Thursday, 16 April 2009

Der Berliner Mauerweg: Day 1 Pt2

Leipziger Platz to Schönefeld - Part 2

Checkpoint Charlie is on every tourist's itinerary when they visit Berlin. And some days it seems like all the tourists have descended on this one spot at the same time.

Checkpoint Charlie is so named from the NATO phonetic alphabet designation for the letter C. As you might expect, there was also a Checkpoint Aplha and a Checkpoint Bravo. The Checkpoint Alpha civilian crossing point was by the town of Helmstedt in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), and the village Marienborn (Sachsen-Anhalt) on the former border between the GDR and the British Sector of the FRG. This was the access route for supplies and transit traffic into and from West Berlin along Autobahn 2 (see map). At the other end of this road-traffic corridor was Checkpoint Bravo on the Western side of the Berlin/Brandenburg border near Dreilinden, and we will be cycling past that later. It is worth remembering that whilst we are only cycling the 166km or so of the Berlin Wall, the whole length of the FRG/GDR border was similarly guarded with deadly intent.

Though Checkpoints A and B were more important to the survival of West Berlin, it is Checkpoint Charlie that everyone flocks to see. Here's a photo of the much reproduced sign on the former West Berlin side of the crossing 'You are leaving the American Sector', next to a depiction of a Soviet soldier which is one half of Frank Thiel's installation 'Leuchtkasten' (lightbox). The other half is naturally of an American soldier looking out to the Eastern side, and the sign says 'You are entering the American Sector. Carrying weapons off duty forbidden. Obey traffic rules.' It is curious that people weren't reminded to obey traffic rules in the Soviet sector!

Checkpoint Charlie was the only road crossing for foreigners and Allied Forces personnel on foot or in a vehicle between the Eastern and Western sectors. It came to world prominence in October 1961 when a stand-off there between Soviet and American tanks nearly sparked off a Third World War. The incident began trivially enough, as these things do, on 22 October 1961 (just two months after construction of the wall) with a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a senior U.S. diplomat and his wife passing through to East Berlin to attend the theatre. Events escalated out of all proportion and both the Soviet and the Allies massively increased their military forces and armoury. By 27 October ten armed Soviet tanks faced ten armed American ones a hundred metres away across the border crossing. After sixteen hours of heightened tension when it seemed a shoot-out could break out at any moment, the first Soviet tank started up its engine and withdrew five metres. The tension was relieved, and the world breathed a sigh of relief. There is a good full account of the incident here. It doesn't relate whether the diplomat ever got to the theatre, and if the show was any good, though.

Also, this short CNN documentary is interesting, especially for original film footage of the event:

It is difficult nowadays to get an idea of what the large border crossing once looked like. There is a reproduction of the first Allied guard house in the middle of Friedrichstraße, with sandbags, flags and uniformed actors willing to pose for tourists for money, but to get a real impression the 'Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie' is worth a visit if it is not too busy (it usually is).

Leaving the souvenir 'authenticated' pieces of the wall and 'genuine' Soviet army fur hats behind, we continued along the Berlin Wall trail along Zimmerstraße. A short distance along it is a memorial to one of those tragic stories associated with the wall which remind you how deadly it was. Outside a hairdresser's stands a steel pillar which briefly recounts the shooting of the young building worker Peter Fechter on 17th August 1962.

Just a year after the wall was built, Fechter tried to flee the GDR together with his friend Helmut Kulbeik. They hid in a carpenter's workshop next to the wall on Zimmerstraße and dropped down into the strip between the inner fence and outer wall from an overlooking window. They then attempted to dash across the 'death strip' before the border guards noticed, and climb the two metre wall topped with barbed wire into West Berlin. As they climbed the wall, the GDR border guards opened fire. Kulbeik managed to scramble over the wall to safety, but Fechter took a bullet in his pelvis and fell back onto the Eastern side, screaming in agony. Whilst hundreds of horrified onlookers on the Western side called in vain for someone to help him, neither GDR or FRG guards attempted to give him medical assistance, both sides apparantly fearing to leave their posts or to enter the forbidden zone. After an hour, Fechter eventually died a slow death through internal and external bleeding and his body was finally retrieved by East German guards. The event caused outrage throughout the world, and a spontaneous demonstration on the Western side shouted 'Murderers!' at border guards on both sides.

This short documentary, produced just after Unification, recounts the death of Fechter with historical film footage, and poses the question of whether border guards who shot dead people trying to flee across the wall should be brought to justice.

