Checkpoint Reality

The site of Checkpoint Charlie, once a dreaded border crossing between the former East and West Berlins, is one of Berlin's most popular tourist attractions today. Ever since it was demolished in a solemn ceremony in June 1990, the Checkpoint Charlie site has been visited by people from all over the world who want to see for themselves how different the two Berlins really are.

 A replica of the original checkpoint hut, without the armed guards ready to shoot and kill at sight, stands at this former geographical focal point of the Cold War. It continues to divide the main street, Friedrichstrasse, as a reminder of history.

 Artistes and civil society have taken over the area today. Frank Thiel's ten metre high art installation of a collage of two original photographs - an American soldier looking towards East Berlin and a Russian soldier looking towards West Berlin -  looms over the legendary checkpoint whose grim location till 1989 was unknown even to many Berliners. It is only after 1990 that united Germany reclaimed the area to develop the original commercial hub of the old
city once again into one of the most colourful corners of Berlin.

 Checkpoint Charlie's history is unique. After the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, the four allied powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, and the US, divided Berlin's capital amongst them and opened three crossing points that were named Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the central crossing. Here, a strict eye was kept on the movement of suspected fascists left over from the World War. Later, the checkpoint became the main arena where the Cold War escalated. It was here that Russian and American tanks faced each other in 1961, two months before the Russians sealed off West Berlin from East Berlin and began constructing the Berlin Wall. The Wall was ostensibly meant to keep former Nazis from escaping into East Germany. However, say historians, its real purpose was to prevent increasing numbers of East Germans from seeking political asylum in the West. 

Over the years, Checkpoint Charlie became the scene of numerous demonstrations, escape attempts and deaths. Although the site is today surrounded by cosy places like Starbucks and other cafes, it still appears to be haunted by the ghosts of its past. In 1962, Peter Fechter, an 18-year old bricklayer from East Germany, tried to escape to the West at this checkpoint. He was shot. Those who witnessed the tragedy were reportedly too frightened to provide medical help and Fechter bled to his end on the death strip in between the now demolished Wall and a fence.

A memorial, on the exact spot where Fechter died, reads, "He just wanted freedom."

Gawking, like hundreds of other tourists, at the former warning sign, "You are leaving the American Sector," it was difficult for me not to think of the others who had tried to defy this barrier. I walked towards Checkpoint Charlie one day from the former West Berlin and on another day from the former East Berlin side. On the second trip, I strolled along the East Side Gallery, the 1.3 km stretch of the Wall (spared as a monument out of the original 160 km long Wall that was demolished in 1990). I stopped on the way, looking for windows in the Wall and trying to imagine how people in a divided city may have longed for each other.

I tried to soak in the spirit of the countless works of art on the Wall that mostly glorify freedom and peace. "For it is only because artists and poets have borne witness that we can understand past hopes and recognise their perspectives for the future," is the motto of an art exhibition at The Wall Museum, started close to Checkpoint Charlie in 1962. The exhibition covers the commitment of artists to human rights at a time when politicians and armies have other plans on their minds.

The museum is home to three permanent exhibitions about the history of the Wall: the history of Berlin and the history of non-violent struggles worldwide. From Gandhi to Walesa is an exhibition with 14 loans from the Gandhi family; it brought tears to my eyes at the thought that Gandhi inspired people here to achieve unity in a non-violent way...but is not able to inspire Indians today to do the same.