Checkpoint Charlie divides Berlin

The old border crossing from East to West, now a tacky tourist trap, is polarising opinion – over its suitability for a museum site

Berlin

It was the place where American and Soviet tanks faced each other, muzzle-to-muzzle, at one of the Cold War's tensest moments. It features in countless spy films and was a gateway through which thousands of East Germans poured westwards on the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But nearly 23 years after Communism's collapse and German reunification, Checkpoint Charlie has degenerated into a tacky, Disneyland-version of its former self which attracts four million visitors a year.

A replica of the Allied wooden guard hut bearing the sign "You Are Now Leaving the American Sector", which was immortalised in the film of John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, has been reinstalled. But today its is manned by dubious "student" tourist touts dressed in mock French, British and American army uniforms.

"No, I don't speak English really – I'm from the Czech Republic," the young man clad in what looked like a British Army major's uniform said. "Want a picture?" he asked. "It's €€2."

Not far from the spot at the Berlin Wall where an 18-year-old East German was shot and left to bleed to death by Communist border guards as he tried to escape in the 1960s stands one of Checkpoint Charlie's newest acquisitions – a McDonald's. It vies with a plethora of fast-food stalls proffering "Checkpoint curry sausage" and "Allied hot dogs".

Turkish and Romanian street vendors do an inexhaustible trade in Communist East German and Red Army headgear. But their best-selling product is home-manufactured chunks of "Berlin Wall".

Such scenes have provoked outrage among retired Allied military officers who were stationed in Berlin after the Second World War. A former US Army colonel, Vernon Pike, one of the Cold War commanders at Checkpoint Charlie, has described the site's fall from grace as a "spectacle inappropriate for the location and its historical importance".

For two decades, Berlin's politicians have complained about the site's decline, yet they have remained paralysed with indecision about how best to do justice to its pivotal role.

But now, just as Berlin's government, an alliance of Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats, was poised to decide on a lasting solution for Checkpoint Charlie, a furious political Kulturkampf (culture struggle) has erupted.

Berlin's government had planned to open a £5.2m Cold War museum at the site. The exhibition was to be housed in 3,000 square metres of office space overlooking the site of the former checkpoint. The project was due to be funded from lottery money and open in 2017.

But fears that the project could be manipulated by Communist sympathisers to present a trivialised or biased interpretation of the Cold War have prompted the conservative Christian Democrats to pull the plug on the project. "The history of the Cold War in Germany should be told from the perspective of the Western Allied powers," is how Manfred Wilke, a historian and Christian Democrat member, explained the decision.

Mr Wilke argues that a permanent Cold War exhibition should instead be housed in Berlin's Nazi-built Tempelhof airport complex, the new site for the city's Allied Museum.

But the Social Democrats insist the proposed Cold War museum should be installed at the checkpoint. They say they want to achieve an objective view of recent history. "We feel that the perspectives of different countries during the Cold War should be reflected," said Andre Schmitz, the party's cultural spokesman in Berlin.

Several historians are also opposed to giving up the checkpoint as a site. "Tourists expect such a museum at Checkpoint Charlie," said Konrad Jarausch, a German-American historian.

The Berlin authorities have opted for a quick solution to plug Checkpoint Charlie's yawning history gap. From next month, a temporary exhibition about the Cold War will be installed in a so-called "Wall Box" that is being built on waste ground near the checkpoint. No one has yet voiced fears that it might be part of a left-wing plot to trivialise Cold War brutality.

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