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.

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