Checkpoint Charlie – Then and Now

Checkpoint Charlie – Then and Now

What’s in a name? In the case of Checkpoint Charlie, with its personification of a notorious border crossing at the Berlin Wall, it immediately conjures up visions of soldiers, spies and daring deeds. ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, ‘Octopussy’, ‘Goodbye Lenin’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ all have famous scenes shot at Checkpoint Charlie. Now it is one of the top tourist attractions in the German capital; the place where visitors hope to feel the chill of the Cold War. But it’s impossible to really sense the tension unless you experienced it for real. All that remains of this historic landmark is a small wooden replica hut and a line of cobblestones to mark the path of the Berlin Wall.

Checkpoint Charlie 2017

Aerial view, 1980s

When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, there were three military checkpoints between West Germany and East Berlin, all given names according to the NATO phonetic alphabet. Checkpoint Alpha was at Helmstedt, on the border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Checkpoint Bravo was at Dreilinden, on the border between the GDR and the American Sector in West Berlin.

Map showing crossing points into the GDR, including Helmstedt

Checkpoint Charlie was the military border post between the American Sector in West Berlin and East Berlin (the Soviet Sector) and was located at the junction of Friedrichstraβe with Zimmerstraße and Mauerstraße (which for older historical reasons coincidentally means ‘Wall Street’). All foreigners, diplomats and members of the Allied Forces entering East Berlin on foot or by vehicle had to use the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. This was where Soviet and US tanks confronted each other in October 1961, while politicians negotiated Allied military access to East Berlin.

Soviet-US confrontation

The border post hut where visitors to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s. Tourists can usually pay a small fee to have their photo taken in front of the hut with the ‘fake’ soldiers’ on duty, but the day I was there a couple of weeks ago, two Ukrainian singers were entertaining the crowds with their poignant freedom songs. These days Checkpoint Charlie has become synonymous with demonstrations by groups who feel oppressed.

Ukrainian duo

The area around Checkpoint Charlie has an excellent permanent open-air exhibition as well as the inevitable souvenir shops and street vendors. On the corner of Kochstraße is the Mauermuseum (opened in 1962), bursting at the seams with fascinating exhibits telling the story of the Wall and the incredible escape attempts – many of which failed. Around the corner in Zimmerstraße, a memorial stele marks the place where 18-year old Peter Fechter bled to death while trying to climb over the Wall in 1962.

Memorial to Peter Fechter

Soviet and GDR souvenirs

There are two relatively new indoor additions to the tourist attractions at Checkpoint Charlie and I tried them both out on my last visit. The weather was damp and grey, so I was especially glad to ‘come in from the cold’. First, I tried the Asisi panorama of ‘The Wall’ which opened in September 2012. This cylindrical steel rotunda stands at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße and the artist Yadegar Aisis uses his 270° panorama, 15 metres high and 60 metres wide, to show everyday scenes on both sides of the Wall in the 1980s, when Asisi lived in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. I am usually sceptical of such commercial ventures but having also lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, it was quite an emotional experience and worth the €10 entrance cost. Follow this link for more information.

Wall Panorama

On the other side of the road is the ‘BlackBox’ exhibition on the Cold War. This is a multi-media experience on a smaller scale, more like a pop-up museum and only costs €5 entrance. There is plenty of film and newsreel footage and every historic event is well-explained and fully-documented. I found myself engrossed in all the details of other flashpoints of the Cold War: Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Prague and Poland. But most of all, I was back at Checkpoint Charlie in the 1980s, feeling the frisson of fear as we negotiated the chicanes, knowing that there was a machine gun trained on our vehicle from a slit in the wall on the tall building to our right.

Cold War BlackBox

When you reach the end of the exhibition there is a photo booth where you can email a Checkpoint Charlie souvenir photo of yourself to friends. It was free, so I just couldn’t resist…. For more details and pictures of the BlackBox follow this link.

The Wall Revisited

The Wall Revisited

Today, 9th November 2017, is the 28th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin has now been reunited for as many years as it was divided; from 1961 until 1989. In my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’, published in 2012, I devote an entire chapter to the Berlin Wall and describe city centre sites where you can see remnants of the Wall or memorials associated with it. Over the past five years, some of these sites have been further developed and new ‘Berlin Wall tourist attractions’ have been added. The previous blog, for example, featured the multi-media Wall Museum on the River Spree by Eastside Gallery, opened in 2016.

