Checkpoint Charlie:
Checkpoint Charlie (seen here) was the famous exit from West Berlin (formerly the American Sector) to East Berlin (formerly the Soviet Sector). I now read here that a memorial to the 1065 persons shot and killed while trying to escape to freedom is being dismantled. Reading this reminded me of my trip through Checkpoint Charlie in 1982. I can tell you what it felt like to drive through. It felt scary. At the time, it reminded me of how I first felt when, as a prosecutor, I went into the prisoner section of the Cook County Jail to run a line up. Even with 2 burly guards on my side (assumedly), it was pretty scary to hear the door shut behind you. Going through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin felt the same way.

Besides being nervous at first, the other thing that struck me immediately was the battle damage from WWII still showing on most concrete structures. Bridges, abutments, etc. It was like the war had ended two months before, not 35 years earlier. It seemed like the WWII backlot of Universal Studios. Our West German taxi took us to the best hotel in town (built by a western firm) where we had a mediocre lunch . I recall that the wine came uncorked in a bottle that had presumably been refilled. When it was empty we saw an insect encased in the glass bottom of the bottle. Our strong suspicion is that this was a special gift for the Americans, but perhaps it was commonplace in the East.

When we entered the East, we were forced to exchange our money for East German currency. There was nothing to buy. Nothing, that is, besides Marxist tracts in German. I did finally find a little glass sculpture of the landmark communications tower. It was actually very attractive and I was sad when it broke years later in my move to Boston University. I wished then that I had bought more than one as I left the East with unspent currency.

We had let the cab drop us at the hotel so we could walk around the city and make our way back to Checkpoint Charlie on foot. Near the end of our travels, we visited the Brandenburg Gate from the Eastern side and posed for pics while the East German guards watched with their submachine guns. (When we arrived at the airport in West Berlin, it was startling to see the West German police with their submachine guns.)

I removed my sweater for the pictures, and it was not until I got back to Checkpoint Charlie that I realized that I had left it at the Gate. I hoofed it back alone, never expecting it to still be there. When I arrived, I looked around. One of the guards pantomimed putting on a sweater with his arms. I nodded. He went to a large wooden box and opened it, retrieved the sweater from inside and handed it to me.

I found it a touching end to a highly emotional and memorable day. I have been back to Germany many times since then, and will be returning to Gummersbach (near Koln) in three weeks. But I have yet to return to Berlin. I am told it has changed a lot, and I believe it. But somehow I don't want to lose the memory of how dynamic the island of West Berlin felt in those days, and the stark contrast between its color and the black-and-white of the Eastern Sector. For me, Checkpoint Charlie was like a time machine, as well as a portal into a "Cook County Jail writ large."

Update: Chris Muir of sends along this cartoon about the same story.

M (mail):
You might enjoy seeing the German film, "The Tunnel" if you can. It's directed by Roland Suso Richter, and is based on the story of the people who made the first of several tunnels from west to east Berlin. I don't think it's been widely released in the US- mostly it's been showing on limited release or at film festivle as far as I can tell. But, I thought it did a very good job of showing East-Berlin-as-Prison and was quite tense. Checkpoint Charlie, and the tension of the place, plays an important role.
7.6.2005 1:21am
Goodbye Lenin is another great East/West Berlin movie. Quite funny and touching at the same time.
7.6.2005 4:17am
rbj (mail):
My Family and I went to the Netherlands in 1990, alone I went to Berlin. I got to chip at the wall. It was amazing walking from West Berlin to East Berlin, almost like going from the color portion of the Wizard of Oz back to black &white Kansas. West Berlin looked like any cosmopolitan wester city, missing only the skyscrapers. East Berlin was gray and tan, no life, no vibrancy to it.
7.6.2005 9:41am
I lived in Germany as the wall fell. My host brother and I took a train to Berlin the day after announcements were made, and where there for the multiday celebration. The spontaneous outpouring of emotion was amazing. Watching the Trabis come through to West Berlin, the expressions on people's faces was astounding. I took several rolls of pictures and developed them on paper bought in East Germany. Many of them degraded substantially, but a few are still OK - I should scan those and put them up at some point.

My host familie's relatives who lived in the east were either dead or couldn't be located by then. My host brother (who now lives in Brazil) and I share a phone call on the anniversary every year still.

