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to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s.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.
The Berlin 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
The Berlin Wall Revisited – 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 Revisited – 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 Berlin Wall Revisited – 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
The Berlin Wall Revisited – 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
The Berlin Wall Revisited – 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
The Berlin Wall Revisited – 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/
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 with the Radioeins Rooflounge. 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 (Radioeins Rooflounge) 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 from the Radioeins Rooflounge
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 (Radioeins Rooflounge)
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
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
I was recently interviewed by the magazine ‘Where Berlin’ which is circulated to a number of hotels and available to pick up at Tegel and Schönefeld airports. The article appears in the September issue. You can read the interview by following opened this pdf file:
MY BERLIN Penny Croucher
Or you can flip through an online copy of the magazine by following this link