Constructing the Wall in 1961

The Wall falls in 1989

But the most significant site remains the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straβe. Here, the Wall ran right down the middle of the street, just because this line happened to mark the boundary between the boroughs of Mitte, in East Berlin and Wedding, in West Berlin. In divided Berlin, the border between East and West separated the Soviet Sector (East Berlin) from the American, British and French Sectors (West Berlin) which had all originally been created after WWII according to Berlin borough boundaries.

The Berlin Wall divides Bernauer Straβe

The Berlin Wall Memorial is not a monument as such, but an open-air exhibition dedicated to the memory of a divided city and to the victims of the Berlin Wall. A whole area of the former border strip has been gradually transformed into grass parkland, extending for 1.4 kilometres along Bernauer Straβe. Rust-coloured metal posts represent the line of the Wall, as if the concrete has been stripped away.

Posts marking the border

The houses which originally stood on the eastern side of Bernauer Strasse were destroyed by the GDR authorities to make space for the border strip. Then, as late as 1985, the Church of Reconciliation, situated right next to the Wall in East Berlin, was also was demolished ‘to improve security’. As part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, this imposing Gothic-style building was replaced by a simple Chapel of Reconciliation, in memory of the East Germans who lost their lives trying to escape to the West.

The Church of Reconciliation behind the Wall

The Chapel of Reconciliation today

Information boards guide visitors through the area of the Wall Memorial, with metal tracks in the ground showing the outlines of where tenement blocks once stood and brass plaques in the pavement marking points where East Berliners made successful or fatal escape attempts, either over the border or by means of underground tunnels.

Memorial to those who died trying to escape

But the most arresting part of the Berlin Wall Memorial is an original 70-metre long section of the Wall itself, complete with watchtower and the ‘death zone’ behind it. On the other side of the street, the Documentation Centre has a viewing platform on the top floor where you can stand and survey these border installations from above. This is the only site in Berlin where you can still viscerally sense the stark reality of the Berlin Wall ‘in the flesh’.

The Berlin Wall preserved

No visitor to Berlin should miss seeing the Berlin Wall Memorial. For all details of how to get there and plan your visit, including information and exhibitions available at the Visitor Center and the Documentation Center, follow this link: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/

 

 

New Eastside Wall Museum

New Eastside Wall Museum

The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years from 1961 until 1989. In 2017, 28 years since its fall, hardly any physical traces of it remain. In today’s free and easy German capital, it seems incredible that such a construction could have ever existed or survived so long. In the 1980s, I lived within its confines in West Berlin but, unlike East Berliners, I could escape whenever I wanted to. West Berliners could express their feelings by daubing the Wall with graffiti; on the other side of the Wall was a bleak stretch of no-man’s land, under close surveillance by East German soldiers who had orders to shoot to kill if anyone tried to cross it.

Berlin Wall seen from the west

I devoted a whole chapter to the Berlin Wall in my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and described some of the of main historic sites in the city centre where you can see remnants of the Wall and find out more information about it.  The East Side Gallery by the River Spree runs for 1.3 kilometres between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke in the multi-cultural borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. This famous outdoor gallery of ‘wall paintings’ was originally a section of the ‘Hinterlandmauer’ (interior wall) – the actual border between East and West Berlin was the River Spree itself. The East Side Gallery was launched in 1990, on the initiative of two German artists’ associations and consists of 105 paintings by international artists, all on the theme of freedom. Everyone has their favourite wall painting in the East Side Gallery and many of the ‘canvases’ have become world-famous.

The famous ‘Kiss’

One of my personal favourites…

In April 2016, a brand-new Berlin Wall Museum was opened at the eastern end of the East Side Gallery on the second floor of the Mühlenspeicher, an historic grain storage building, which is also home to the ‘Pirates Berlin’ restaurant. Politicians and international experts such as Michail Gorbatschow and Guido Kane pushed to establish a private museum here on the 25th anniversary of reunification. At first, I was rather sceptical of a museum which advertises itself as ‘a live experience with film, sound and historic sensations’, but I can certainly recommend it as an excellent audio-visual account of the full story of the Berlin Wall, from the reasons for its construction in 1961 to its dramatic fall in 1989.

