Mark Smith

FIRST, the soldiers moved in. Then the workmen arrived and broke up the ground with jackhammers and laid barbed wire and put up fence posts and painted a six-inch white line across the street. There was also a sign that said DIE GRENZE IST GESCHLOSSEN (The Border is Closed). It was one of the official crossings from East to West Berlin and the most famous; it was Checkpoint Charlie.

The first sign of trouble on that night – August 13, 1961 – had been the lights on the Branbenburg Gate going out. Residents then reported hearing the sound of hammering and drilling, and people who were trying to get home on the underground suddenly found they could no longer reach their destination. Others discovered streets and houses sealed off as the barrier entombed them. In years to come, the junction of Friedrichstase and Zimmerstrase – Checkpoint Charlie – would be one of the few points where some people could still get across.

The checkpoint would also become a legendary place, a totem of Eastern totalitarianism and Western defiance (or the other way round depending on your point of view), a source of tension, a place of blood and hope. In Western culture, and in spy movies in particular, it also became an icon of espionage and escape. And when it all stopped and the Berlin Wall came down, in 1989, Checkpoint Charlie was one of the focal points of celebration too. People climbed on the wall at the checkpoint and shook hands with the guards and asked for their caps as keepsakes.

A few months after that day in 89, the workmen then moved in again, only this time it was to dismantle the checkpoint. The cabin that had been the office of the Western guards was hoisted away and is now in the cold war museum in Berlin. The Allies had always kept the cabin a deliberately low-key and temporary-looking building, in contrast to the grand constructions and watchtowers on the Eastern side, and the message the Allies were sending was clear: Checkpoint Charlie isn’t permanent and neither is the East German state.

It is now exactly 30 years since the day the checkpoint was dismantled and it remains one of the symbolic focal points in the history of the Cold War, only these days it is not the place of solemnity and remembrance you would expect. Quite the opposite in fact: there are tourist shops and burger chains and you can get your photo taken with re-enactors posing as guards and that really gets historians like Iain MacGregor down. Iain is a publisher and writer whose paperback, Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, is out this month and one of the first trips he made when he was researching the book was to the place where the checkpoint used to be. It was not what he’d hoped.

“If you go to Checkpoint Charlie, you’d think you were in Leicester Square which is a real shame,” he says. “A lot of veterans say they can’t believe what it looks like. It is beyond tacky.” A much more moving place is the nearby memorial to Peter Fechter, the 18-year-old German bricklayer who was killed in August 1962 near the checkpoint while trying to get across the wall. Peter was shot in the back by the East German guards and was left lying in no man’s land, huddled against the wall. It wasn’t the first death there, or the last, but the fact that a young man could be left to die while the guards on both sides looked on shocked the world. Iain laid flowers at the site when he was there.

For Iain, the fate of Peter Fechter is one of the stories that emphasises just how terrible the wall and its series of checkpoints were. The famous and notorious name Checkpoint Charlie came from the letters of the NATO phonetic alphabet – the checkpoint on the autobahn was Checkpoint Alpha, its counterpart at Drewitz was Bravo, and so on – and it was the point where military personnel, diplomats, business people and foreign tourists could cross the wall.

Others made escape attempts through or near the checkpoint, one of the most daring of which was in 1972 when boiler workers Peter Schopf and brothers Peter and Manfred Hoer dug a tunnel from a building on the East side to the west. All they had was a shovel, a chisel, a hunting knife and a small tin to remove the earth but, after three gruelling and terrifying weeks, they were through and emerged just inside the Western zone near the checkpoint.

Iain also talks about the suffering of the families that were divided by the wall. “If you talk to people who are in their 60s or 70s now,” he says, “who lived through that moment, when you mention the separation, or meeting their friends or relatives again, they are moved to tears.” He talks about the bride, still in her wedding dress, waving to her mother and father in the East. Or the nurse, Ida Siekmann, who could no longer bear being separated from her sister Martha, who lived three streets away in the west. Ida threw three eiderdowns from a building on the border to cushion her landing and threw herself out of the window. She died of her injuries.

Then there were the conditions that people in the East had to live under. “It’s a classic case of what looked on paper like an amazing experiment in equality," says Iain, " but you get behind that veneer and it’s a totalitarian state, no question, and you certainly don’t raise your head above the parapet. I went to the places where the people who did rebel were sent and I talked to the people who were sent there and once you’ve done that, you think as soon as they lost the backing of the Soviet Union by 1989, it was a house of cards that was going to crumble.”

The nature of life in East Germany is clear from the sheer number of people who were working covertly for the state. “It was a country of about 16 million people,” says Iain, “and one in four was either a Stasi agent or an informant, and some suggest one in three, and that goes to show what kind of police state it was. And that was before you had 24-hour news surveillance and electronic satellites – it was more to do with people power, people watching, people listening, and people informing. Everyone I spoke to knew of or had a close friend that was an informant. It takes a certain type of person to rebel against that.”

The tension was also high at the pressure points on the wall, including Checkpoint Charlie and in October 1961 it looked like it might spill over into something more serious when a standoff occurred between US and Soviet tanks on either side of the checkpoint. The spark was a dispute over the examination of travel documents by East German border guards and by the end of the stand-off 20 tanks were facing each other. Eventually an understanding was reached although some of the military personnel who were there at time think it’s the closest we came in Germany to World War Three.

