Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall crossing place that came to symbolise the Cold War has degenerated into a seedy tourist trap which uses actors posing as border guards in a failed attempt to recreate its legendary past.
This damning verdict on a key historical site that in the 1960s witnessed the only direct confrontation ever between American and Soviet forces, was delivered last week by victims of Communist oppression, Berlin politicians and former Allied military officers who once served in the city.
A former US army Colonel Vernon Pike, who commanded the checkpoint during the Cold War, has bitterly complained about the condition of the site. “The use of fake soldiers is an unacceptable spectacle which is inappropriate for the location and its historical importance,” he wrote in an angry letter to Berlin’s city government.
Checkpoint Charlie was the scene of a number of escapes from Communist East to capitalist West Berlin. In one of the most dramatic and tragic incidents, an 18-year-old East German man was shot by Communist border guards and left to bleed to death in no man’s land.
It was also the spot where Soviet and American tanks faced each other, engines running and muzzle to muzzle, for six days in 1961 only weeks after the building of the Berlin Wall.
Yesterday the site was awash with tourist busses. Street vendors proffered what they claimed were authentic chunks of the Berlin Wall, and remarkably new looking East German memorabilia including Communist Party flags and Russian army fur hats.
Fastfood joints, including one called “Snackpoint Charlie”, lined the streets leading towards the checkpoint where a replica wooden hut surrounded by sandbags has been erected to simulate the original army checkpoint.
Actors dressed in fake American, Russian, French and East German army uniforms offered to be photographed alongside the hut or with visitors for 1 Euro per picture.
The presence of fake soldiers at the checkpoint has also been criticised as a “tasteless mockery” by Thomas Flierl, Belrin’s former Leftwing cultural affairs minister. Former East German dissidents have complained that the current checkpoint is an insult to those who lost their lives attempting to flee to the west under Communism.
Gavin Farrel, a student from Nottingham on his first visit to Berlin was not amused: “It’s a bit of a disappointment,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. ” I expected Checkpoint Charlie to look like something out of a Cold War spy novel, but it is more like a grotty Disneyland,”
Yet despite next year’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city’s government has no firm plans for the future of Checkpoint Charlie.
“It is a place of international importance and we believe the story of the Cold War should be told there,” said Rainer Klemke, a spokesman for the city’s cultural department said. “We haven’t decided whether to set up a small exhibition or to opt for a large museum.”