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. During high times, actors dressed as border guards are available for picture opportunities - for a price. The drama of a city divided can be relived, with smiles and flashing peace signs.
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, the gate near Friedrichstraße was "Checkpoint C", or Checkpoint Charlie, to the Allies. (The Soviets called it КПП Фридрихштрассе and the East Germans referred to it as Grenzübergangsstelle Friedrich-/Zimmerstraße. There was also Checkpoint Alpha and Bravo.)
Just a simple, prefabricated shack with a few sandbags, it was never meant to be a permanent or legitimate border though it performed vital duties. This was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. 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.
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
- Top 10 Things not to do in Berlin + Part 2