You are now entering Checkpoint 'McCharlie'

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The Independent Online

Checkpoint Charlie, a world-famous symbol of the Cold War that until 1989 was the front line between two nuclear-armed superpowers, is getting its own McDonalds.

For many, this is the final straw.

Where once US and Soviet tanks faced off as the whole world held its breath, there are now actors posing as soldiers in American or Soviet uniforms stamping tourists' passports or posing in photos - for a fee.

And next to the replica "You are now entering the American sector" sign, souvenir shops and stalls sell chunks of the Berlin Wall and pieces of Cold War kitsch like toy "Trabi" cars and Soviet military hats.

Other hot items include T-shirts showing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's famous kiss with East German strongman Eric Honecker, a common sign of socialist solidarity that triggered ridicule in the West - and was later satirized in a mural on the Berlin Wall after it was breached in November 1989.

Vernon Pike, a former US army colonel who used to command Checkpoint Charlie, was so incensed that he fired off an angry letter to the Berlin authorities in 2008, calling the transformation "an unacceptable spectacle".

This January an immense billboard advert by a clothes company went up featuring a young woman wearing the maker's jeans - and flashing her top half to a security camera.

There is already a Starbucks, and the "Golden Arches" logo will later this year adorn a building currently occupied by eateries including a sushi outlet, a kebab shop and a pizzeria, irreverently known as "Snackpoint Charlie".

"This is really a very strange place," Simone Bernaert, 62, a retired and unimpressed university lecturer from Paris visiting Berlin, told AFP.

Checkpoint Charlie, to add insult to injury, is one of the few remaining reminders that Berlin used to be a divided city.

"It's just difficult to visualise what it was like ... It would have been nice if they had tried to preserve it a little bit." Amy O'Brian, 21, a student from Dublin, told AFP. "It looks like any other European city really."

In fact, tourists could be forgiven for being unaware that the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as the misleadingly named communist country was known, ever existed at all, critics grumble.

Other landmarks have also gone, most notably the immense steel and glass "Palast der Republik", the GDR's parliament building, razed last year to make room for a reconstruction of a Prussian palace knocked down by the communists.

There are only a few stretches of the Berlin Wall left, one of which, at Bernauer Strasse, is said to be in danger of collapse.

This has been accompanied by a phenomenon called "Ostalgie", nostalgia for all things East German ("Ost"), as exemplified by the 2003 film "Good Bye Lenin!", and "ironic" tours for tourists in restored "Trabis".

- Changing times -

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"I am worried by the fact that as the years go by, the GDR's image is getting more and more positive," says Hubertus Knabe, director of the Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen former GDR jail for political prisoners, now a museum.

"The most visible wounds of the border regime have almost all been got rid of. There are only a few bit left of the Berlin Wall, and they are pretty harmless-looking."

But visitors also understand that Berlin is moving on.

As well as being a city with lots of history, not just from its 45 years of post-war division, but also from the Nazi era back to Prussian imperialism and further back.

It is also a metropolis that almost three and a half million people call home - and who don't want to live in a museum.

"I don't know if people come here with the preconception that the Wall is still standing," wonders Sophia Quint, who works in Berlin's marketing department.

"People always ask: 'Where is the Wall, where was the Wall?'," she told AFP.

And there is little that the authorities can do to improve Checkpoint Charlie, she says.

"Tourists seem to like it. You can see clearly at Checkpoint Charlie how many people have their photos taken. If tourists like that, and think it's a good thing, we've got nothing against it," she said. "It is not in our power to do anything."

"What else are they going to do with it? It's a bit of history that no one is proud of. Things move on, I suppose," says Ron Scanlon, 42, a paramedic from Australia touring Germany on holiday, at Checkpoint Charlie.

Simone Bernaert agrees: "Life goes on ... When you live through something in the moment, you don't necessarily have the distance to be able to say that later on, it will be history."

And as for McDonalds, some even see it as the ultimate victory over communism - or at least as somewhere for visitors to get a burger and fries.

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