On 22 June 1990 – thirty years ago this month – a last piece of Cold War theatre played out at the now-defunct Berlin Wall, at its most famous crossing-point, Checkpoint Charlie. Foreign ministers from the US, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and East and West Germany, accompanied by the city’s three western military commandants and two mayors, watched a crane hoist away the portacabin which had guarded what had been the easternmost point of the western world for nearly three decades.
This was where ‘East’ met ‘West’ on the Cold War frontline, at the downtown borderline between the district of Kreuzberg in West Berlin (home to a bohemian counterculture) and the more regimented government district of East Germany’s demi-capital. This crossing was for non-Germans only – tourists mostly – and Allied and Soviet military and diplomatic personnel.
Why was it called ‘Checkpoint Charlie’?
But why ‘Charlie’? This was a military call-sign and letter from the NATO phonetic alphabet: ‘C’ for Charlie. Under the division of Germany into zones and Berlin into sectors, Allied troops travelling from West Germany to Berlin first encountered Checkpoint Alpha at the German-German border. One hundred miles further east, along a 1930s-vintage autobahn, came Checkpoint Bravo which funnelled them into the south-western tip of the US sector of Berlin. Charlie was the final stopping-point in the city centre before East Berlin.
Listen: Author and editor Iain MacGregor revisits some of the most dramatic events associated with the history of the Cold War barrier, from its construction in 1961 to its modern afterlife
On its eastern side – which was in fact its northern side, due to the city’s convoluted topography – it was simply known as ‘Border Crossing-Point Friedrichstraße’. A series of vehicle chicanes with swing-barriers waited behind a sign which, in the 1960s, informed visitors that they were entering the ‘Democratic Sector’ of East Berlin (but this was ‘people’s democracy’). Such was the topsy-turvy logic of the Cold War propaganda battles that played out on the hoardings and banners along its interface.
When was Checkpoint Charlie built?
For the first 16 years of Cold War Berlin’s existence, the sector boundary was an invisible border marked only by the occasional painted line. It was only with the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 that it became a militarised border. The new checkpoint drew world attention in October 1961, when a series of symbolic gestures escalated into a high-tension military stand-off. East German People’s Police, or ‘Vopos’ – part of a state the West refused to recognise – had started demanding ID from western officials, including the US deputy head of mission in Berlin, Allan Lightner. He sat tight in his VW Beetle with its military government plates, steadfastly refusing. The car was then ‘frog-marched’ into East Berlin, just to assert its rights, under close US military police escort.
To underscore their message, the Americans had also deployed tanks nearby, some provocatively mounted with bulldozer blades capable of demolishing the still fragile Wall – all part of a calculated policy of brinkmanship by John F Kennedy’s maverick special envoy in Berlin, General Lucius D Clay, hero of the Berlin airlift. Clay was now urging a showdown with the Soviets to prove that only they, and not the East Germans, were in charge. After a series of ‘test runs’ of more US civilian personnel escorted into East Berlin by military police jeeps, and 10 US tanks drawn up across Checkpoint Charlie, Moscow’s patience finally ran out. On 27 October the Russians deployed 10 of their own main battle tanks at point-blank range across the checkpoint.
In White House crisis talks, President Kennedy privately disowned Clay’s gung-ho tactics. The incident was only de-escalated following secret back-channel diplomacy between JFK’s brother Bobby and Soviet military intelligence’s man in Washington, Georgi Bolshakov. But not before the world had held its breath for 17 hours at the sight of tanks toe-to-toe at the world’s most dangerous hotspot. (And yes, their guns were locked and loaded!)
Tensions mounted again in August 1962, soon after the Wall’s first anniversary, when a notorious shooting occurred during an escape attempt within a stone’s throw of Checkpoint Charlie. Teenage East Berlin building worker Peter Fechter had almost scrambled over the breeze-block barrier when hit in the pelvis by border guard fire.
He lay for almost an hour bleeding out, as neither side dared enter no-man’s land. Yet western onlookers soon turned on the impotent American military police at nearby Checkpoint Charlie, as well as stoning passing Soviet military buses; so much so that the West Berlin police had to impose a temporary no-go area at the border.
Two years later, on a September night in 1964, Hans W Puhl, the US military policeman on duty at Checkpoint Charlie, and his Berlin police partner, heard nearby shots. Racing to the scene, Puhl showed none of the reticence seen in 1962. As he saw would-be escaper Michael Meyer being dragged back across no-man’s land by two GDR border guards, he tossed a teargas grenade over the wall. The guards took cover. Puhl began removing barbed wire from the wall, shouting encouragement and throwing a rope, while East German border guards and West Berlin police engaged in a 15-minute firefight. Meyer was eventually dragged over the Wall with bullet wounds to hand, arm, leg and thigh. All told the West had fired 64 rounds, the East 100, so that the ‘Wild East’ frontier may have felt at times like the Wild West.