Berlin Wall Museum by the Spree

Clever virtual construction of the Wall

There are 13 rooms of multi-media exhibits, using over 100 screens and projectors to show original footage and documents. Visitors enter the rooms through painted curtains and are launched into large screen-shots on the walls. In the first room you are confronted with the ruins of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and learn how political events led to the building of border between East and West Germany. Then, original film gives a close-up experience the Berlin Wall’s construction and a concrete mixer, barbed wire and original elements of the Wall add to drama of the moving images.

Building the Wall

One room features a faithful reconstruction of an East Berlin living room in the 1960s and another has witness reports on victims of border shootings. The room dedicated to Glienicke Brücke, the ‘Bridge of Spies’, is especially fascinating, but it is a sad experience to stand on the balcony overlooking the Spree and read accounts of children who drowned in its dark waters when a border separated west from east.

Living in East Berlin

There is plenty of gripping newsreel footage of the political situations that developed over the years, including confrontation between the Americans and the Soviets, Willy Brandt’s Neue Ostpolitik and eventually the people’s demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the opening of the border. The museum also links reflections on the Cold War with art: works by Keith Haring, Pink Floyd’s epic music drama “The Wall” and the song “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions are all part of the multimedia concept.

David Bowie in Berlin, 1987

The Pink Floyd room

The area which celebrates the opening of the border crossing points, with thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin, catches the jubilant mood brilliantly, with powerful music to add to the euphoria. And in the room dedicated to the political negotiations surrounding reunification, the simulated heartbeat of ‘the master of diplomacy’, West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Friedrich Genscher, who had previously suffered two heart attacks, creates a suitably tense atmosphere.

Genscher in negotiations

Finally, I found that this museum told me many new stories about the feelings and reactions of individuals. One light-hearted anecdote was that as a teenager, Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed by his German grandmother in 1988 trying to push down the Berlin Wall and after the Wall fell, Margaret Thatcher expressed a sense of unease about a united Germany because of her memories of wartime bombing.  The words of Michail Gorbatschow also captured my attention. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990, he said that we must all help to make the 21st century “a century of a new human renaissance.”

Margaret Thatcher as a teenager

The final curtain

When I emerged  through the final curtain at the end of my journey through this multimedia Berlin Wall experience, I was certainly glad to step into a reunited Berlin and really felt that the 13 rooms had increased my knowledge of Cold War history through watching and listening. The Museum has a useful website at http://www.thewallmuseum.com/welcome.html with further information and admission fees. It is open seven days a week from 10am until 7pm. The staff there are great enthusiasts about this project and the whole enterprise has an edgy Berlin feel about it, ideally located in an old warehouse on the Spree, right next to the Eastside Gallery.

Russian Berlin

Russian Berlin

Berlin’s relationship with Russia is unique. There are now an estimated 300,000 Russians living in the German capital, many of them Russian-Germans who arrived after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. One hundred years ago, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, thousands of Russian emigrés fled to the German capital. Many of them made their home in the borough of Charlottenburg, which soon earned the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’. At the Russian su­per­mar­ket, next to Charlottenburg sta­tion, you can still buy Russ­ian dumplings, wine, vodka and the clas­sic Aly­onka chocolate. The shop assistants all wear the same red t-shirt emblazoned proudly with the word ‘Russia’, in blue and white Cyril­lic let­ters.

Russian supermarket

There is also a score of good Russian restaurants in Berlin. Top of the list is ‘Pasternak’ in Prenzlauer Berg, which occupies a large and picturesque corner site opposite ‘Dicker Hermann’ (‘Fat Hermann’), Berlin’s oldest water tower. I love the feel of this restaurant, especially in the evening. The dark wood bar and furniture, parquet-flooring, old posters, crystal chandeliers and piano combine to create an intimate and authentic atmosphere.

Pasternak after dark

The building was lovingly restored by its owner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in the 1990s and just around the corner in Rykestrasse is the largest synagogue in Germany, originally built in 1903-1904.

