No other junction in Berlin provokes such disdain from locals as where Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse intersect – the border between the vibrant city district of Kreuzberg to the south, and the historic central district of Mitte to the north. Colloqially – if not accurately – known as Checkpoint Charlie.
To the untrained eye, it may now simply appear as a congregation of recognisable trademarks – family friendly fast food names such as McDonalds, KFC, Dominos pizza, and the monopoly coffee chain, Starbucks. Souvenir shops and wandering tourists – to locals what has understandably come to be known as the ‘Disneyland of Berlin’.
Chip away at this unsophisticated facade and you’ll find you’ve arrived at the spot that once served as the symbolic final line in the sand between East and West. The Cold War frontier. With the US sector of divided Berlin to the south and the Soviet zone of control across the road, to the north and east.
For more than 40 years, the last outpost of American control, in the island of West Berlin, stood here. As by a matter of geographical peculiarity, Berlin – while divided during the Cold War period into four different zones of control (the British, American, French, and Soviet) – would end up situated inside the German Democractic Republic and within the Soviet sphere of influence.
Agreements made by the victorious Allied forces, responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, meant that Hitler’s capital was destined to be divided and occupied – shared almost equally between these four powers.
By 1949, it had become obvious that tensions between East and West would not lead to compromise or capitulation – but rather an intense and prolonged European stalemate between the collective western forces of Great Britain, France, and United States – and the Soviet Union, on the other side. Berlin thus became a strategically important Cold War bargaining chip – the European ground zero of the conflict between East and West.
The western sectors of the city maintained as the ‘shop front window of the western world’ – with residents paid extra for living in the shadow of the Red Danger and, remarkably, exempt from the military service expected of all adult aged men in West Germany.
In the Eastern sector of the city, the East German government would bring law and order, and fear, to the population – seeking to establish a workers’ and peasants’ state while serving as a Soviet satellite – representing the aims and interests of Moscow.
Checkpoint Charlie was the name given to this border crossing by the US military - while the East German government maintained a crossing on the north side of Friedrichstrasse, simply called Grenzübergang Friedrich-Zimmerstrasse (Border Crossing Friedrich-Zimmerstrasse).
The relationship between East and West in Berlin, at this time, was a strange one. While not officially at war with each other, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were also certainly not friends – and would provoke and undermine each other in various different ways. While maintaining an unusual measure of professional civility in others.
Including one important agreement – finalised in 1945 at the Potsdam Conference attended by Truman, Stalin, and Churchill – the freedom of movement of military personnel in the divided city of Berlin.
Although the two countries of East and West Germany would exhort their independence as fully functioning states, representing their citizens, and carrying out the general business expected of fully functioning countries – the capital of East Germany, East Berlin, would not be recognised as such by the Western Allies for the entire Cold War era. To the West, while contesting the legitimacy of East Germany, it was important to highlight the Soviet control that had been agreed upon at the end of the Second World War. As, West Berlin – although not the capital of West Germany (that title belonged to the Rheinlandish city of Bonn) – also maintained a special status until 1990; with British, French, and American soldiers stationed in this part of the city and free to roam.
The agreement finalised in Potsdam in 1945, meant these troops could cross into each other’s zones – and, importantly, that Western forces could not be denied entry to the Eastern sector of the city.
Checkpoint Charlie, named after the NATO radio alphabet, was established in 1947 to deal with this peculiarity.
With a control box in the centre of the street, staffed by military police, this would serve as the final crossing point, part of a series of three, for US forces looking to visit East Berlin. The previous two were placed at both ends of a highway that passed through East Germany from Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt/Marienborn (the crossing from West Germany into East Germany) to Checkpoint Bravo at Drewitz/Dreilinden (the crossing from East Germany into West Berlin).
The original box, that sat at this junction at the end of the Cold War, is now in the Allied Museum in Dahlem, a western district of Berlin. Instead, there is now a replica in its place – maintained by the owners of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, located on the former US side of Friedrichstrasse.
Established on this street in 1963 by human rights activist, Rainer Hildebrandt, this museum documents some of the daring escapes to have taken place following the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – with hot air balloons, converted vehicles, scuba diving equipment and assorted other inspiring methods. The museum also features a number of unusual artefacts, either donated or acquired over the past half a decade – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s hat, US President Ronald Reagan’s chainsaw, and Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals.
Exploring the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, through the fog of consumerism that has since taken over, it is still possible to also make out a replica version of the border sign that once stood at this intersection. The surrounding buildings, once the offices of the CIA and KGB, have been converted into commercial businesses.
Looking down onto the ground you can also see where the Berlin Wall once traced through the city – the cobblestone line zigzagging across the street in front of the former border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie.