Checkpoint Charlies: Irreverent tributes to Berlin's brutal past spark outrage

They were icons of the Cold War: the Brandenburg Gate symbolised the division of Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie was the East-West crossing of spy novel fame, where heavily armed Allied soldiers and Communist border guards confronted each other.

Now two figures stand as if frozen in front of the Brandenburg Gate. One is dressed in the uniform of an East German border guard, the other as a Soviet army officer. Both are covered from top to toe in sickly dark green paint to make them look like weathered bronze statues.

"Even we notice the crisis," one of them complained during a rare coffee break in which they were allowed to open their mouths. "We're not getting the trade that we used to." The pair were charging tourists €1 apiece to be photographed with them.

At the former Checkpoint Charlie site, the desires of undiscerning Berlin visitors are even better catered for. The area is awash with tour buses. Hot dogs are being churned out by a fast food bar called "Snackpoint Charlie" and a replica wooden hut surrounded by sandbags simulates the original Allied checkpoint. Three more youths in approximations of the uniforms of French, American and British soldiers stand in front of the hut. A group of Danish schoolgirls giggles uncontrollably as they allow snapshots to be taken of them with the mock defenders of Western capitalist values.

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall less than six months away, such irreverent scenes – played out daily in Germany's reunified capital – have started to provoke angry protests from politicians, former victims of Communist oppression and even Allied military officers who once served in the city.

"Disneyland" is the word Michael Braun, Berlin's conservative, cultural affairs spokesman, uses to describe the area surrounding the Brandenburg Gate. "Such soldiers never stood there. It is a falsification of history," he snorts.

Vernon Pike, a former US army colonel who commanded Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War, complained to Berlin's city government that the use of fake soldiers at the site was "an unacceptable spectacle, which is inappropriate for the location and its historical importance".

Thomas Flierl, the left-wing former cultural affairs minister for the city, has called the use of fake soldiers "tasteless mockery", while several former east German dissidents have pointed out that Checkpoint Charlie was a place where people were shot dead while trying to flee to the West. The current tourist trap is an insult to those who died, they say.

But the row about the former Berlin Wall sites is part of a much wider unresolved dispute about how best to commemorate Germany's very recent history, a debate which even threatens to have a bearing on the country's forthcoming general election, scheduled for September. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has been tempted to put her oar in.

Despite German films like the award-winning The Lives of Others, detailing the iniquities of East Germany's Stasi secret police, a survey published last month showed that 41 per cent of today's East Germans believe that the former Communist state was not unjust at all. Only 28 per cent thought it was.

In an attempt to cash in on a perceived "Ostalgie" or nostalgia for the former Communist state in the east, politicians have come forward with revisionist remarks about its former regime. "I am not prepared to condemn East Germany as a completely unjust state in which there was not the smallest bit of good," Erwin Sellering, the Prime Minister of Mecklenburg, declared earlier this month.

His comments have been echoed by Wolfgang Thierse, Germany's Social Democrat parliamentary president, who warned against subjecting the former East Germany to blanket condemnation. "The Stasi was fascinating, that is understandable, but it does not explain all of East German history," he said.

Such attempts at rehabilitation have provoked a furious response from former East German dissidents and politicians. "A state that walls its people in with barbed wire and guns is unjust per se. When it imprisons more that 200,000 innocent people, this must be obvious," complained Hubertus Knabe, the director of Berlin's Stasi victims memorial museum." I am furious that anyone one should call this into question."

The intensity of the row, prompted Chancellor Merkel to make a personal visit to the Stasi museum, located in a former Stasi prison in Berlin last week. She was the first German leader to do so.

"It is crucial that this chapter of East Germany's dictatorship is not covered up or forgotten," she insisted after her visit. In a possible attempt to ingratiate herself with East German voters, she also revealed that the Stasi had tried to recruit her when she was an adolescent being brought up by her pastor father in East Germany.

Yet the chaos surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall anniversary is not only ideological. Visitors to Berlin have long upbraided the city authorities for removing virtually every trace of the Wall in the 20 years since its demise. One section which was covered with elaborate murals in late 1989 was retained as the city's East Side Gallery.

Attempts to revamp the section of the wall for the anniversary ended with most of the paintings being destroyed to preserve the decaying structure. Now in a belated rearguard action, many of the artists have had to be brought back to paint their works afresh.

Equally farcical have been plans to unveil a design for a prestigious "Unity Monument", celebrating 20 years of German reunification. It is meant to grace a square in front of what will be a reconstruction of the city's former Prussian imperial residence . More than five hundred entries were submitted in a competition to select the design earlier this month, but the jury could not agree on a winner.

The entries included a gathering of blue Smurfs scaling a toy town Berlin Wall and a giant giraffe peering over a steel barrier. "It was not the artists who failed but we the jurors," lamented the author Thomas Brussig, one of the jury members.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower