At Checkpoint Charlie, Cold War History Confronts Crass Commercialism
BERLIN — For all Berlin’s attractions, it is a small, wooden shack that tops the must-see lists of many tourists here.
The former guard house stands behind a row of sandbags at a busy intersection in the heart of the city’s downtown, beneath a sign announcing “U.S. Army Checkpoint.” The world knows the spot better as Checkpoint Charlie.
It was at this crossing, during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, that Soviet and American tanks stood muzzle to muzzle in a standoff that threatened to plunge humanity into yet another war, this one to be fought with nuclear weapons. After six tense days, the two sides backed off without firing a shot. But the site remained ground zero of the Cold War division that split the world into opposing blocs.
“There is no equivalent anywhere, where tanks stood off and the world worried we were on the brink of World War III,” said Hope M. Harrison, a professor of history at George Washington University, who has studied Cold War Berlin and the city’s development since the Berlin Wall came down. “That is what is so unique about Checkpoint Charlie.”
Now, as a reunited Berlin prepares for the 30th anniversary of the Wall’s fall later this year, Checkpoint Charlie is the site of another confrontation, this one pitting developers against historians.
After intense negotiations and public debate, the city of Berlin approved plans in 2017 to put up commercial and residential buildings, including a Hard Rock Hotel, on the last two undeveloped plots on the site. The project would be on the Soviet side of the checkpoint, facing the Americans’ wooden shack. Space for a museum was included, but it was to be integrated into the commercial buildings with exhibition space largely underground.
The plans set off an intense backlash among those who see Checkpoint Charlie as one of the defining places of 20th-century history.
The developer, Trockland, was accused of “proposing to transform Checkpoint Charlie into a theme park” in an open letter written by Thomas Flierl, a former culture minister for the city, with five other city planners, architects and historians.
The commercial focus of the project would overshadow the checkpoint that remained, putting private interests above the public’s need to remember and learn from the site, they wrote.
The outcry grew so charged that in December the authorities in Berlin suddenly abandoned the project. The city’s development office now says it is working on a plan B, which it hopes will be ready in a year.
Heskel Nathaniel, Trockland’s co-founder and chief executive, said he was committed to maintaining the historical integrity of the site, whichever concept advances.
“We have been working with the Berlin government very closely for three years to integrate the elements that are important for the city — commercial, memorial and exhibition spaces,” he said. “But we don’t see a consensus in Berlin, instead a lack of confidence and clarity.”
The lack of a permanent memorial to Checkpoint Charlie’s history has stoked disputes for decades.
“That story needs to be told there,” said Ms. Harrison, who is a member of an advisory board for a Cold War museum that has been planned for decades at Checkpoint Charlie, but that has yet to be built.
In the decades since the Wall fell, the former crossing point’s history has always taken a back seat to commerce and crass tourism.
Above the sign in English, Russian, French and German informing visitors “You Are Leaving the American Sector,” another sign shows them the way to KFC. Two doors down, the golden arches offer yet another taste of the United States.
On the eastern side of the United States Army guard house — a replica of the original, which is in a museum — young men in aviator glasses and 1960s-era military uniforms stand side by side. In one hand, they clutch the Stars and Stripes. The other they use to give a thumbs up, or throw an arm around tourists willing to pay a few euros for pictures with them.
Long gone are the East German guards who would beat a hapless tourist who happened to stray to their side of the boundary. These days, the biggest threat at Checkpoint Charlie is posed by the buses and taxis that dodge selfie-snapping tourists who step into the bustling intersection to grab pictures of the mock soldiers at enough of a distance to avoid the fee.
To date, only temporary installations exist to inform those who are more interested in the history of the place than in selfies.
For those seeking deeper dives on the history of Berlin’s partition, there is the Berlin Wall Memorial several miles north, with its documentation center and outdoor exhibition stretching almost one mile along the former border strip.
But even without a formal museum, and even with the site’s tackier elements, those drawn to Checkpoint Charlie on a recent day said the site was too important to lose.
Dominick Devismes, taking a detour during a business trip to Berlin, studied an outdoor exhibition showing black-and-white images from the Cold War that revived memories from his childhood in France.
“They must keep it, otherwise the young people will forget,” Mr. Devismes said. “Like Berlin, it remains symbolic.”
Some visitors remembered the place from a time when a watchtower stood above red-and-white striped barriers, which passing cars had to weave through to reach the other side. And the soldiers were real, as were their weapons.
Del Kittendorf of Marietta, Ga., experienced Checkpoint Charlie in 1983. He had been at a Lutheran Church gathering in what was then East Germany, and he crossed into the West.
“They checked under the bus with mirrors and in all of the luggage racks — it was crazy,” he said. “This place deserves to be preserved. We must keep the memory and honor the history.”
Other visitors were too young to remember the Cold War, but felt obligated to come see the spot that embodies Berlin’s defining role in that postwar era.
“It’s where you come when you come to Berlin,” said Daniella Collison, 19, who was visiting from Sydney, Australia, with her boyfriend, Max Reinold, 22. He quickly pointed out its importance as a monument: “I learned about it in history class.”
Both rejected the idea of building a Hard Rock Hotel at the location. Gesturing to the fast food restaurants and souvenir shops behind the guard house, Mr. Reinold said, “It’s already commercial enough.”