All in all, an amazing thing for a 16 year old US American to have been able to witness. I still feel humbled.
7.6.2005 9:58am
Steve Barnes:
In my GMU class on the history of the Cold War, I use the CNN Cold War series episode on the building of the Berlin Wall. It has some amazing footage of people escaping from buildings right on the East/West border before these building were emptied and the windows bricked over. This footage had quite an effect on the students.
7.6.2005 10:30am
Matt Corbett (mail) (www):
When I was in Berlin 5 years ago, it was still very possible to see what was East and what was West. From a high enough perch, the difference was startling, especially to a 16-year old. Incidently, the visual distinction was pointed out to me by an old German whose command of English consisted exclusively of, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"

So I expect you'll still be able to see the distinction, but it will be smaller than in 2000, and obviously far less than 1982. Construction (at least 5 years ago) is a huge business- at one point I took a picture where you could see 13 construction cranes in the frame.
7.6.2005 11:20am
Rob Lyman (mail) (www):
I was there for a few days in '99, just a few days before the celebration of the 10th anniversary. The difference was striking, but fading. The Bandenburg gate looked like hell, as did the Pergamon (sp?), but there was new construction all over the place.

What struck me was finding little sections of the wall still standing, in odd places, and trying, standing there in the street, to figure out which side was which (I'm thinking in particular of a part near the "Topography des Terrors" outdoor exhibit). I tried to picture what it would have been like to find that barrier intact. The city's plan to put down a cobblestone line was just being implemented; it was interesting but not as striking as the leftover wall sections in the middle of an otherwise-integrated residential neighborhood.

Also striking were the old, Nazi-era (or before) subway stops in Berlin Mitte, where the West-German trains ran underneath East Berlin. They hadn't been renovated in 60 years or more, having been filled during the wall years with barbed wire and guards to prevent flight. I wonder sometimes if they got around to replacing that ancient tile.

One day, I went out running and found the East Side Gallery, a collection of murals on a 1-km section of wall by the river. I took a few chunks of wall for myself from an abandoned section behind it, and ran along it. Somwhere along the way I realized I was jogging right next to the East side--and that I would have been shot for doing that in that very spot 10 years earlier.

I met an old, old, WWII veteran East Berliner who turned out to regret the fall, who said he was "glad the Wessis had been walled in." This from the man whose commanding officer had refused a direct order so that he could surrender his men to British troops rather than sending them to the Eastern Front to be captured by Soviets.
7.6.2005 11:36am
Sean O'Hara (mail):
Randy, you just didn't know where to shop. American troops were always encouraged to go to the nicest restaurants and shops and throw East Marks around. Given the exchange rate, it was pretty easy to do -- you could get fine china for the same price as an el cheapo dining set at Wal-Mart, and four course dinners cheaper than a meal at McDonalds. The latter was especially fun since Americans would generally give enormous tips, sometimes over 100%. The point was to show as many East Germans as possible that even the lowliest American enlisted man was rich by their standards.

But I do agree with you about the feel of East Berlin -- going through Check Point Charlie was like stepping through the Guardian of Forever in that Star Trek episode.

The other thing I'll always remember about East Germany is the pollution. Anyone who thinks capitalism is bad for the environment has never seen a Communist country. Slag heaps in fields, air that you could see. My family drove through East Germany once, and by the time we reached West Germany the car was covered with yellow grime. I lived in Berlin from first to fourth grade, and I missed more days of school due to smog (and nuclear fallout from Chernobyl) than for snow.
7.6.2005 1:06pm
Randy (mail) (www):

I clearly did not know where to shop! And I concur on the issue of pollution in communist countries. I spent 3 1/2 weeks in the People's Republic of China in the 1990's and the pollution was both visible and smelly. Most of our party came down with one form of respiratory illness or another during our stay. I really enjoyed my time in the PRC, which had been greatly westernized by the time I got there, but I will never forget how sweet the air smelled (and how great the hamburgers tasted) when we ended our trip in Hong Kong.
7.6.2005 2:54pm
When my wife (American) and I (German) were in Berlin in March, 1990, we tried to pass through the breached wall at the Brandenburg Gate. The East German guard would not let her, only allowed for German citizens.
Later, when we passed through at Checkpoint Charlie, I was first in line and only after the guard in his booth realised that she is a US citizen would he let me pass at at the Allied-only crossing. Both incidents a powerful example of peoples' obeyance of the rules, no matter how silly they are. The guards had to know that their time in power was running out.
Also well worth visiting was the private museum right next to CC, vividly documenting the resourcefulness and sometimes the tragedy of people trying to flee the East. I wonder if the museum is still there.
East Germany was like an eerie time warp, so much looked like the West during my 1950s childhood. There were deep emotions and satisfaction of seeing relatives for the first time and crossing and recrossing the border without fear.
7.6.2005 3:23pm