It was described as the tensest spot in the Cold War, a crossing between East and West Berlin that was once the scene of a confrontation between US and Soviet tanks. The incident came close to triggering a third world war.
Now, more than two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie has turned into a more prosaic one between commercial and historical interest groups who are fighting to control the site.
In front of a wooden beach-hut-style shed, a reconstruction of the US army guard house that once stood there, two men pose as military policemen flanked by the US flag next to the legendary sign: “You are leaving the American sector.”
They beckon the tourists to pose with them — “Here please, pictures for Facebook” — for two euros (US$2.64) a go.
A US tourist clutching a copy of John Le Carre’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, part of which was set in Berlin, slings his arm round the neck of one of the “soldiers.”
Romanian vendors sell ushanka ear-flap fur hats, gas masks and chunks of colored concrete that they claim are remnants of the wall, while around them food stalls dish out everything from “allied hot dogs” to cold dog, an East German chocolate pudding. A cyclist swears as he swerves to avoid the throng on the road.
“This is a street, not a frigging carnival,” he shouts.
A growing number of voices are complaining about such scenes, arguing that commercial interests at Berlin’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing up to 4 million visitors a year, have been given precedence over respect for history.
“This place stands more than any other for the division both of our country and the entire world, and it needs ... a more dignified manner,” said Kai Wegner, a Christian Democrat member of parliament.
He said he was frustrated by stumbling over “snack stands and east German kitsch.”
Alexandra Hildebrandt, who runs the somewhat rundown, private Checkpoint Charlie Museum, said: “It’s supposed to be a place that recalls the Cold War; instead, it’s where people come for cold dog, hot dogs and donor kebabs.”
However, it has emerged that Checkpoint Charlie’s future is more uncertain than ever. The owner of two plots of land either side of the former crossing, a US investor, is insolvent. An Irish property company has said it aims to stop a foreclosure auction on the site next month by paying off the outstanding debts — an estimated 29 million euros — after which it hopes to take control of the land for a retail and residential development, in which it says there will be space for a Cold War museum.
Berlin Ministry of Culture spokesman Thorsten Wohlert confirmed that the city plans to rent space from the new owners for a museum. In the meantime, a temporary space, the Wall Infobox, is being erected at the site.
However, Berliners are appalled at the uncertainty, not least that the future of one of the city’s historical sites lies in the hands of international investors rather than its own politicians.
Brigitte Scharlau, 53, selling bratwursts and buns from a green Trabant, said: “Most Berliners have a very emotional connection to Checkpoint Charlie and the authorities need to intervene to keep things under control, rather than just leaving it to the mercy of powerful commercial interests.”