From checkpoint to tourist snack point
It was described as the tensest spot in the Cold War, a crossing between East and West Berlin that was once the scene of a confrontation between American and Soviet tanks.
The incident came close to triggering a third world war. Now, more than two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie has turned into a more prosaic one between commercial and historical interest groups that are fighting for control of the site.
In front of a wooden beach-hut-style shed, a reconstruction of the United States army guard house that once stood there, two men pose as military policemen flanked by the American flag next to the legendary sign: “You are leaving the American sector.” They beckon the tourists to pose with them — “Here please, pictures for Facebook” — for €2 a go.
An American tourist clutching a copy of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, part of which was set in Berlin, slings his arm around the neck of one of the “soldiers”.
Romanian vendors sell ear-flap fur hats, gas masks and chunks of concrete, which they claim are remnants of the wall, while around them food stalls dish out everything from “Allied hot dogs” to cold dog, an East German chocolate pudding. A cyclist swears as he swerves to avoid the throng on the road. “This is a street, not a frigging carnival,” he shouts.
The newest edition to what some have dubbed “Snackpoint Charlie” is Freedom Park, a group of aluminium fast-food hutches serving everything from “organic power food” to “checkpoint curry sausage”. It sprang up over Easter and is promoted as a place in which to contemplate history.
A growing number of voices are complaining about such scenes, arguing that commercial interests at Berlin’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing up to four million visitors a year, have been given precedence over respect for history.
“This place stands, more than any other, for the division [of] both of our country and the entire world and it needs ... a more dignified manner,” said Kai Wegner, a Christian Democrat MP. He said he was frustrated by stumbling over “snack stands and East German kitsch”.
Alexandra Hildebrandt, who runs the somewhat rundown private Checkpoint Charlie Museum, said: “It’s supposed to be a place that recalls the Cold War; instead, it’s where people come for cold dog, hot dogs and doner kebabs.”
But it has emerged that Checkpoint Charlie’s future is more uncertain than ever. The owner of two plots of land on either side of the former crossing, an American investor, is insolvent. An Irish property company has said it aims to stop a foreclosure auction on the site next month by paying off the outstanding debts — an estimated €29-million — after which it hopes to take control of the land for a retail and residential development in which it says there will be space for a Cold War museum.
Thorsten Wohlert, a spokesperson for the Berlin cultural ministry, confirmed that the city planned to rent space from the new owners for a museum. In the meantime a temporary space, the Wall Infobox, is being erected at the site.
But Berliners are appalled by the uncertainty, not least that the future of one of the city’s historical sites lies in the hands of international investors rather than its own politicians.
Brigitte Scharlau (53), who sells bratwursts and buns from a green Trabant, said: “Most Berliners have a very emotional connection to Checkpoint Charlie and the authorities need to intervene to keep things under control, rather than just leaving it to the mercy of powerful commercial interests.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012