Your Berlin Wall tour begins here, at Friedrichstrasse in central Berlin and at the former crossing point for Allied forces, diplomats and civilians between East and West. Checkpoint Charlie was probably the best-known border crossing and exactly where, in 1961, US and USSR tanks faced off, 100 yards apart and moments from World War III. Khruschev and Kennedy backed down from the brink, the world heaved a sigh of relief, but over the next thirty years, it would be the symbolic flashpoint of the Cold War.
The border was erected in 1961 and designated Checkpoint ‘C’ by the Allied forces and the most central crossing point within the divided city. Periodically reinforced over the decades, following some successful (and unsuccessful) escape attempts, was soon bolstered with additional barriers and deterrents it evolved into a sort of small sprawl of dead land, barbed wire, temporary huts for processing cars and pedestrians and a small guards’ hut.
Today, this nexus of 20th century history is a garish tourist trap, packed with hawkers and street traders offering anything from gas masks, ‘Soviet’ themed tat, fake passport stamps and a gargantuan McDonalds, often hidden behind the procession of coaches which clog up the Friedrichstrasse. At the heart of it all is a small replica of the guard booth, by which visitors can have their photographs taken by bored actors, dressed as period military police.
After years of neglect and questionable decisions by the city of Berlin – not least, the selling off former crossing sites to ineffectual developers and real estate speculators – there seems to be finally a concerted attempt in the works to establish some sort of credible museum on the site. There is, of course, already a museum – the rather patchy Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie, established by Dr Rainer Hildebrandt in 1962 and which has grown from two small rooms to a 2000 square foot museum. Slightly chaotic and dated, it’s more a collection of curios and artefacts devoted to the life and the times of the Berlin Wall, many of which are compelling, but more can (and should) be done to properly commemorate the historical significance of the site. Establishing branches of McDonalds and Starbucks instead has done little to enhance the atmosphere and dignity of this most notorious of city sights
. You might as well check out the nearby Currywurst Museum and head around the corner to Charlottenstrasse for a selection of slightly more salubrious cafes and restaurants, away from the fast-food ambience of Friedrichstrasse itself.