checkpoint charlie



By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

Of all the things to see and do in Berlin, it's almost unheard of not to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

The legendary Checkpoint Charlie, at Friedrichstarre 43-45, is the most famous border crossing point between the West and East where American and Soviet tanks confronted each other in October of 1961, and where escapes from the East were either successful, or ended up in death or in complete failure and arrest.

The area surrounding the museum is always crowded with tourists from all over the world who want to see this point at the Berlin Wall which represented such hope and such horror at the same time. It's a place where time stands still as you re-visit the history of East versus West through museum photos, displays and information boards.

Founded in 1962, the multi-level museum is the place to go to learn all about the Wall, and the number and kind of escape attempts made through the years. Giant picture boards show the wall, Soviet guards, military vehicle, escapees and more. The photos are accompanied by text that explains what is shown.

My suggestion is to get there early in the day. With huge crowds, it can get a bit close in the museum. It is open every day of the year from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is an admission fee, and a gift shop, as well as lockers downstairs where you can put your personal belongings.

Here are a few brief items from the museum that tell how people escaped over the wall and what the Soviets did to prevent escapes:

  • Volkswagen -– 55 people escaped in three cars.
  • Metal mat with spikes was placed outside of the
    windows of buildings at the wall, so that people
    couldn’t jump out of windows to freedom.
  • Two suitcases joined together so person could fit
  • Homemade Soviet uniform, used to fool guards
  • Cars fitted with device to keep it from sagging with
    the extra weight of hidden escapees.
  • Escapee hid inside the plastic model of a cow, which
    was allowed across the border because it was needed
    “for exhibition purposes.”
  • An escapee used a pulley and harness from house of ministry nearthe border. Hid there until dark, then threw a hammer across the border to a helper, who attached
    the line for the pulley apparatus. He escaped with
    his wife and child.
  • Hot air balloon used to free two families, eight
  • Car with armor plating, and doors filled with concrete
  • A film in the museum shows an re-enactment of 28 people escaping through a tunnel.
  • Another video shows an escape in 1989 using an ultra-
    light aircraft. Two brothers flew from West to East to
    pick up another brother in the East. The plane had
    Soviet red stars painted on the wings. They used two
    planes: one landed to pick up the brother while the
    other filmed the event and was available for backup.


A few more points about the wall and the border crossing:
Ten days after the border closed on August 13, 1961 tourists from abroad, diplomats and military personnel of the Western powers were only allowed to enter East Berlin via the crossing point at Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Soon the US military police opened the third checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse. The other two checkpoints were Helmstedt at the West German-East German border, and Dreilinden at the West Berlin and East Germany border. Based on the phonetic alphabet, the Helmstedt checkpoint was called Alpha, Dreilinden Checkpoint Bravo, and the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse received the name Charlie.

The main function of the checkpoint was to register and inform members of the Western military forces before they entered East Berlin. Foreign tourists were also informed but not checked in the West. German authorities in West and East Berlin were not allowed to check any members of the Allied Military Forces in Berlin and in Germany.

Checkpoint Charlie was removed on June 22, 1990. The former Allied guardhouses are now located in the Allied Museum.
A copy of the American guardhouse was erected on the original place on August 13, 2000.

The East German watch tower at Checkpoint Charlie was demolished by the property owner, Checkpoint Charlie Service Company on December 9, 2000.

A 140-meter-long section of the Berlin Wall was
re-erected by the museum on October 31, 2004 and nearby, a field of 1,065 crosses represents all victims of the East German border system.

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