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Checkpoint Charlie forgets its history

Politicians are calling for a new look to the site, which is now home to fast food places such as Snackpoint Charlie.

Scenes of actors posing with tourists in front of the guard hut at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin upset many visitors who believe the historical significance of the Cold War site has been lost.
Scenes of actors posing with tourists in front of the guard hut at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin upset many visitors who believe the historical significance of the Cold War site has been lost.

BERLIN // Visitors to Checkpoint Charlie are complaining that the legendary border crossing between East and West Berlin looks like a cheap tourist trap these days, with fake soldiers, a reproduction of a guard hut, and fast food bars, such as the one called Snackpoint Charlie. Some politicians agree that the site in its current form is no longer worthy of its historical significance as a symbol of the Cold War, and they are calling for it to be revamped.

The world held its breath at events that happened here. Checkpoint Charlie was the only place where the United States and Soviet Union confronted each other directly during the Cold War, gun barrel to gun barrel, when their tanks faced each other here in a stand-off in Oct 1961. It was the scene of spectacular escapes from East Berlin, including the tragic attempt just a few metres away by Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer who was left to bleed to death in 1962 after he was shot by East German border guards as he tried to climb the wall.

"There's no sense here of what this place meant. It's gone and that's distressing," George Reif, a US musician visiting Berlin, said as he looked at the guard hut, where actors dress as US, Russian and French soldiers and charge tourists ?1 (Dh5) to have their picture taken. Dennis O'Connell, a US tourist, said: "It's totally tacky. You'd think the government would do something about it. A lot of people died trying to get over the Berlin Wall and this doesn't really pay tribute to them."

Verner Pike, a retired US army colonel and a former Checkpoint Charlie commander, has written a letter to Berlin's city government calling the fake soldiers "an unacceptable spectacle inappropriate for the location and its historical importance". Checkpoint Charlie was set up in Aug 1961 after construction of the Berlin Wall began, and its use was confined to western military personnel and diplomats, West and East German officials and non-German citizens. Berliners with the necessary permits had to use other crossing points.

On the western side, it consisted principally of a guard hut and barriers. The eastern side was far more elaborate, with a large roofed-over area where guards would rigorously check vehicles for hidden defectors and scrutinise bags and travel papers. Today, coachloads of tourists visit the area, a busy traffic intersection often congested with honking cars, to take pictures of the fake hut and of the iconic sign that reads: "You Are Leaving the American Sector".

Souvenir shops line the street, and there is a stall where a man dressed as a US soldier will stamp visitors' passports for a fee. Roadside dealers sell such memorabilia as East German flags and Soviet army fur hats. An original watchtower was removed in 2000 to make room for new shops. Almost two decades after the fall of the wall in 1989, the city government still has not decided how to commemorate Checkpoint Charlie. "Nothing will happen before 2010," said Rainer Klemke, the Berlin city official in charge of managing public memorial sites.

"The city is considering banning the fake soldiers though because the tourists crowding round to photograph them are a traffic hazard. Besides, they're completely inaccurate and misleading. Why would a Russian soldier be standing alongside an American one on the western side of the checkpoint?" As a temporary measure, the city has put up a line of placards around two empty plots of land at the site to explain the area's history. "The story of the Cold War must be told here, but we haven't decided whether to build a small exhibition and memorial or a full museum of the Cold War," said Mr Klemke. The city will host a conference in November to discuss what kind of museum to erect, he said.

A privately run museum at Checkpoint Charlie shows artefacts from famous escapes, but critics said it is outdated, excessively commercial and does not treat the subject scientifically enough. Part of the problem is that lingering east-west enmity still obstructs efforts to commemorate Berlin's division. The criticism of Checkpoint Charlie has triggered political bickering rather than concrete proposals for improving the site.

When Thomas Flierl, Berlin's former cultural affairs minister, attacked the fake soldiers as "tasteless mockery", his remarks were immediately dismissed by rivals irked by his membership of the Left Party, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled East Germany. "I refuse to comment on anything that Herr Flierl has to say," said Alexandra Hildebrandt, head of the privately run Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Hubertus Knabe, director of a memorial site to the victims of East Germany's Stasi secret police, said: "The Left Party politician may be right in what he says, but he doesn't have any credibility."

Critics said traces of the Cold War are being wiped out all over the city because of delays and disputes caused by lingering divisions between officials from the east and west. Still scarred by history, they keep referring to old dogmas rather than co-operating to rescue Berlin's legacy. @Email:dcrossland@thenational.ae