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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

What is Checkpoint Charlie?

Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous of the border crossings between former East and West Germany that became the backdrop of several audacious escapes from the East.

Checkpoint Charlie History

On the 12th of August 1961, Berliners went to bed (as relatively free agents); they were at liberty, at least, to move across their city without hindrance. When they woke up the following morning, this was no longer the case: East German authorities had erected a barrier between the Eastern and Western parts of the city. Initially just barbed wire, it soon took the form of a concrete wall, which stood for 28 years, physically and metaphorically dividing the capital as part of a wider border, that since 1949 had divided Germany into two countries: East Germany (officially the ‘German Democratic Republic’, or GDR) and West Germany (the ‘Federal Republic of Germany’ or FRG). East Germans had been voting (not that their Soviet satellite-state permitted free elections) with their feet, and moving to West Germany in droves. In the Cold War climate of intense, paranoid competition between the Communist East and Capitalist West, this was troubling to the Communist leaders; building the Berlin Wall was their solution to the problem.

Checkpoint Charlie entering american sector

Once the Berlin Wall had sprung up, travel to the West was severely restricted for East German citizens. East Germans could apply for a visa to visit the West, but whether permission would be granted was entirely at the whim of the authorities. West Germans, by contrast, could visit the GDR much more easily, though they had to go through various bureaucratic formalities imposed by the East German government to do so, including applying for permission in advance and registering with the local police station on arrival.

In the very early days of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie was the site of several audacious escapes from the East. After an East German smashed through the border gate in his car, a metal pole was installed instead. Two further successful escapes in low, convertible cars prompted the East German authorities to make the gate more robust.

Checkpoint Charlie leaving american sector

Checkpoint Charlie or Checkpoint C was the most famous border crossing point between the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin during the Cold War. The name Charlie, which was used by the Western Allies, came from the letter C in the Nato phonetic alphabet – at other locations on the German border could be found Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo. Its fame derives from its designation as the only crossing point that foreigners and members of the Allied forces were allowed to use to visit East Berlin. Café Adler, once situated right by the checkpoint on the Western side, was a popular place amongst Allied officials who could look into East Berlin from the windows whilst they were eating. Checkpoint Charlie’s fame has been cemented in Cold War history, having been featured in many books and films since.

Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Today, visitors can see a reconstruction of the original crossing, which is blended with some of the original remnants. Nearby, the ‘Mauermuseum – Museum am Checkpoint Charlie’ has an engaging exhibition which documents successful methods of escape to the West, impressive and poignant in their ingenuity: from hiding in the boot of a car, using a mini-submarine and wearing a military uniform as a disguise, to hot air ballooning over the border.

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