More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, differences over how to represent the Cold War past are hampering plans to build a new museum at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.
Every day thousands of tourists flock to the site of a dramatic standoff between Soviet and American tanks in 1961 in the center of what is now the capital of a reunited Germany.
Though still a potent symbol of the confrontation between communist East and capitalist West, the checkpoint today looks rather ramshackle and has been dubbed “snackpoint Charlie” by local media because of a proliferation of food stands.
The site features a rebuilt guard house and a cramped private museum focused on the methods used by East Germans to flee over the Wall. Drama students pose in US and Soviet army costumes and hawkers assail tourists with ersatz Red Army hats.
From September, a “Black Box” installation will provide more information and images of the checkpoint, but this is just a placeholder for the much larger museum project.
“Wall memory is local and specific, but the confrontation behind it is a global one. We need a wider international frame for understanding the Cold War,” said Konrad Jarausch, head of the museum initiative, which is backed by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the city government.
The Communist East presented the building of the Wall as a response to Western attempts to undermine the East German economy and infiltrate spies and saboteurs. Soviet bloc histories and school books called it the “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier.”
The museum, which has the backing of former statesmen such as James Baker, US Secretary of State when the Wall fell, would try to explain what the Wall meant for both East and West Germany and also show how conflicts in Korea, China and Vietnam fed into superpower rivalry in the Cold War, said Jarausch.
This means turning a critical eye on US as well as Soviet policy, he added.
“There’s an Eastern side to it, and while the East contributed to fear, propaganda and confrontation, we have to offer something to visitors from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union, so they can see some of their experience in it,” Jarausch said.
But the aim to represent Eastern as well as Western perspectives on the Cold War has riled center-right Christian Democrats who govern Berlin in coalition with the SPD, and they are blocking the museum blueprint.
“I find it questionable to present both sides equally,” said Stefan Schlede, CDU spokesman for cultural affairs in the city parliament. Before reunification, Schlede was the headmaster of a school in West Berlin’s Neukoelln district, which was encircled by the Berlin Wall on three sides.
“I was born in Berlin, witnessed the fall of the Wall and what Germans experienced in terms of Soviet occupation is in no way comparable to the post-war politics of the Americans.”
Jarausch, who teaches German history at a U.S. university, said the museum should try to show all sides of the subject.
“I am not an apologist for communism. On the other hand, it won’t suit to have a Western, triumphalist perspective. The Cold War was an interactive process between East and West, and it takes two to tango,” Jarausch told Reuters.
MUSEUM OF FREEDOM
Debates on how to represent history are not new to Berlin, which abounds with memorials to its divided past. In the early 1990s, when most of the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, plans to preserve parts of it as a memorial came under heavy fire from politicians who had fought hard for the city’s unification.
CDU politicians have offered a counter-proposal for a “Museum of Freedom” that would partner with the Museum of the Allied Forces in Tempelhof, a former airport and base for the Berlin airlift during the Cold War.
Jarausch’s backers say this would be too biased.
“When people look at history from a victor’s perspective, they always talk about how terrible it was,” said artist Yadegar Asisi, whose panorama depicting everyday life at the Berlin Wall will open to the public in late September.
The Iranian-Austrian Asisi, who grew up in East Germany, lived in both East and West Berlin in the 1970s.
“Many people in this city talk about the division in terms of good and evil, but people forget about the everyday compromises that were made,” Asisi said, urging a non-political approach to memory. Strangers who come to Berlin can’t imagine how you could have a normal life, living next to the Wall.”