Checkpoint Charlie

RETRO-BERLIN WALL-CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

Checkpoint Charlie was first set up in August 1961, when communist East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent its citizens from fleeing to the democratic West. While it was only one of several crossings in and around Berlin—there was also a Checkpoint Alpha and Bravo—Charlie was notable for its location on Friedrichstrasse, a historic street in the American-occupied city center. Even more important was that it was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. In response, the United States, France and Britain stationed military police at Checkpoint Charlie to ensure their officials had ready access to the border. The Allied guards spent most of their time monitoring diplomatic and military traffic, but they were also on hand to register and provide information to travelers before they ventured beyond the Wall.

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In February 1962, Checkpoint Charlie played a supporting role in one of the most famous prisoner exchanges of the Cold War. The main swap took place at the nearby Glienicke Bridge, where captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was traded for Rudolf Abel, 9f35beb531f97202853c706e36a65438a Soviet who had been arrested in New York and convicted of espionage. As Powers and Abel were crossing the bridge, Soviet officials at Checkpoint Charlie also released Frederic Pryor, an American student who had been arrested by the East German Stasi and mistakenly branded a spy. Checkpoint Charlie was later used for a few other prisoner swaps, and its role as a Cold War trading post became a popular motif in spy novels and films. One of the most famous depictions came in the 1965 film version of author John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” which opens with a British agent being gunned down as he tries to cross the checkpoint.

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Since Checkpoint Charlie was one of the few gaps in the maze of barriers, barbed wire and guard towers that made up the Berlin Wall, it attracted many desperate East Germans looking to flee to the West. In April 1962, an Austrian named Heinz Meixner snuck his East German girlfriend and her mother across the border by lowering the windshield on a rented Austin-Healey convertible and speeding underneath the checkpoint’s vehicle barrier.

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Another man later repeated the stunt before the East Germans added steel bars to the crossing. In another famous getaway, photographer Horst Beyer set up a photo shoot at Checkpoint Charlie and then hopped across the border while pretending to snap pictures. U.S. military personnel were officially forbidden to give aid to escapees, but shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, an American serviceman named Eric Yaw successfully smuggled an East German father and daughter through Checkpoint Charlie in the trunk of his car.

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The dismantling of Checkpoint Charlie

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During the Cold War, Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie was one of the crossing points between West and East Berlin (and West and East Germany). It was operated by members of the U.S. military in the American Sector of the city.

Located by the Berlin Wall, which divided the German city during the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie was at the junction of Friedrichstrasse with Zimmerstrasse and Mauerstrasse.

Checkpoint Charlie was dismantled on the 22nd of June, 1990, about seven months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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The checkpoint, marked by a beige-painted metal shack, was built on the Western side of Friedrichstrasse shortly after the Berlin wall was begun in 1961. The East German Communist Government, with Soviet approval, had designated Friedrichstrasse as the only crossing point between East and West Berlin for non-German vehicles and pedestrians.

It was the scene of a tense confrontation between Soviet and American tanks in October 1961, and later of successful and unsuccessful attempts by East Germans to escape to the West.

RETRO-BERLIN WALL-CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

On June 22, 1990 the guardhouse at Checkpoint Charlie was removed with great ceremony.
The former Allied guardhouse is now located in the Allied Museum.
A copy of the US Army guardhouse was errected on the original place on August 13, 2000

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The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie

The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie Soviet tanks facing American tanks, 1961 (1)

Checkpoint Charlie  was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War (1947–1991).

East German leader Walter Ulbricht agitated and maneuvered to get the Soviet Union’s permission to construct the Berlin Wall in 1961 to stop Eastern Bloc emigration and defection westward through the Soviet border system, preventing escape across the city sector border from communist East Berlin into West Berlin.

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Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of East and West. Soviet and American tanks briefly faced each other at the location during the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

In October 1961, border disputes led to a standoff and for 16 hours the world was at the brink of war while Soviet and American tanks faced each other just 300 feet (100 meters) apart. On August 1961 Washington and its British and French allies had failed to prevent the Soviets building the Berlin Wall. On October 27, after several days of escalating U.S. rebuffs to East German attempts to get American officials to show identification documents before entering East Berlin (thus indirectly acknowledging East German sovereignty, rather than Soviet occupation authority) ten U.S. M-48 tanks took up position at Checkpoint Charlie.

The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie Soviet tanks facing American tanks, 1961 (3)

By now, American officials were deeply alarmed by the potential consequences. General Clay of the American troops was reminded by Washington that Berlin was not so “vital” an interest to be worth risking a conflict with Moscow. President Kennedy approved the opening of a back channel with the Kremlin in order to defuse what had blown up. As a result, the Soviets pulled back one of their T55s from the eastern side of the border at Friedrichstrasse and minutes later an American M48 also left the scene. Soon the rest of the Soviet tanks withdrew, followed shortly by reciprocal withdrawal of the U.S. tanks.

Khrushchev had been equally uninterested in risking a battle over Berlin. In return for Kennedy’s assurance that the west had no designs on East Berlin, the Soviet leader tacitly recognized that allied officials and military personnel would have unimpeded access to the East German capital.

The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie Soviet tanks facing American tanks, 1961 (4)

The standoff at Checkpoint Charlie Soviet tanks facing American tanks, 1961 (5)

The Berlin crisis arose from what one may term “objective factors” – the fact that West Berlin was an anomalous Western enclave well to the east of the Iron Curtain, precipitating a clash of concrete interests of the Soviet Union and the West. The confrontations of armed tanks facing off at Checkpoint Charlie is, however, an excellent illustration of how “subjective factors” such as differing perceptions and beliefs of the two sides also contributed to tension – and could even have precipitated war.

The standoff ended peacefully on October 28 following a U.S.-Soviet understanding to withdraw tanks. Discussions between U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and KGB spy Georgi Bolshakov played a vital role in realizing this tacit agreement.

 

Although the wall was opened in November 1989 and the checkpoint booth removed on June 22, 1990,the checkpoint remained an official crossing for foreigners and diplomats until German reunification during October 1990 when the guard house was removed; it is now on display in the open-air museum of the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf.

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