Rykestrasse Synagogue

I revisited Pasternak for dinner on a Sunday with friends, a couple of weeks ago. Our waitress was Latvian – full of good humour and helpful suggestions. We started off with mixed platters of Russian hors d’oeuvre. They were a sight to behold and everything tasted as good as it looked, especially washed down with the glass of vodka.

We chose red wine from Georgia – one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world – to accompany the main course and each of us selected something different from the wide choice of Russian and Jewish specialities. They were all delicious.

Finally, we couldn’t resist finishing off the evening with a portion of blinis served with hot cherries and a serving of Russian ice cream. This was probably a bridge too far, but the retro extravagance of the desserts proved irresistible. Having paid the very reasonable bill, we walked outside into the rain and were further tempted by the bright lights of ‘Bar Gagarin’ on the other side of Rykestrasse. This is most definitely a cosy little corner of Russia in East Berlin.

Bar Gargarin at night

Another very popular Russian haunt is the Tadschikische Teestube, this time almost next to the historic Neue Synagoge at 27, Oranienburgerstrasse  in Mitte, an area which has attracted many Russian-Jewish immigrants. The whole place was a gift to the GDR from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan who brought the interior and the design to the Leipzig Trade Fair in the 1970s. In 1976, the Teestube opened on Unter den Linden as a permanent tea parlour and restaurant, complete with carved wooden columns, carpets and hassocks with low tables and kitchenware imported from Tajikistan. It was moved to its current location five years ago.

Authentic interior

There are over 20 varieties of tea to savour at the Tadschikische Teestube and for a special occasion you can book a Samovar ceremony. The restaurant menu is suitably Russian too and apart from the magical interior, there is a beautiful courtyard outside. If you understand German, Monday evenings are reserved for the telling of Russian fairy-tales.

Courtyard setting

But Berliners have not always welcomed the Russians. When the Soviets marched into the city in April 1945, their invasion was characterised by the most terrible bloodshed, rape and pillage. On 20th April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery began shelling Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. According to one source, “the weight of ordnance delivered by Soviet artillery during the battle was greater than the total tonnage dropped by Western Allied bombers”. When the Soviets raised the Red Flag from the top of the Reichstag on 2nd May to signal their victory, Berlin was at its lowest ebb in history.

Iconic painting of the Red Flag

Things didn’t improve much during the years of the city’s division when the Soviets took over the eastern sector of Berlin after the war. During the workers’ demonstrations in East Berlin on 17th June1953, Soviet tanks and soldiers were brought in to quell the uprising, and hundreds of East Berlin citizens were killed. The Soviet Union was always proclaimed as the ‘great friend’ of the GDR Government, but many of its citizens would beg to differ.

Russian tanks in East Berlin, 1953

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet military left East Berlin and the American, British and French military left West Berlin. But the Russians have left behind so many more tangible memories than the Western Allies. They lost over 30,000 soldiers in the Battle for Berlin and the huge Soviet War Memorials in Treptower Park and on 17. Juni Strasse, near the Brandenburg Gate, bear witness to the massive price that Russia had to pay. For a detailed account of German-Russian relations, the Deutsch-Russisches Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst is well-worth a visit. It is only a pity that they no longer have the large-scale model of the Battle for Berlin which used to fill a whole room in the 1980s. It was apparently taken back to Moscow after reunification.

Celebrations in Treptower Park, 2015

You can actually get a feel for Moscow in the centre of Berlin. Just take a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor and marvel at the chunky Moscow-style apartment blocks erected in the 1950s, when this boulevard was named ‘Stalinallee’. On the right-hand side you will pass Café Moskau, a striking 1960s-era building, originally built as an ‘international restaurant’ and conference rooms. Now it is the upmarket ‘Avenue’ night club and an event venue. Further along Karl-Marx-Allee, just before Franfurter Tor, is the aptly-named ‘Kosmos’, also now a large event venue and once the largest cinema in the GDR.

Moscow-style apartments

Café Moskau

The Russians have certainly left their mark on Berlin and continue to shape its culture. It is worth remembering that Angela Merkel speaks excellent Russian, which she learnt as her first language during her GDR education and that Vladimir Putin spent five years living in Dresden, East Germany, when he worked for the KGB.

