BERLIN, Germany – I hadn’t seen Charlie in a generation. The years have been kind.
Back in 1972 “Checkpoint Charlie” was notoriously known for being the border crossing between what was then East and West Berlin.
I had been there as a journalist. The memories cascaded back.
*There was that grim, little guard house, plopped down in the middle of Friedrichstrasse. Perhaps the only thing iconic that ever looked like a back yard Wally Watt shed.
*And Friedrichstrasse itself, which was then dominated by drab storefronts, abandoned apartments, empty lots and a modest museum dedicated to those who had died fleeing from East Berlin.
*I vividly recalled the winter of ’72 and visiting with Checkpoint Charlied G.I.s, who were glad to talk to another American – and yet leery about who I might really be. After about 20 minutes of both somber and animated conversation, one of the soldiers said: “How ‘bout that Super Bowl? Were you surprised to see Miami beat Dallas?”
“Actually, I’m surprised you said that,” I answered. “Dallas won,” I replied.
“I know,” responded the G.I. through a nominal smile. “Just checkin’.”
Checkpoint Charlie checkin’.
Later the subject of Willy Brandt, the former mayor of West Berlin, Nobel Peace Prize winner and then chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, came up. I thought it was cool, ironic — and refreshingly egalitarian — that in such a sobering context the man in charge was not on some authoritarian pedestal, but often referred to as “Schnapps Willy.” It was said endearingly – not derisively.
You could bet that nobody referred — at least in public — to East German leader Erich Honecker in such a delightfully irreverent fashion. And if anybody had earned the right to some serious tippling, I figured, it was Brandt. I said as much.
After much agreement and some salty slapstick, a soldier said: “I noticed that you referred to him as ‘Villy.’”
“Well, that’s how it’s pronounced,” I said.
“But most Americans wouldn’t say ‘Villy,’” he countered.
“Well, I guess I’m not most Americans,” I explained, which probably sounded more smart-ass scribe than Stasi spy. “You know, when in Rome…”
Not that it needed underscoring, but visiting an Allied checkpoint in Berlin back then was an immersion in Cold War reality on a number of levels. In the age of dueling super powers, this was the world’s most infamous tripwire. This was where American and Soviet tanks faced off against each other in 1961. Where emotional demonstrations were routine and escape attempts from East Berlin sometimes ended brutally and tragically.
No surprise that nothing was to be taken for granted — including a lone journalist, purportedly American, showing up at Checkpoint Charlie in the winter of the free world’s geopolitical discontent.
But that was then, and this was not.
*For one thing, the farther north you now go — past a cheesy, Checkpoint Charlie replica — the more gentrified and glitzy is the formerly dour Friedrichstrasse. A Westin Grand Hotel, Galeries Lafayette, a Bugatti dealer.
What was once a ghost town artery now teams with conspicuous consumption brand names — Rolex, Patek Philippe, Hermes, Escada, Gucci – plus fancy restaurants and numerous software firms. This is hardly what Honecker had in mind.
Not far is the reconstructed Reichstag (complex), the Brandenburg Gate and the notably accessible U.S. Embassy. Construction cranes are ubiquitous – as are blue, above-ground water pipes.
*The immediate Checkpoint Charlie area, however, has had a less dramatic makeover. It went from grim to generically commercial. A couple of Underground stations, mid-rise office buildings, a produce market, a (Kamps) pastry shop, a storefront museum, other businesses that cater to Checkpoint Charlie tourists, an (outdoor) pictorial chronology of the Cold War and some vendors hawking, of all things, Soviet-era memorabilia. As if.
But back to that Checkpoint Charlie replica. In front of it was a pile of sandbags and an American flag. And a local Berliner in an American G.I. uniform. And a kettle where those wanting a photo could deposit one Euro for a personalized picture of commercialized, back-dropped history. Call it entrepreneurial, but it seemed, well, sacrilegious.
*In the context of America’s involvement in the Middle East and the ongoing hit
our international reputation continues to take, it was gratifying and prideful to be privy to a context where the U.S. was seen as a force for unfettered good. A time when fighting for “freedom” and “democracy” weren’t glib, geopolitical euphemisms for ill-considered, foreign-policy ventures – from Vietnam to Iraq. At Checkpoint Charlie, Americans are still the good guys.
*And speaking of good guys, how welcome it was to discover Jesse-Owens-Allee, the street that runs along Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
*Perhaps it is just something inimitably German. But I’ve never seen such
strict pedestrian adherence to red lights. There could be no traffic for as far as the eye can see; there could be a pedestrian lane no more than 20 feet across; there could be no police presence. Nobody breaks rank. And, no, the cops don’t morph into storm troopers over jay-walking; crossing on red is just not done.
*Arguably, there is no more poignant memorial to what war has wrought than the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfurstendamn. The original church, which dates to the 1890s, was virtually destroyed in the bombing raids of 1943. The shell of a spire and part of the entrance hall still remain – now juxtaposed to adjacent memorials.
*It’s been well documented how Germany has come to moral grips with — and self-understanding of — its Nazi past. Numerous museums and memorials around Berlin are dedicated to the reign of terror, the extermination policy and the memory of Holocaust victims.
The most moving was the Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe, not far from the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. One room contained diary entries and letters. One in particular left me emotionally limp. It still does.
“Dear Father! I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.” Your J. 31, July 42