Dr Julien Drouart
Checkpoint Charlie: Story of a collective failure
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
Checkpoint Charlie is one of the iconic places of the Cold War. Today, it is unfortunately where authenticity and reflective work have the least meaning. A true collective failure.
A visit to Checkpoint Charlie is optional.
The end of the World War II led to the division of Germany into different sectors of occupation. In Berlin, the Allies and the Soviets shared the city and, although political antagonisms between the two sides became more pronounced, the checkpoints allowed for more or less easy traffic until August 1961. The beginning of the construction of the wall upsets this fragile balance. From then on, the crossing points were limited to a strict minimum and each one had a well-defined purpose.
Where the American and Soviet sectors met, Checkpoint Charlie became the obligatory crossing point for Western motor vehicles, diplomats and military units. On 27 October 1961, following an administrative harassment by the East German police, the American forces deployed several tanks on the demarcation line while the Red Army mobilised its own war machines. Although the situation was quickly resolved, the event could also have been the trigger for a new armed conflict, either localized or on a much larger scale.
The normalisation of the 1970s led to the replacement of the guardhouse by a container, maliciously underlining that the German division was only temporary. In June 1990, the prefabricated building used in the 1980s was removed. A replica of the old 1960s guardhouse was soon installed on the historical site.
Reconstruction and merchandising.
On today's Friedrichstrasse, West and East meet at a crossroads, in the centre of which a cheerfully staged guardhouse attracts the attention of hundreds of visitors. The place is quite photogenic and groups of onlookers jostle to immortalise themselves with the actors dressed in American army uniforms. The shots are taken for cash. Some paid dearly to have their passports stamped, thus granting themselves a symbolic right of passage to the GDR.
The area is not safe, cars and buses of the tourist companies pass by passers-by and school groups. Around the area, street vendors sold counterfeit East German border guard helmets and gas masks, as well as the many other items associated with this type of trade. In order to preserve their territory, they will sometimes have to scare away the numerous pickpockets. Everywhere, private establishments offer sensationalist experiences promising to relive the GDR and the Berlin Wall.
Historical signs inform the visitor about the importance of the place at the time of the division, but if they are well done, their presence on the public path makes them difficult to understand. One would almost forget the presence of a panel showing the opposite portraits of two young soldiers, American from the West and Soviet from the East.
A historical site sacrificed on the altar of tourism
Nothing here can justify such a cultural and historical failure. The whole thing is extremely disappointing but also misleading and reductive. In this regard, the presence of numerous companies that also wish to profit from the phenomenal growth of tourism in Berlin is no coincidence: the enhancement of historical heritage is achieved through a watering down that ultimately offers little educational added value.
It is preferable to visit the Allied Museum where the authentic Checkpoint Charlie is located or the very sober Berlin Wall Memorial. There is no shortage of historical attractions in Berlin. Of course, this is everyone's choice.
However, far from thinking that visitors lack discernment or intelligence, it is worth remembering that a certain tourist industry maintains the confusion by seeing it primarily as a substantial source of profit.
Reasons to go
Some interesting ideas for staging
See for yourself the excesses of the tourist industry
Reasons to avoid
Place for pickpockets and temple traders
Place of the worst tourist offers in Berlin
A disguised historical symbol