor police or US soldiers on the Western side dare rescue him.

The story of Fechter's tragic death is probably one of the best known in the history of the structure that was to divide the city until 1989. But much less is known about the fate of many of the other victims who died while attempting to cross the wall. In some cases not even their names are known. But a new project set up at the Potsdam Center for Historical Research, which has secured funding for two years of work, hopes to change that.

Dignitiy to the dead

Hanns-Hermann Hertle, who directs the project, wants to wrest the dead from anonymity.

"We want to put names and faces to those killed and create a portrait that will allow others to see the human person behind each case," he said. "It's important to remember them and give back to the dead some of their dignity."

But why 16 years after the Berlin Wall came down? It was only last year that a drawn-out process came to a close in which courts really dealt with the legacy of the Eastern German border regime, explained Hertle. Now researchers can gain access to a large number of legal documents and other formerly classified material containing information on the crimes committed at the wall.

Ideally, at the end of their project, the historians want to have exact number of how many people died. State prosecutors have 86 cases on record, while another independent working group reckons with 201 victims. Researchers are currently investigating 244 suspected cases -- 138 of those they say are proven, for the remainder the circumstances still have to be confirmed.

Engaging society today

Manfred Fischer, a minister, also has high hopes for the project. His parish is near Bernauer Strasse, where numerous people attempted to flee and the city's central memorial to the victims is located today. His church will commemorate those who died. From August 13 to November 9, the anniversary of the day the wall came down, the name of a victim will be read out by a member of the parish every day.

"I believe this is a powerful way to honor the dead," he said, adding that the fact members of the congregation participate means the reading has a positive effect on today's society. "We must not forget the victims or they will die a second time," he said.

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