by Robert A. Waters
Fifty years ago on Christmas day, with carols blaring from loudspeakers, a young man was shot to death scaling the Berlin Wall. Eighteen-year-old Paul Schultz and a friend made it safely past several concrete barriers then began climbing the final obstruction to freedom. Schultz’s friend made it over the barbed-wire top and jumped to the West German side. But Schultz, an electrician, wasn't so lucky.
An eyewitness in West Berlin recounted what he saw. “[Schultz] was about to climb the wall when suddenly his back stiffened and both his arms shot up into the air as if he were reaching for something,” said the unidentified observer. “His mate, who was already on top of the wall, reached down, grabbed him by his right hand and pulled him up on the barbed wire strung along the top of the wall. Three guards ran toward them, then there were more shots and the boy screamed and went limp. He fell into the arms of a West Berlin policeman who had rushed up to the wall at the sound of the first shot. The policeman then helped the other fellow untangle himself from the barbed wire.”
Schultz died later that day.
The murder of Paul Schultz came during a sixteen-day “grace” period when West German residents were allowed pass through communist checkpoints and visit relatives in the East. Each day, thousands of West Germans made the trek, with Stasi guards smiling broadly, as they’d been under orders to do.
The surreal picture of smiling killers was not lost on residents of West Berlin. After the public execution of Schultz, a young Red Cross worker at one of the crossing points, said: “Now you see their real face. Here they smile and there they shoot.”
West German vice chancellor Erich Mende told the media that it was incomprehensible “that on the Christmas holiday shots were aimed and fired at a young person who wanted to do in a big city what is totally normal in a civilized society: go from one side of the city to the other…”
On December 28, Paul Schultz was returned to East Germany for burial. Only his immediate family attended the funeral—the communists wouldn’t allow friends and colleagues to be present. East Germany awarded the two guards who killed Schultz a watch and briefcase for their so-called heroic intervention.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and West Germany reunited with the east.
Had it happened on any other day, Paul Schultz’s murder may have seemed meaningless. After all, hundreds of anonymous East Germans died trying to escape the crushing regime that had been foisted upon them. And yet, coming as it did on Christmas day, a time of “peace,” the world took notice. Hundreds of editorials vilified the East German government, and politicians across the world delivered stinging rebukes to a country without freedom. In some small way, the murder may have contributed to the rebellion that brought down East Germany and the Communist bloc.
Fifty years later, I pay tribute to Paul Schultz.
May you rest in peace.