Checkpoint Charlie: a symbol of the Cold War in central Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie is definitely one of those places in Berlin that always leave you a little confused.
A corner where hundreds of visitors and groups accompanied by tourist guides stop to try to imagine what was, in a given moment, the hottest place in the Cold War.
Today, unfortunately at Checkpoint Charlie there is practically nothing original that can bring us back to the period of divided Berlin. Currently, the corner between the Friedrichstraße and the Zimmerstraße is a space with many construction sites that is under continuous “construction”.
WHO WAS CHARLIE IN BERLIN?
Checkpoint Charlie was located between the districts of Mitte in East Berlin and Kreuzberg in West Berlin. At that point, the border between Communist Berlin and Capitalist Berlin cut across one of the most important streets of the city center: Friedrichstraße. Almost all the historic buildings in this area were destroyed in the Second World War and the ruins were removed in the immediate post-war period. But beginning with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, this place became increasingly important and significant.
Checkpoint Charlie is the only border crossing between West Berlin and East Germany that has remained alive in the non-German collective memory. However, for both East Germans and Westerners the border crossing through the Friedrichstraße station was much more important. In fact, it was there that they usually crossed the border, when they were authorized.
WHERE THE NAME CHECKPOINT CHARLIE COMES FROM
Between West Berlin and East Germany there were 11 authorized points for crossing the border. Some were only for pedestrians, others were dedicated to the passage of foreigners, and some were reserved exclusively for Berliners.
Two of them had names from the NATO phonetic alphabet and were border crossings controlled by the Americans:
Checkpoint BRAVO was the most important gateway for motor vehicle traffic coming from West Germany through the German Democratic Republic – GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik – DDR) and the crossing was on the highway towards Magdeburg-Hannover, to the south-west of Berlin.
Checkpoint CHARLIE was located on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße.
But if we have Bravo and Charlie, where was Checkpoint ALPHA?
Alpha was the most important checkpoint for those traveling from West Germany to East Germany. It was a two-hour drive from Berlin, in the border area between Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and the GDR, near the town of Marienborn.
CHARLIE CHECKPOINT DURING THE COLD WAR
For more than two decades, the intersection of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße has been an emblematic place of the Cold War. It was the most important urban border crossing between the Soviet and the American sectors and became very famous a few months after the definitive closure of the border on August 13th, 1961.
On October 27, 1961, for sixteen hours, it became the hottest place in the Cold War, a step away from World War III, at the height of a period of very high tension between America and the Soviet Union called the “Berlin Crisis”. The M-48 tanks of the United States tried to break through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and found Soviet T-55 tanks on the other side. They faced off for a good sixteen hours, with cannons aimed but without advancing, while the US and Soviet chancellors were trying to find a compromise.
In addition, a few months after the construction of the Wall, on 17 August 1962, eighteen-year-old Peter Fechter was killed by the guards of the GDR, right next to Checkpoint Charlie. The young citizen of East Berlin had planned the escape together with a friend. While the friend managed to pass the “death strip” and climb over the Wall, Peter Fechter was struck by the shots of the Eastern guards, as he climbed in front of dozens of witnesses on the Western side. Despite requests for help and screams, he received no help and died after about an hour of terrible agony in front of Western cameras.
CHARLIE CHECKPOINT IN THE BERLIN OF TODAY
Its central location and the appearance on the big screen made Checkpoint Charlie a real tourist pilgrimage site in Berlin.
Another sure thing, though, is that Berliners avoid Checkpoint Charlie because they identify it with the most unpleasant aspects of mass tourism. The municipal administration has been discussing what to do with this place for years.
A copy of the American control booth (the original is located outside Berlin in the Alliierten Museum – Allied Museum) today serves to let hundreds of Berlin visitors to take photos with young students disguised as American soldiers. Some Berliners even this makes their history trivial!
A few meters from the intersection, there is a museum that tells the escape stories of Berliners. I don’t know anyone who recommends it, but I know many people who have visited it. I guess it’s because of its location.
THE INSTALLATION BY ARTIST FRANK THIEL AT CHECKPOINT CHARLIE
The installation by artist Frank Thiel shows color photos of a young American soldier and a young Russian soldier as they surveil enemy territory.
The photos were taken in 1994 before the allied forces withdrew from Berlin. It is interesting to note that the “Soviet” soldier is already wearing the army uniform of the new Russian Federation.
THE FILMS THAT MADE CHECKPOINT CHARLIE FAMOUS
The Spy that Came in from the Cold (1965), inspired by a novel by John le Carré.
Funeral in Berlin (1966), with Michael Caine.
Octopussy (1983), the thirteenth film in the James Bond saga
HOW TO GET TO CHECKPOINT CHARLIE
– By metro: Kochstrasse station (U6) or Stadtmitte ( U2);
– By bus: Checkpoint Charlie stop (Bus line M29);