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Posted at 10:32 AM ET, 07/12/2012

Checkpoint Charlie: Through a correspondent’s eyes

BERLIN – Checkpoint Charlie used to be a site of Cold War intrigue, but its modern incarnation is more tourist trap than spy thriller.

Gone are the armed border guards who carefully searched people headed into East Berlin and sometimes shot at those trying to escape in the opposite direction. Gone too is the entire Communist system that the Berlin Wall was trying to protect.


Performing artists dressed as U.S. military police officers pose for a photo for tourists at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin on Oct. 3, 2010. (David Gannon - AFP/Getty Images)

The replacement is a little less dramatic. Hordes of tourists snap photos alongside actors wearing U.S. and Soviet army uniforms. Trabants – the East German car both coveted for its scarcity and reviled for its unreliability before 1990 – still putt-putt the streets, but only because tourists rent them to get a sense of the old days. Their foul-smelling exhaust hasn't gotten any sweeter with the passage of time.

What used to be the East German border complex is now mostly built over. But a few vacant lots remain, and advocates of a Cold War museum would like their project to anchor a development there. For now, a dispiriting hut village of food stands has sprung up, though Organic Power Food, Checkpoint Curry and Indian Box will soon be swept away for an art installation.

The crowds are international, but many German tourists come there too. Memories of the four-decade-long division conjure up harsh reactions. “Mauer im Kopf” – wall in the head – is a commonly prescribed epithet to describe the many people in the former East Germany who never overcame the experience of growing up in one political and economic system and being forced to switch to another one. Unemployment in East Germany is still double that in the West.

“It was all quite terrible,” Martina Emrich, 49, a saleswoman from the southwest city of Saarbruecken, told me as she visited Checkpoint Charlie for the first time. “There are so many films made about it. Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Palace of Tears,” the border control area of a central Berlin railroad station so named because it was where families went back to being split up after all-too-infrequent visits across the internal border.

On a short trip to Berlin, Emrich said, she and her husband would go see all the big sites of Cold War history in the city.

But Berliners, eager to scrub away the bad memories of being divided in two, were quick to make it difficult to trace the wall once they had the chance to tear it down. For a city that obsessively commemorates its older, darker World history – some Berliners would say to a fault – it has shied away from overt memorials and museums to its more recent past.

I live in a lovely, renovated neighborhood in what was the center of East Berlin. Walking down my block, I trip over memorials to residents deported and murdered during World War II, I pass an apartment building whose owners have preserved the pockmarked bullet holes incurred in the last bloody days of April 1945, and I walk past what was the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, destroyed during the Nazi years and turned into a mass grave for thousands of war dead. But there are no signs of the decades of Communism.

The supporters of the Cold War museum want to create a central location to understand the grand conflict that used Berlin as a proxy to fight much bigger battles. But like so much else in the modern-day city, they have run into opposition from people who remember things differently.

For Birnbaum’s complete story on Checkpoint Charlie, click here.

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By  |  10:32 AM ET, 07/12/2012

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