Iain MacGregor certainly thinks the incident could have turned extremely nasty. “I think we were on the edge in terms of a localised conflict, although I don’t think it would gone global like the Cuban missile crisis. It was all over within hours but it was a very dangerous precedent – it got out of hand, there was a very belligerent, senior American general, Lucius Clay, and he overruled the commanders on the ground. He was the one that put the tanks down there but the US only had 12 tanks in the whole of the city and the Russians had at least 80. The world’s press was there and that’s when it went back up the chain to the Kremlin and the White House and they managed to talk themselves out of it.”

What the incident demonstrated was that the real military power lay with the Soviets – within the confines of the Wall, the Allies simply could not match the power of the East. But an important question remains about how the Allies handled the situation. Could they have prevented the wall and the checkpoints going up in the first place?

“I think, at a strategic level, politicians and presidents, they were taken by surprise by the wall going up,” says Iain, “Refugees were still pouring in to West Berlin, and these refugees were giving reports of troop build-ups and huge dumps of material, wood and stone and barbed wire, but they were giving these reports in dribs and drabs and if someone had taken the time to put X, Y and Z together – and obviously hindsight is a great thing – they might have thought that something was going on.”

But what about after the barbed wire went down in those first few weeks and the workmen moved into Friedrichstrase to erect the infrastructure at Checkpoint Charlie – it’s tempting to wonder if the the Allies could have simply pulled down the wire and prevented nearly 30 years of entombment for Berliners.

“I think if they’d gone straight in and bulldozed the barbed wire down, obviously they would have been taking a massive risk, but the East Germans had discussed that and planned for that,” he says. “They were almost under orders from the Soviets not to match fire with fire and a lot of the East German guards had rifles and machines guns that didn’t have any bullets in them. Some of them said to the Americans ‘you do realise we don’t have any bullets? why don’t you just pull it down? we’re not going to stop you’.”

So in that sense, was that moment when the barbed wire first went down a missed opportunity to prevent the construction of the Berlin Wall? “Yes,” says Iain, “but you’ve got to remember that, first, they built the barriers inside their own territory, they weren’t stupid, it was a couple of hundred yards inside the Russian zone. President Kennedy had also taken a lot of advice from the doves and the hawks in the White House on the question ‘shall we knock it down?’ and what they come down to realise was that as long as they’re not violating the Allies’ right of free access, then there was no basis to knock the barriers down. And Kennedy is famous for saying ‘a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war’.

“He also had in his mind: what will be their next step – they’ve done this, perhaps they would go to war over Berlin. And militarily , the US couldn’t do anything about it because Berlin is 70 miles inside the Eastern zone and it’s surrounded by around 3000 tanks and half a million Russian troops. So what are we going to do?”

Instead, the Allies waited and watched as the East Germans built grandiose buildings on their side of Checkpoint Charlie. “If they could,” says Iain, “the East Germans would have had the whole of Berlin but that was never going to happen so the next best thing is to say ‘you are crossing into a major European country and we take ourselves seriously and we’re going to spend millions and millions on this state of the art border crossing’ when they didn’t really need to. It’s your typical Stalinist/Communist approach to telling you you’re entering a very important place. And it was the exact opposite for the Allies. For them it was a very simplistic cabin just to emphasise to you guys across there that we don’t recognise this.”

By the 80s, however, behind the grand watchtowers, entropy was beginning to set into the East German state and their Soviet backers. In some of the Eastern Soviet states, democratic protests were growing; the economics of the Soviet Union were also looking dodgy and the new guard, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, realised that they could not keep up with the West without being bankrupt; the Chernobyl disaster had also cost billions to fix. The new Soviet leadership realised that the writing was on the wall, including the Berlin Wall, and chose not to push back when the pressure started to grow on the ground.

Famously, it was on the night of November 9, 1989, that the wall finally fell and Checkpoint Charlie was one of the epicentres of the peace and celebrations as it had been one of the epicentres of the conflict and Cold War. At least 3000 people crowded round the checkpoint and the side streets near it making it impossible for vehicles to get through. At first, the guards didn’t know how to react but as people started to climb on the wall, some of the guards helped them up. Then just after midnight, the dam burst.

But, as always happens with history, that moment is not as clear-cut as it looks at first. In some ways the conflict continued, with the Western Allies arguing over whether Germany should be reunited. The fall of the wall also did not lead to the dramatic transformation of East Berlin that many hoped for. The migrations from east Germany to west Germany continue to this day because the standard of living is still much better in the West in. terms of wages and job opportunities . And perhaps most interesting of all: there are some Germans who miss aspects of East Germany. “The education was really good, healthcare was great,” says Iain, “but ultimately there was no political freedom and if you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”

And at Checkpoint Charlie itself, there is a debate about how its past should be remembered. Thirty years on from the day the checkpoint was dismantled on June 22, 1990, the city’s leaders have unveiled a plan to redevelop the site and build apartments and a new cold war museum, but some believe there should be much more open space where people can gather and debate and reflect. Others, including Iain MacGregor think there are better ways to remember the story of Checkpoint Charlie, which is to walk a few hundred yards to the column of copper that stands on Zimmerstrase. The words on it read: Peter Fechter, 1944-1962.

Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Iain MacGregor is out now.