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Germany

East-West divide remains at Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin is a tourist magnet throughout the year. But some left-wing politicians, backed by the city government, are saying the border crossing depicts only one side of history - the West's.

Checkpoint Charlie; Copyright: DW/Louise Osborne, Mai 2012

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Checkpoint Charlie at the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. With bratwursts and cameras in hand, they peruse the vendors selling Red Army hats and stand in the midst of the most famous point of contention between the Soviets and the Western Allies.

Checkpoint Charlie was the border crossing between East and West Berlin and is internationally recognized as a central part of the Berlin Wall. This means that the facts represented here - from the privately operated Checkpoint Charlie Museum to the outdoor photo exhibition detailing the building and tearing down of the wall, East-to-West escape anecdotes, and the confrontation of Soviet and American tanks in 1961 - contribute greatly to how international visitors read this portion of history.

And it's a version of history that has little sympathy for East Germany, say supporters of an initiative to erect a Cold War Museum at the site of Checkpoint Charlie, one that aims to tell a more balanced tale.

Clapping with one hand

"Berlin is a logical city for it," said Berliner Konrad Jarausch, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading initiator of the Cold War museum. "There are major points of the Cold War which are particularly attached to Berlin."

DDR-Museum

Berlin's museums don't give a balanced view of history, some say

As for other sources of Cold War history found throughout the capital, Jarausch says some institutions may have interesting exhibitions, "but none of them have a comprehensive view, nor do they really try to tell the story of a global conflict and its repercussions."

Even the Allied Museum in Zehlendorf, he says, represents a one-sided view of history. "It takes two to tango. The Cold War didn't just have a western side," said Jarausch. "And to celebrate only the victory of the West is like clapping with one hand."

As for the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (or Mauermuseum), established 50 years ago by Rainer Hildebrandt, but now operated by his widow Alexandra Hildebrandt, Jarausch says it's a moneymaking enterprise with an unofficial rendering of history.

In a rejoinder, Alexandra Hildebrandt has dismissed the undertaking as "just a few left politicians putting Americans and Soviets on the same level," something she says distorts the reality of the past. "Checkpoint Charlie doesn't stand for the Soviets, it stands for the Americans who protected the freedom of West Berlin and for the victims who were killed on the border."

She says that tagging Checkpoint Charlie as a commercialized depot for sausages and kitschy souvenirs "is the strategy of these left people who like to put Checkpoint Charlie down - and to put down what the Americans did for Berlin."

Squabbling over funding

Currently, an insolvent American investor owns the two empty lots surrounding Checkpoint Charlie. But an Irish investor is looking to take over the outstanding debts and is negotiating to lease one of the 3000-square-meter properties to the development of the Cold War museum. Supporters say a museum of this kind would be a surefire investment because it appeals to tourists, as opposed to another shiny office building in Berlin's center.

The main problem now is how to acquire funding. In order to get the Cold War Museum off the ground, the initiation needs the financial support of the Berlin Senate. Indeed, Berlin's ruling center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are backing the museum.

There are a number of center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), however, both in the federal and city parliament, who are of the opinion that there is no need for a Cold War Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. "There's already the Mauermuseum concentrating on the same subject, privately run and visited by many, many tourists every day," said Stefan Schlede, a spokesman for the cultural affairs committee of Berlin's city parliament and a member of the CDU.

Schlede, backed by the federal CDU, is supporting the move of the pro-West Allied Museum from its marginalized home in Zehlendorf to the former Tempelhof Airport, the location of the Berlin Airlift where the Allies defended West Berlin after World War II.

"The intention of some people like Professor Jarausch to look at the Cold War from an equidistant view cannot be accepted by all those who suffered under the Cold War in the East and the West - not only in Berlin, but in Germany and all of Europe."

Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961

Tanks gather at Checkpoint Charlie back in 1961

Long road ahead

At the moment, the action needed to get the Cold War Museum up and running is lagging, as the initiative remains dependent on the progress of the Irish investor. Rainer Klemke says they hope to start construction of the museum by 2015, at the latest.

In the meantime, tourists will continue to take photos with 'Soviet' and 'American'soldiers and get their passports stamped under looming signage that states they "are leaving the American sector."

But for Konrad Jarausch, there remains a historical gap at Checkpoint Charlie that is waiting to be filled. "For once this is a story that has a positive ending, because reasonable people on both sides decided in the 80s that they should quit this," he said. "It's not just about tank confrontations, but also about the cooperation between East and West. Nobody is telling this story and it's a chance that Berlin should seize."