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.
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.
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.
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.
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.