Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Between October 22nd – 28th 1961 the eyes of the world were focused on Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin during the years of the Cold War. A stand-off between American and Soviet tanks could have resulted in quite possibly, WWIII, but both sides had the sense to realise the consequences and serious conflict was avoided.

I’m sure that many of you will know how all this came about, but I think it’s worth repeating anyway.

The background to the drama goes back to the end of WWII when Germany was divided up by the four main countries responsible for its defeat – Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Although they were united in defeating Nazi Germany, the differences in ideology between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union had been obvious for quite some time. Really, it was just a case of agreeing to disagree while they defeated the common enemy of Nazi Germany.

At the end of the war Germany was divided up into West Germany, (controlled by the Western alliance), and East Germany (controlled by the Soviet Union). Berlin, which was situated deep inside the Soviet sector, was also divided up by the victors into West and East Berlin.

Map of Cold War Berlin showing the location of Checkpoint Charlie

Problems started to arise when East Germans became disenchanted with their way of life under communist rule and started to defect to the West.

The Inner German border separating West and East Germany was 866 miles long, and in the early days not too difficult to cross, but as the number of defectors increased then so was the security along it.

To reach Berlin from West Germany by road involved travelling along the Berlin Corridor from the Helmstedt–Marienborn checkpoint (Checkpoint A for Alpha) through East Germany to the Berlin border checkpoint at Dreilinden-Drewitz (Checkpoint B for Bravo). Fences, wire, patrol guards and barriers made sure that nobody strayed off the designated route.

It was much easier for East Berliners to cross into West Berlin (and therefore West Germany), but as the trickle of defectors turned into a flood, the authorities decide to do something about it and on 13th August 1961 work started on constructing the Berlin Wall.

It wasn’t supposed to be for stopping Westerners travelling into East Berlin, just a way of controlling the exodus out of it, and so seven street crossing points were established, as well as at Friedrichstrasse railway station.

02

One of these crossing points was at the junction of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse and was the only point of entry for members of the Allied forces, so consequently the Western Alliance referred to it as Checkpoint C for Charlie.

The  location of the American Crossing Point
The location of the American Crossing Point
Checkpoint Charlie today
Checkpoint Charlie today

Up until the building of the Wall, members of all the Allied countries were allowed free access to all areas of Berlin under the 1945 Potsdam Agreement, but on the evening of 22nd October 1961 E. Allan Lightner, the U.S. Chief of Mission in West Berlin, was stopped in his car at Checkpoint Charlie even though his car had official occupation forces registration plates. This was the first of several similar incidents that escalated into a situation where American tanks were deployed to oversee free passage of movement through the checkpoint.

The Russian response was predictable under the circumstances, and it didn’t take long to find American and Soviet tanks staring at each other across the border just 100 metres apart. This stand-off lasted 16 hours with both sides having orders to fire back if fired upon.

A crisis was only averted after top-level dialogue between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, but there was no doubt how relations between East and West would be from now on.

09

Today, the original checkpoint is no longer here and the Berlin Wall is gone (except a few reminders for posterity), but there’s no guessing as to which side came out on top. Capitalist trappings are everywhere you look at this intersection now, which to my mind is a shame. This important location of modern history demanded a more respectful view of what happened back then in my view. It’s not all bad news though. In amongst the fast-food outlets and souvenirs is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum which, although it’s been a long time since I went in, it was good then and is still here now.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall the city has come a long way and in many ways it’s now a fantastic city to visit, but not all the changes have been done well, and that’s how I feel about Checkpoint Charlie. Maybe that’s just me not being able to see the world through modern eyes, but I suppose the more I think about it, the more I have to admit that it’s probably better to be looking at a Kentucky Fried Chicken menu rather than down the barrel of a T55.

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10 thoughts on “Checkpoint Charlie

  1. Fergy.

    I have not been to Berlin for many years but, like others here, I was not overly impressed with Checkpoint Charlie. I thought it was all a bit theme park. Excellent piece as always, I am really enjoying your Berlin page, well all of them to be honest.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Hi Fergy, it’s great to hear from you and thanks for your kind comments.
      Yes! I thought Checkpoint Charlie was a bit of a circus really and shows why the Eastern Bloc disliked some of our Western values.
      Hope you’re keeping well.

      Reply
  2. Sarah Wilkie

    Great piece! I completely agree about this mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie. I remember the real one from our 1983 visit to Berlin, and when we went back a few tears ago this was the only place where I felt the city had misfired in its representations of its own checkered history. Selfies with the border guards? Not really an appropriate way to remember the divided city imho.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      Thanks Sarah. It’s a shame but inevitable I suppose, that in a rush to make up for lost time the city would have made some mistakes.

      Reply
  3. Stuart Templeton

    A very interesting post, and thanks for sharing it.

    When it comes to important pieces of modern history, I think we are too quick to remove it and often lack the foresight to preserve it. We live quite near the old RAF Upper Heyford base, not that you’d know it. In their haste to build a housing estate all the history of the place has been swept away – it’s such a shame.

    Great blog – I like your photo’s, very nicely taken.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      Thanks Stuart. I totally agree about dispensing with historical things of the past too quickly. As they say, once it’s gone it’s gone. I’m looking forward to your adventures with Alli in the Ratmobile. It sounds fun

      Reply
  4. Linda Luque

    Very nice approach Malcom. I too have a piece of the Wall, sent to me by a Belgian student I had years ago. As soon as the Wall fell he went to check it out.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      Thanks Linda. No wonder there’s not much of the wall left. I’ve got a piece as well 🙂

      Reply
  5. Alli Templeton

    Great post, Malc, and it’s taught me a lot. I didn’t know why the East and West split, so that was really interesting. I used to work with a man who had a piece of the Berlin wall. He brought it back from a business trip, and it still had some of the coloured graffiti on it. I thought it was fascinating. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
    1. Malcolm Post author

      I’m glad you found it useful Alli. Thanks. That’s what’s good about reading other people’s posts. You’ve already taught me some things as well

      Reply

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