November 20, 2016

The Man in the Cap


A lot of commenters over on Twitter and Facebook are focusing this weekend on one of the closing lines in the fine New York Times Book Review of my book, The Tunnels.   So I thought you might like to read more about the tragic incident, directly from the book.  It happened in early September, 1962, even as digging on one of the tunnels featured in the book (funded and filmed by NBC) went on.  That’s Mundt, in his cap, above.


At 2:55 on the afternoon of September 4 this entry was made in the U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade intelligence log: “At Berg Strasse, corner of Bernauer Strasse, 5 m within cemetery, E Germ civilian shot, appeared fatally. Removed on a stretcher by VoPos.” The victim was Ernst Mundt, a 40-year-old former construction worker on a disability pension. When the Wall had separated him from his relatives in the West, he had grumbled about this from the start. Finally he decided to do something about it.

That afternoon Mundt rode his bicycle from his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg to the highly restricted Sophien Cemetery at the Wall just off Bernauer Strasse. Wearing a dark cap on his head, he climbed atop the cemetery wall perpendicular to the Wall. It was covered with sharp glass to discourage just such a move. Then he ran toward the border, shrugging off pleas by onlookers. “I won’t get down,” he shouted. As he was about to reach the Wall where a good leap might carry him over, two transport police officers about 100 yards away took notice. One of them fired a warning shot, and then took deadly aim. A bullet passed through Mundt’s head and he toppled over, just feet from freedom. His cap flew over the Wall. West Berliners found it, with a bullet hole through it. Mundt quickly became known to them as “The Man With the Cap.”

The following day the policeman who shot him was awarded bonus pay and the Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border. He had “handled his weapon superbly and put it to use masterfully.” The troop leader in the area was also commended for removing the injured criminal before the West Berlin police, press and camera crews could arrive. This was in the wake of new orders, following the Fechter incident, that bodies be hustled away immediately to prevent protests and news coverage in the West. Nevertheless, hundreds of angry protestors vented their fury across the border that evening, erecting a cross decorated with flowers near where Mundt’s cap had landed.