Checkpoint Charlie divided between history and commercialism

Checkpoint Charlie.
Checkpoint Charlie. Photo: Penny Bradfield

IT WAS described as the tensest spot in the Cold War, a crossing between East and West Berlin that was once the scene of a confrontation between US and Soviet tanks. The incident came close to triggering a third world war.

Now, more than two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie has turned into one between commercial and historical interest groups who are fighting to control the site.

In front of a wooden beach-hut-style shed, a reconstruction of the US army guard house that once stood there, two men pose as military policemen flanked by the US flag next to the legendary sign: "You are leaving the American sector."

They beckon the tourists to pose with them - "Here please, pictures for Facebook" - for €2 ($A2.55) a go.

An American tourist clutching a copy of John Le Carre's novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, part of which was set in Berlin, slings his arm round the neck of one of the "soldiers".

Romanian vendors sell ear-flap fur hats, gas masks and chunks of coloured concrete that they claim are remnants of the wall, while around them food stalls dish out everything from "Allied hot dogs" to cold dog, an East German chocolate pudding.

The newest edition to what some have dubbed "Snackpoint Charlie" is Freedom Park, a group of aluminium fast food hutches serving everything from "organic power food" to "Checkpoint curry sausage". It sprang up over Easter and its operators promote it as a place in which to contemplate history.

A growing number of voices are complaining, arguing that commercial interests at Berlin's most popular tourist attraction, drawing up to 4 million visitors a year, have been given precedence over respect for history.

"This place stands more than any other for the division both of our country and the entire world, and it needs … a more dignified manner," said Kai Wegner, a Christian Democrat MP.

But it has emerged that Checkpoint Charlie's future is more uncertain than ever. The owner of two plots of land either side of the former crossing, an American investor, is insolvent. An Irish property company has said it aims to stop a foreclosure auction on the site next month by paying off the outstanding debts - an estimated €29 million ($A37 million) - after which it hopes to take control of the land for a retail and residential development, in which it says there will be space for a Cold War museum.

Torsten Wohlert, a spokesman for the Berlin cultural ministry, confirmed that the city plans to rent space from the new owners for a museum.

In the meantime a temporary space, the Wall Infobox, is being erected at the site. But Berliners are appalled at the uncertainty, not least that the future of one of the city's historic sites lies in the hands of international investors rather than its own politicians.

Brigitte Scharlau, 53, selling bratwursts and buns from a green Trabant, said: "Most Berliners have a very emotional connection to Checkpoint Charlie and the authorities need to intervene to keep things under control, rather than just leaving it to the mercy of powerful commercial interests."

GUARDIAN

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