Nowadays, travelling through Berlin is easy and hassle-free, but as recently as 23 years ago; many Berlin residents were actually forbidden from accessing many parts of the city. Up until November 9th 1989, Berlin was still divided into two zones – Berlin (the West) and East Berlin, which was, at that time, the capital city of East Germany (DDR).
Checkpoint Charlie (which was given its name in accordance with the NATO alphabet) was a border crossing point from West into East Berlin.
East German citizens were prohibited from travelling to the West without special authorisation, and West Berlin residents, along with other West Germans and foreigners, were subjected to strict inspection procedures, which often meant waiting around for hours before being able to cross the border.
While numerous checkpoints and border crossings were constructed all along the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie was most certainly one of the best-known. The area on Friedrichstraße at the corner of Zimmerstraße, where the border crossing was formerly located, is now one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions. This seems rather odd to me, considering that there is really not much to see there anymore, and everything that is on display at Checkpoint Charlie is actually just a replica or “re-enactment” of the former site and its “aesthetics.”
What is there to discover?
Detractors refer to the Checkpoint Charlie of today as “Berlin’s Hollywood,” which is really not too far from the truth, considering that it’s not so much a building or a monument as it is a re-staging of the past. When you approach Checkpoint Charlie, regardless of what direction you’re coming from, you’ll inevitably be confronted by a great deal of hustle and bustle, which technically is justified; world history was made here, after all. The centrepiece of Checkpoint Charlie today is an exact replica of the first inspector’s hut and sector signpost, on which is written the famous sentence, “You are leaving the American Sector.”
Rain or shine, 365 days a year, a uniformed man stands in front of the inspector’s hut, holding the American flag in his hands. Hordes of snickering tourists, brought here in packed tour buses, allow themselves to be photographed with the man in uniform, for a nominal fee, of course.
As a visitor to this site, you should take a moment to journey back, in your mind, to a time over 20 years ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and try to picture what it must have looked like in Berlin back then. Information panels and the open air exhibition, are on display along Friedrichstraße, Zimmerstraße, and Schützenstraße, which will help fuel your imagination. The story of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie is vividly depicted and documented through texts and pictures here. The various sections of this outdoor gallery provide information, free of charge, about three primary themes: the numerous escape attempts, successful and failed, at the border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie as a symbolic location for the confrontation between the two blocs in the Cold War, when Soviet and American tanks stood opposite each other at the checkpoint in October of 1961, and, in the display area along Zimmerstraße, information is given about the most important memorial sites, actual remains of the Berlin Wall, and museums and documentation centres concerning the theme of “divided Germany.”
Located just in front of the replica of the inspector’s hut is a “billboard,” on which an American and a Russian soldier are depicted. Each soldier’s gaze is each directed toward the sovereign territory of his counterpart. This light-box installation was created in the year 1998 by the artist Frank Thiel. The photos of the soldiers were taken in 1994, prior to the withdrawal of the allied forces from Berlin. These portraits are intended to put a face on 50 years of history. If this is indeed the case, or if the display comes across as merely a pleasant photo motive, is a question that every visitor can answer for himself.
If time permits, you should be sure head to West down Zimmerstraße, towards Stresemannstraße/Potsdamer Platz. Following this route, you’ll arrive at Topographie des Terrors (“The Topography of Terror” museum), where a large portion of the original Berlin Wall is still on display.
In spite of the large, bustling crowds found at Checkpoint Charlie on a daily basis, and the fact that it is a point of interest which, truth be told, is somewhat difficult to grasp, I am still truly amazed by this place. Although no original parts of the Wall or of the “death strip” are on view there today, the numerous information panels and pictures do help visitors to take an imaginary journey back to the time before 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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