Essential Architecture-  Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie




junction of Friedrichstraße with Zimmerstraße and - amazingly - Mauerstraße ('Wall Street') in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood








Government road checkpoint
Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie as tourist attraction. Viewed from the American sector, the ersatz cabin has been decorated with an image of a Soviet soldier. The reverse side shows an American soldier (June 2003)Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Others on the Autobahn to the West were Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt and Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden, southeast of Wannsee, named from the NATO phonetic alphabet. Many other checkpoints existed, some for German citizens, others for foreigners and members of Allied forces. Checkpoint Charlie is at the junction of Friedrichstraße with Zimmerstraße and - amazingly - Mauerstraße ('Wall Street') in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood, in the heart of Berlin, which was divided by the Berlin Wall. The Soviets simply called it the Friedrichstraße Crossing Point.

Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of east and west, and – for the East Germans – a gateway to freedom. It frequently featured in spy movies and books, such as those by John le Carré.

The checkpoint was curiously asymmetrical. During its 27-year active life, the infrastructure on the Eastern side was expanded to include not only the wall, watchtower and zig-zag barriers, but a multi-lane shed where cars and their occupants were checked. However the American authorities, perhaps not wanting to concede that the division of Germany might be anything other than a temporary aberration, never erected any permanent buildings, and made do with the iconic wooden shed.

Today, the museum next to the checkpoint struggles to keep alive the memory of what is now something between an embarrassment and a tourist attraction.

Early escapes
The Berlin Wall was erected with great efficiency by the East German government in 1961, but naturally there were many means of escape that they had not anticipated. Checkpoint Charlie was initially blocked only by a gate; a citizen of the GDR (East Germany) smashed a car through it to escape, so a strong pole was erected. Another escapee approached the barrier in a convertible, took the windscreen down at the last moment and slipped under the barrier. This was repeated two weeks later and the East Germans duly lowered the barrier and added uprights.

Diplomatic incident of October 1961
The four powers governing Berlin ( the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union) had agreed at Potsdam that their personnel would not be stopped by German police in any zone. But on 22 October 1961, just two months after the construction of the Wall, the US Mission Chief, E. Allan Lightner, was stopped in his car (which had occupation force licence plates) while going to a theatre in East Berlin. General Lucius D. Clay, Kennedy's Special Adviser in West Berlin, decided to demonstrate American resolve.

Clay responds
Clay sent an American diplomat, Albert Hemsing, to probe the border. While probing in a diplomatic car, Hemsig was stopped by East German transport police asking to see his passport. Once his identity became clear, military police were rushed in. The East German Transport Police escorted the diplomatic car as it drove into East Berlin. The shocked GDR police got out of the way. The car continued and the soldiers returned to West Berlin. A British diplomat - apparently either out of the loop or attempting to conciliate - was stopped the next day and just handed over his passport, and Clay was furious.

Perhaps this contributed to his decision to make the attempt again: on 27 October 1961, Mr. Hemsing again approached the zonal boundary in a diplomatic car. But Clay did not know how the Soviets would respond, so just in case, he had brought tanks with an infantry battalion to the nearby Tempelhof airfield. To everyone's relief the same routine was played out as before. The US troops and Jeeps went back to West Berlin, and the tanks waiting behind also went home.

Tank stand-off

Soviet tanks face U.S. tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961-10-27Immediately afterwards, 33 Russian tanks drove to the Brandenburg Gate. Curiously, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that as he understood it, the American jeeps had seen Russian tanks coming and retreated. Col. Jim Atwood, then Commander of the US Military Mission to West Berlin, disagreed in later statements.

Ten of these tanks continued to Friedrichstraße, and stopped just 50 to 100 yards from the Checkpoint. The US tanks turned back towards the Checkpoint, stopping an equal distance from it on the American side. And they just waited. From the 27th at 17:00 until the 28th at about 11:00, the respective troops faced each other.

As per standing orders, both groups of tanks were loaded. The US Garrison in West Berlin, then NATO, and finally the US Strategic Air Command (SAC), were brought to increased alert (Defense Condition 3?). Both groups of tanks had orders to fire when fired upon. If there had been a negligent discharge, the consequences might have been very serious, although both superpowers' leaders understood that Berlin was not worth general war.[citation needed]

Stand-off resolved
Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed (according to one source, via a channel established just a month before) to reduce tensions by withdrawing the tanks. The Soviet checkpoint had direct communications to General Anatoly Gribkov at Soviet Army High Command, who in turn was on the phone to Khrushchev. The US checkpoint contained a Military Policeman on the telephone to the HQ of the US Military Mission in Berlin, which in turn was in communication with the White House. Kennedy offered to go easy over Berlin in the future in return for the Soviets removing their tanks first. Thinking they had won a political victory, the Soviets agreed. In reality Kennedy was very much in favour of the Wall: "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is better than war." [citation needed]

A Soviet tank moved 5 yards backwards first; then an American followed suit. One by one the tanks withdrew. But Gen. Bruce Clark, US Commander in the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany: West Germany), was said to have been concerned about Clay's conduct and Clay returned to retirement in May 1962. Gen. Clark's assessment may, however, have been incomplete: Clay's firmness had a great effect on the German population, led by Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt and FRG Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Death of Peter Fechter
On 17 August 1962, Peter Fechter was wounded in the hip, shot by East German guards while trying to escape from East Berlin. His body lay tangled in a barbed wire fence, slowly bleeding to death, in full view of the world’s media. American soldiers could not rescue him because he was a few yards inside the Soviet sector. East German border guards were reluctant to approach him for fear of provoking American soldiers, one of whom had shot an East German border guard just days earlier. Over an hour later Mr. Fechter’s body was removed by the East German guards.

A spontaneous demonstration formed on the American side of the checkpoint, protesting the actions of the East and the inactions of the West: a few days later, the crowd stoned Soviet buses driving towards the Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial, in the British sector. The Soviets tried to escort the buses with Armoured Personnel Carriers ("APCs"). Thereafter, the Soviets were only allowed to cross via the Sandkrug Bridge crossing point (which was the nearest to Tiergarten) and were prohibited from bringing in APCs.

Western units were deployed in the middle of the night in early September with live armaments and vehicles, in order to enforce the ban. None of this ammunition was ever expended, although East German border guards in 1973 opened fire with automatic weapons, leaving bulletholes in Checkpoint Charlie, but no US personnel were hurt.

Checkpoint Charlie today

The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum opened two years after the wall was erected
Replica of the famous sign at the former East-West Berlin border Although the wall opened in November 1989, the checkpoint remained an official crossing for foreigners and diplomats until German reunification in October 1990 when the booth was removed; it is now in the Allied Museum in Zehlendorf. The course of the former wall is now marked on the street with a line of bricks. A copy of the booth and sign that once marked the border crossing was later erected where Checkpoint Charlie once stood. Near the location of the booth is the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a private museum opened in 1963 by Rainer Hildebrandt, which was augmented with a new building in the 1990s.

Developers tore down the East German checkpoint watchtower in 2000. This famous symbol of the Cold War was removed in a clandestine manner so as to attract a minimum amount of attention. The watchtower, which was the last surviving original Checkpoint Charlie structure, was demolished to make way for offices and shops. The city tried to save the tower but failed as it was not classified as an historic landmark. As of January 2006, nothing has been built at this site and the original proposals for development have been shelved.