 

Berlin Calling – from the Radioeins Rooflounge

Berlin Calling – from the Radioeins Rooflounge

Heavenly views of Berlin are always a treat and in summer it seems as if every hotel in the city is competing to have the coolest rooftop venue. But Radio Eins has nailed the prize this year. To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, this radio station has transformed the conference room and roof terrace on the top floor of the RBB tower block into a sensational ‘Dachlounge’ (roof lounge). The initials ‘RBB’ stand for Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, the nationally-affiliated broadcasting company for Berlin-Brandenburg.

Looking up at the RBB tower block

A section of the Berlin Wall in the RBB gardens

‘Radio Eins Ganz Oben’ (‘Radio One right at the top’) opened its Dachlounge on 1st July and plans to close on 31st December. Entry is free – just be prepared to have your bag searched, before being whizzed up to the 14th floor from the outside lift on Theodor-Heuss-Platz in Charlottenburg. Then simply walk straight outside on to the terrace to enjoy the fabulous 360° views. There’s seating there as well and, in fair weather, a shed serving drinks and freshly-barbecued snacks. Last week, we were treated to a torrential downpour, followed by sunshine and a spectacular rainbow over Berlin. The views extended for miles.

Views in every direction

Inside, the RBB conference area has become a bar, a restaurant, a lounge and a studio – all in one space. Large company meetings apparently now take place in the RBB offices in Potsdam (which you can just about see in the distance from the roof terrace). The interior of the Dachlounge has a modern, loft-style feel to it, with orange and dark grey décor and full-length panoramic windows. Radio Eins is a radio station aimed at the over 25 age group and features plenty of timeless pop music as well as current hits, so the Dachlounge atmosphere is smooth rather than edgy.

Inside the Dachlounge

The opening hours are midday until midnight, seven days a week. You can go there for a meal or just call in for a coffee or cocktail. On weekdays, live programmes are broadcast from the Dachlounge between 7pm and 9pm – on these evenings you are advised to make a reservation for dinner. Places are limited to 150 guests. For a feel of the place, just follow this link for a video clip.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sBpFK3OMlc

Radio magic

Of course, the tower block is only one part of the huge RBB complex. Radio and television history are intimately connected with Berlin and the original broadcasting building is the vast and imposing ‘Haus des Rundfunks’ (Broadcasting House) on Masurenallee, opposite the Funkturm (radio tower). The iconic ‘D’ shaped structure of the Haus des Rundfunks was designed by architect Hans Poelzig and built in 1929-31, using dark, shiny, clinker bricks. The transmitting studios radiate from the entrance hall and are enclosed within the offices.

The front of the main building

Close-up of the brickwork

The Haus des Rundfunks remained largely undamaged during the Second World War due to some ingenious methods to disguise its position from Allied bombers. After the war and until 1956, the entire building remained a Soviet enclave in the British Sector of Berlin and, since the Soviets only allowed the other Allies a fraction of the transmitting time, this led to the setting up of RIAS (Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor) in order to broadcast to Berliners the viewpoint of the West. SFB (Sender Freies Berlin,‘Berlin’s Free Broadcaster’) was established in 1956 by a West Berlin parliamentary act to create an independent broadcasting station for West Berlin. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Haus des Rundfunks, which had been left in a desolate state by the Soviets, was rendered operational by the SFB. In the mid-1980s I went on a guided tour of the Haus des Rundfunks and it was a fascinating place to explore. We were shown some of first recording studios in the world, under historic preservation order. The wood panelling around the concert hall where the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded its concerts was taken from just one tree so that the sound absorption is uniform. And when the seats in the auditorium were lifted, they revealed perforations which acted acoustically in the same way as a person occupying the seat.

1980s aerial view of the SFB buildings

But despite its modern concept, the Haus des Rundfunks could not live up to the requirements needed for television and so SFB built a new tower block alongside it, on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. This was opened in 1968 and as some of the studios inside are situated directly over the U-Bahn, they are literally ‘suspended’ to prevent any vibrations from the trains running underneath the building. SFB continued to exist until 2003 when it was merged with ORB (Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg East German Radio Brandenburg), based in Potsdam, to form RBB. For guided tours of the RBB studios follow this link: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/haus-des-rundfunks

View of the Funkturm from the Dachlounge terrace