Who escaped through Checkpoint Charlie, and how?
Escapes directly through Checkpoint Charlie were not impossible but required ingenuity. In May 1963 Heinz Meixner, an Austrian working in Berlin who had fallen for an East German woman on his visits to the other half of the city, hatched a daring plan to smuggle her out through the crossing-point where he had detected a weak spot.
Meixner acquired a British Austin-Healey Sprite sports car and calculated that, minus its windscreen and with tyres deflated, the low-slung vehicle might just pass under the swing-barriers. So, he loaded his girlfriend in the back and her mother in the boot, memorised the ‘S’ of the chicane, and then drove through crouched and at speed before East German guards could react.
In the early 1970s an intrepid trio of East Berlin young men even managed to build a tunnel underneath the border close by the checkpoint. Working from a disused cellar on the eastern side which had to be carefully resealed between each digging session, in January 1972 they managed to dig their way through the frozen, sandy soil and emerged just beyond the Wall.
Other, more direct, escape attempts were not so fortunate. On 5 January 1974, 23-year old Burkhard Niering, an East German paramilitary policeman disenchanted with national service, went AWOL from his barracks and appeared armed and dangerous at Checkpoint Charlie.
Taking a Stasi passport controller hostage and firing warning bursts of automatic fire into the night, Niering edged towards the final barrier before being gunned down by border guard snipers almost within touching distance of the borderline. He died an hour later in East Berlin’s police hospital.
Such incidents had already become the stuff of western spy legend. Ian Fleming’s last 007 story, The Living Daylights, features a jaded James Bond posted on sniper duty overlooking the wasteland close by what was to become Checkpoint Charlie. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson keeps vigil there, awaiting agents coming back from the cold. It also became a site of Cold War tourism. Rainer Hildebrandt, an anti-communist activist, set up the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a museum to the border and its escapes, which, despite its cramped quarters, became West Berlin’s most-visited destination.
From a peephole on its stairs, visitors could look down on the eastern side at a growing complex of interlocking portacabins, all furnished in the same mock-wood Formica. Visitors had to exchange 25 West German deutschmarks for east marks for the privilege of entering East Berlin.
As an exchange student visiting in the 1980s, I discovered that besides firearms and explosives (which seemed reasonable), used stamps were considered contraband, and neither towels nor babies’ nappies could be exported from the ‘Hauptstadt der DDR’.
On 9 November 1989, the day the Wall fell, Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing-points such as Bornholmer Straße in the north of the city were to face not tanks from the West but ‘people power’ from the East. After a botched Communist Party press conference announcing the opening of the border, but in a process designed to take weeks not hours, thousands of East Berliners decided to assert their new freedom of movement through a collective act of direct action. At around midnight Stasi border personnel at Checkpoint Charlie, like their comrades elsewhere, were unable to get any directions from a collapsing centre and so yielded to the throng and opened the gates. Just as the Berlin Wall had been born, so it perished: literally overnight.
Can you visit Checkpoint Charlie today?
The site now feels more like a Cold War theme park. An original “You are now leaving the American sector” sign stands guard, and for a while was faced by an ironic piece of wall art on a gable end announcing “You are entering the non-profit sector”. A facsimile of the military police cabin c1961 has been installed. Re-enactors in period costume as Allied or Soviet personnel parade before it, demanding money for selfies (until this practice was recently banned for over-commercialisation of an historic site).
The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie sells t-shirts and mugs with slogans from the Cold War past. A nearby 360° panorama, hand-painted in photorealistic verisimilitude and enclosed in what looks like a wall of death rotunda, shows the area as it may have looked in 1984.
A photo installation by the German photographer Frank Thiel, raised high on a pole, depicts US Sergeant Jeff Harper on one side, looking east, and a Russian counterpart on the reverse. Originally a complementary pair of British and French soldiers had hung here too, but Cold War memory at Checkpoint Charlie is an increasingly Americanised affair now, flanked instead by a McDonald’s fast-food outlet.
Sitting somewhat forlornly nearby, a ‘Black Box’ information centre marks the site of a possible Cold War Museum, but remains in limbo while a property dispute over the former no-man’s land rumbles on. There could be no better place for it – Checkpoint Charlie truly was the epicentre of the Cold War.
Patrick Major is professor of modern history at the University of Reading and author of Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power (OUP, 2009) and ‘Listening behind the Curtain: BBC Broadcasting to East Germany and its Cold War Echo’, Cold War History (2013)