A bit further along, near the Axel Springer building, another death was once commemorated, this time of a GDR border guard Reinhold Huhn. He was shot on the afternoon of 18th June 1962 by Rudolf Müller, who was helping his family flee the GDR through an escape tunnel. The GDR named Reinhold Huhn a 'hero of socialism' and his death an 'insidious and cowardly assassination'. The East Germans unsuccessfully tried to extradite Müller for murder. A monument to Huhn was erected at the corner of Schützenstraße (running parallel with Zimmerstraße) and Jerusalemstraße. Schützenstraße was renamed Reinhold-Huhn-Straße in his honour. After the wall came down, so did the monument, and Schützenstraße got its old name back. There is supposedly a plaque on the corner of Jerusalemstraße noting the death of Huhn, but we tried and couldn't find it. There is a lot of this kind of historical revisionism surrounding the wall; nobody of course still thinks the wall was 'a good thing' (except those in the tourist industry, who wouldn't mind if at least parts of it were rebuilt), but the East German experience and tragedies like this seem to be written out of the history books.

No doubt those history books would gladly be published by the Springer publishing company, whose impressive steel and glass building towers nearby. Here is a photo of some brightly graffitied sections of the wall reflected in the front of the Springer office building.

Much could be written about the Axel-Springer-Verlag and its conservative founder Axel Caesar Springer, and you might find the right-wing slant and sensationalism of some of its newspapers not to your taste, but it certainly took a hard-headed businessman to build his offices somewhat provocatively overlooking the Berlin Wall. It would be true to say that his corporation wasn't the darling of the left-wing student movement. The students blockaded this building in 1968 after the shooting of student leader Rudi Dutschke, because they believed Springer had incited the shooting such as with headlines like 'Stop Dutschke Now!' in his populist Bild-Zeitung newspaper.

The part of Lindenstraße running past the Springer building was renamed Axel Springer Straße in 1995 on the tenth anniversary of Springer's death, and it is along here that we followed the Berlin Wall trail and its double-row of cobbled stones to the Prinzenstraße border crossing point.

It's whilst cycling along here that we began to realise just what those strips of wasteland are that you come across in Berlin. Here's one running alongside Sebastianstraße for example.

Of course, these barren, overgrown, rubbish-strewn lines of scrubland through the city were once the notorious Todesstreifen ('death strip'); the heavily patrolled and sometimes mined no-man's land between the inner and outer wall. Interestingly for conservationists, the fact that they were left alone for so many years whilst Berlin was rebuilt on both sides of the wall, means they have provided an inner-city haven for wildlife and plants that have dissapeared elsewhere. Indeed, many parts of the former death strip are now important nature reserves.

The Prinzenstraße crossing point was another of those places where West Berliners (not foreigners though, and not many East Berliners) could cross between the FRG and GDR, if they had special passes of course. It was also a transfer point for goods consignments and post between the two halves of the city. With all the hype about Checkpoint Charlie, you might think that it was the only place people could cross, but this was not the case. Unlike Checkpoint Charlie though, there are definitely no tourists at Prinzenstraße. The only commemoration of this busy road as once being a heavily guarded crossing point is an information board telling about two attempts to cross the border, one in a truck and one in a car. Click on the image below to read it full-screen.

Not far from the Prinzenstraße crossing point we followed the Berlin Trail to a bridge over the former Luisenstädtischer Canal. The canal had been laid out between 1848-1852 as the centrepiece of a green space designed by Lenné. False calculations of the gradient turned the canal into a cesspool which began creating an abominable stench, and in 1926 it was filled in and fashioned into a landscaped park with various gardens.

With the building of the wall, this filled-in canal and the Engelbecken canal basin became part of the border strip. With the dismantling of the wall, city planners decided to redesign the site as a landscaped green space again, and the Engelbecken basin was refilled with water.

The Engelbecken ('angel's basin') is now a particularly nice place to rest and enjoy a cool drink at the cafe on a hot day of cycling the trail. Unfortunately we tried but couldn't get served so we moved on.

The partially restored red-brick church in the background is the Michaelkirche, or St Michael's Church, and was erected between 1851 and 1861 by August Soller as a catholic garrison chapel. It quickly became a catholic community church for the fast-growing population of the Luisenstadt quarter, swelled by the demands of the burgeoning industrial revolution.

We followed the Berlin Wall trail along Bethaniendamm, alongside the landscaped former canal and border strip, to another impressive church, St. Thomaskirche.

St Thomas' on Marienplatz was built between 1864 and 1869 by Friedrich Adler of the Schinkel school of architecture. It is an amazing red-brick neo-golthic pile, which no doubt survived because it was on the Western side of the wall. Other churches, as we will see, were not so lucky.

Soon we reached the river Spree at the end of the canal, and crossed it to the busy Holzmark Str. and even busier Mühlenstraße. There awaited us the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall. But I will pick up from there on another posting.


  1. Came here looking for information on Reinhold Huhn. How interesting that the memorial to him now can't be found. Thanks for your post.

  2. This is also my latest bicycle around the Berlin Wall. Great reports and photos. Looking forward to the next part.


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