At Checkpoint Charlie, a battle over visions

Here at Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks once aimed at each other separated by 30 yards, Cold War tensions are still running high.

An international group of scholars, backed by Berlin’s center-left city government, wants to build a Cold War museum on a rubble-strewn plot of land here, saying that one of the best-known sites of confrontation between the capitalist West and the communist East should not be abandoned to tourist touts and vendors selling Red Army hats.

But a group of conservative politicians, seared by memories of the divided city, says the plans for the museum are overly sympathetic to the communists. They want a museum elsewhere in the city that they say celebrates freedom.

In the meantime, the empty land at Checkpoint Charlie has been covered over with food stands offering “Checkpoint Curry” and “Organic Power Food.” About 700,000 tourists visit every year, according to city authorities, snapping photographs with actors dressed as Soviet and American troops and walking through an eccentric private museum that was built by a man who helped East Berliners escape to the West.

With fewer and fewer traces of Berlin’s division left every year, supporters of the Cold War museum say, it’s time to take a scholarly approach to the story of a major geopolitical conflict that had some of its most dramatic clashes in this city.

“It’s a scandal to have hot dog stands and people in fake uniforms,” said Konrad Jarausch, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was born in Germany and is leading the museum effort. “What the city needs is a museum on the same level of some of the museums that deal with the Third Reich.”

The Cold War “is full of crises and confrontations and spies, but the ending is quite positive, which is that people are sensible with each other,” Jarausch said. “You can actually resolve conflicts, and you don’t need World War III.”

American Cold Warriors

Supporters of the museum have included prominent American Cold Warriors such as former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as an international panel of scholars. Exhibits would look at the entirety of the conflict between the East and the West and would try to correct misconceptions on both sides, advocates say. Eagleburger died last year.

But some local Berlin politicians — many of whom spent much of their lives fighting on the front line of the Cold War, West against East — say that the museum won’t represent history as they lived it.

“The Americans saved Berlin,” said Stefan Schlede, 71, a spokesman for the cultural affairs committee of Berlin’s city parliament and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Party. During years of division, he was the principal of a school in Neukoelln, a peninsula of West Berlin that was walled off from the east on three sides.

“To neutralize the efforts toward German unification and to present the Cold War equidistantly, saying both sides are responsible for it in the same way, we don’t feel that this should be done in such a prominent location in Berlin,” Schlede said.

“A museum always has a message. History is always politics. There is no neutral museum,” he added.

Schlede and other local Berlin Christian Democrats instead want to build a “museum of freedom” at the now-empty Tempelhof Airport, which was the site of the Berlin Airlift. It would focus more exclusively on the tale of Western triumph over the Eastern bloc.

His allies hint that the backers of the Cold War museum, including Berlin’s ruling center-left Social Democrats, are too sympathetic to communist East Germany and the now-disbanded Soviet Union.

Nonsense, the museum supporters say.

“This is ballast carried on the back from the past,” said Rainer Klemke, director of memorials for the Berlin Senate. “We must understand different perspectives. That’s what the Christian Democrats are fighting.”

History and bratwurst

Similar controversies have flared in recent times. Last year, the Berlin Senate debated a proposal to name a street or plaza in the city after President Ronald Reagan, who famously demanded of the Soviet Union’s leader in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Even a three-block-long partial reconstruction of the wall for a recent memorial struck the nerves of people who were happy that the physical boundary had been mostly built over.

Still, the divisions continue to fascinate many Germans, drawing them to Checkpoint Charlie even in its current chaotic state, where a reconstructed sign warns tour buses that they “are leaving the American sector.”

“You could display this much better,” said Ralf Emrich, 48, a small-business owner from Saarbruecken, a city that borders France, who was eating a bratwurst one recent afternoon at a stand on the empty lot that backers hope to use for their museum. Emrich said that it was his first time in Berlin and that Checkpoint Charlie was his first stop.

“Unification, Gorbachev, we saw it on television. It’s moving when you think there used to be a wall here and you couldn’t go across,” he said.

The man serving Emrich his bratwurst had a different take.

“I’ve had to hear it my whole life,” said Kevin Mottke, who was born in East Berlin on Nov. 10, 1989, just hours after the announcement that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border. “My father was really upset, because my mother had to go to the hospital, and he wanted to go to the border crossing.”

Now, Mottke said, “everything is normal here.”

Petra Krischok contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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