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.
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to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s.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.
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.
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.