Whenever you wander too close to Friedrichstraße 43-45 you start to notice an increase in people. Tourists, to be exact. Surrounding a small booth on the former border of West and East Berlin, thousands of people gather each year to take pictures at Checkpoint Charlie...or at least what they think is Checkpoint Charlie.
The truth is, the site has moved several times, the actors that once stood in for border guards have been dismissed, and the site is more farce than factual. The drama of a city divided can be experienced more authentically in many other sites across Berlin.
Here is your guide to Checkpoint Charlie, its history, present state, and how to see Berlin today as it once was.
Significance of Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie became the best-known crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. One of three entry points across the Berlin Wall, the gate near Friedrichstraße was "Checkpoint C", or Checkpoint Charlie, to the Allies. The Soviets actually called it КПП Фридрихштрассе and the East Germans referred to it as Grenzübergangsstelle Friedrich-/Zimmerstraße.
There was also Checkpoint Alpha and Bravo, but Checkpoint Charlie was significant in that only foreigners were allowed to cross through it. Its location on Friedrichstrasse, a historic street in the American-occupied city center, also distinguished the crossing. This was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel, and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector.
Just a simple, prefabricated shack it was never meant to be a permanent or legitimate border crossing, though it performed vital duties. This reflected the Americans attitude toward the Berlin Wall, that is wouldn't last. The East German side of the checkpoint was much more elaborate with permanent guard towers and thorough searches for forbidden materials.
This crossing was the site of several tumultuous prisoner exchanges and daring escapes. It is also well-remembered for a show-down that epitomized the tension of the era. On October 22, 1961 U.S. diplomat Allan Lightner attempted to pass through Checkpoint Charlie to attend the opera in East Berlin. He was only allowed entry after returning with armed U.S. soldiers. However, East German officials denied entry to other Americans until U.S. General Lucius Clay put on a show of force and was met with the East Germans’ positioning of T-55 tanks in a tense stand-off.
Checkpoint Charlie Today
After the fall of the wall in 1989, the checkpoint was decommissioned in June 22, 1990. A copy of the guard house and sign that marked the border crossing were created to place on the original site. Recreated to look like the first guard house from 1961, it was replaced several times with varying designs and layouts and now bares minimal resemblance to the original guard station.
The surrounding area has also changed drastically. Developers demolished the last surviving original Checkpoint Charlie structure, the East German watchtower, in 2000. Unable to be classified as a historic landmark, it was replaced with modern offices and convenience shops. Several souvenir stands with Berlin knick-knacks and fake military tschotskes litter the tourist-heavy area.
Also located nearby is the private Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Conveniently located, the museum is high on visual appeal and a popular attraction in the city,
However, attempts to make the site a better representation of its history are underway. The freelance guards who would stand in uniform for pictures (and a euro or two) have been banished and the site itself will undergo a drastic remodel. Work is underway to transform the area to a public square rather than a narrow divider in a busy road, complete with a Cold War museum and more affordable housing for residents, Time will tell how long it takes for this plan to develop. Hopefully, there will not be another Berlin airport fiasco.
Where to go besides Checkpoint Charie
The guard house that had worked as the passing point for so many civilians and soldiers was retired to the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf. This museum offers well-organized exhibits in German, English and French on the different sectors of Berlin, tunnel escapes as well as a watch tower and piece of the Berlin Wall. Though it is located outside of the center, this free museum is a better look at wall history than what remains at "Checkpoint Charlie".
Other Sites to Understand the History of the Berlin Wall:
- East Side Gallery - The longest remaining section of the Wall
- Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse - An expanding open-air display of what life with the wall was really like
- Berlin Wall Self-Guided Tour
- Bösebrücke at Bornholmer with its memorial of the Fall of the Wall
- Top 10 Things not to do in Berlin