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Peter Mädler, shot dead in the Berlin border waters: Memorial cross for an unknown fugitive [Peter Mädler] near Steinstücken (date of photo not known)

Peter Mädler

born on July 10, 1943
shot dead on April 26, 1963


in the Teltow Canal
on the outer ring between Kleinmachnow (Potsdam county district) and Berlin-Zehlendorf
On the night of April 26, 1963, under the cover of darkness, the young man approached the border security grounds not far from the Erlenweg at the Teltow Canal. He used a side cutter to break through the two lower wires of the barrier fence. When he reached the canal, he left his clothes on the embankment.Peter Mädler was 18 years old when the border between West and East Berlin was sealed off on August 13, 1961. Born on July 10, 1943 in Opperau near Breslau, today’s Wrocław, he was presumably separated from his biological parents as a young child during the chaos of the war. The Mädlers, a married couple living in Hoyerswerda, adopted him in 1950. The father worked as a storekeeper; the mother was a housewife. According to a report from a childhood friend, Peter Mädler learned in the early 1960s that his biological parents lived in West Germany. This was probably why he began thinking about an escape plan that he could use after he finished his schooling, but the Berlin Wall foiled his plans. [1] Peter Mädler put the plan aside for a while, but in April 1963 he was ready to take action. He wanted to try to escape to West Berlin.

Peter Mädler grew up with his adoptive parents in Hoyerswerda, where he attended school until the 8th grade. In 1958 he began an apprenticeship as an electrician in the company training school of the nearby Lauta power station in Lauterberg. He successfully completed his training on August 30, 1961. His childhood friend recalled that Peter Mädler had drawn attention to himself through his appearance during his vocational training: He was among the first teenagers in East Germany to dye his hair platinum blond. He was a good student – more interested in girls than politics. He did not join the FDJ youth association during his vocational training. Shortly after the Wall was built, he and the other trainees of the power station were expected, as an FDJ contingent, to commit themselves to serving in the National People’s Army. The teenagers were clearly averse to this idea. Along with the other apprentices, Peter Mädler refused to sign the agreement form put before him. After he completed his training he worked as an electrician in the Lübbenau power station until he transferred to the industrial plant, "Teltower Geräte und Reglerwerk," in December 1961. [2] It is not known whether this change in location and workplace precipitated his plan to flee to West Berlin. From the roof of the company compound he could see the Kleinmachnow border grounds at the Teltow Canal. He had not mentioned anything about his plans to flee to his colleagues at work or to his foster parents. [3]

On the night of April 26, 1963, under the cover of darkness, the young man approached the border security grounds not far from the Erlenweg at the Teltow Canal. He used a side cutter to break through the two lower wires of the barrier fence. When he reached the canal, he left his clothes on the embankment. He tied a leather belt around his body and attached the side cutter and a plastic bag containing his wallet and identification papers to it. Then he entered the Teltow Canal and began swimming to West Berlin. It took a great effort to get through the obstacles placed along the canal. He cautiously swam along the northern bank towards the harbor entrance that was located close to a watchtower. It was 4:45 a.m. The border guards on duty at the tower had only a few more minutes left on their shift when they noticed the swimmer. He was approximately ten meters from the border when one of the guards ordered him to get out of the water. Peter Mädler called out to the border guards: "Don’t shoot!" and continued swimming to West Berlin. Without setting off a warning shot, the guard fired 30 bullets in his direction. Peter Mädler was not injured and dived under the water, still trying to reach the border. The second border soldier climbed down from the watchtower and looked for the fugitive from the embankment. Peter Mädler came to the surface right before the border that ran through the waterway. The border guard fired three single shots directly at him. Peter Mädler was hit and sank beneath the water’s surface. One of the guards climbed over the fence to wait for the fugitive to resurface, but he did not reappear. Following an extensive search the fire department finally found the body near the entrance to the Teltow Harbor on the afternoon of April 26, 1963 at 4:46 p.m. [4] That same day the commander of the border division commended the border guards for their correct and determined action. They were awarded the "Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border." [5]

It took another 32 years before the guards were prosecuted. The Potsdam district court found the guards who had been on duty at the time guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to a year and three months probation. The court found it immaterial that the shots from the one border soldier did not hit Peter Mädler since he too had tacitly accepted the death of the fugitive. [6]

On the West Berlin side of the canal, residents of the Teltow dockyard heard the guards’ gunshots in the early morning hours, but they were not witness to the escape attempt. One of the residents saw the dead fugitive being retrieved from the water in the afternoon and thought he recognized a uniform on the body which led the West Berlin police and press to report that the dead man had been a border soldier. [7] Other residents thought they had seen border guards searching for the fugitive near the embankment on West Berlin territory. [8] The West Berlin press reported on the incident a few days later and criticized the inaction of the West Berlin police who, according to the residents, had paid little attention to the events. [9] The Berlin CDU also looked into the matter and made a "small query" in parliament: It wanted to know whether the criticism expressed in the press was valid and what the Senate planned to do about it. [10] In reaction to the incident, more patrols were put on duty at the Teltow dockyard and disciplinary action was taken against the West Berlin police officers involved. [11]

According to a childhood friend, Peter Mädler was buried in an urn grave on the Waldfriedhof, a cemetery in Hoyerswerda. The grave was later leveled and no longer exists. [12] Yet the unknown fugitive who had died was not forgotten in West Berlin. A commemorative cross was erected to him at the Steinstücken triangle on the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction. [13] Today a memorial stone in Kleinmachnow is dedicated to the victims of divided Germany, in particular to fugitives like Peter Mädler who died at the border in Kleinmachnow.

Lydia Dollmann

[1] See conversation conducted by Lydia Dollmann with Rainer Walther, 25.1.2008. [2] See ibid. [3] See "Urteil des Landgerichts Potsdam vom 19.6.1995," in: StA Neuruppin, Az. 61 Js 29/94 (= StA Berlin, Az. 22 Js 174/90), Bd. 3, Bl. 553. [4] See "Urteil des Landgerichts Potsdam vom 19.6.1995," in: Ibid., Bl. 552–554. [5] See ibid., Bl. 554. [6] See ibid., Bl. 545, 559. [7] See "Strafanzeige der West-Berliner Polizei gegen namentlich nicht bekannten Angehörigen der sowjetzonalen Grenztruppen, 29.4.1963," in: Ibid., Bd. 1, Bl. 1. [8] See "Schlussbericht der West-Berliner Polizei, 17.5.1963," in: Ibid., Bl. 75. [9] See, for example "Neuer Vopo-Mord an der Grenze," in: BZ, 30.4.1963; "Polizei zum Vopo-Mord am Teltowkanal: Zustand bleibt unverändert," in: BZ, 2.5.1963. [10] See "Vermerk ‘Kleine Anfrage’ der CDU, 2.5.1963," in: PHS, Bestand Grenzvorkommnisse, n. pag. [11] See "Kurzbericht der West-Berliner Polizei-Inspektion Zehlendorf, 7.5.1963," in: PHS, Bestand Grenzvorkommnisse, n. pag. [12] Conversation conducted by Lydia Dollmann with Rainer Walther, 25.1.2008. [13] See the photo of the memorial cross for the unidentified fugitive at Gleisdreieck Steinstücken, in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 3637, Bl. 43.
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