For nearly thirty years until the end of the Cold War, Berlin lay divided both physically and ideologically by the infamous Berlin Wall that snaked through the now united German capital. The wall was erected mainly to prevent East Germans from defecting to the West. Citizens from East Germany were strictly forbidden to travel to the other side. West Germans and citizens of other countries, however, could visit East Germany after applying for a visa.
The 155-km long wall had nine border crossings that allowed visitors from the West, Allied personnel, foreigners etc. into the Soviet controlled East Berlin. The most famous of this crossings was the checkpoint at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, named Checkpoint Charlie.
The name Charlie comes from the letter C in the NATO phonetic alphabet—Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and so on. Similarly, the border crossing at Helmstedt-Marienborn was nicknamed Checkpoint Alpha, and the one at Dreilinden-Drewitz was called Checkpoint Bravo. Checkpoint Charlie was the third opened by the Allies around Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie became the most famous crossing point between East and West Germany, and it was the only gateway through which Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists could pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. Despite its importance, the Allies did not try to erect any permanent buildings here. A small wooden shed with a couple of sandbags was all that stood. Although this was replaced by a larger metal building in the 1980s, the Allies kept their operations deliberately simple as a way of symbolizing their view that the Berlin Wall was not a legitimate border. Things were different on the East German side of the checkpoint, with guard towers, cement barriers and a shed where departing vehicles and their occupants were meticulously searched for potential fugitives.
Checkpoint Charlie was the most visible checkpoint on the Berlin Wall. A small café opened right on the checkpoint became very popular among Allied officials, armed forces and foreigners alike because it provided an excellent viewing point to look into East Berlin while having something to eat and drink.
Checkpoint Charlie also attracted many desperate East Germans looking to flee to the West. In its early years, the checkpoint was blocked only by a gate and one escapee smashed a car through the flimsy barrier. Another escapee simply sped underneath the checkpoint’s vehicle barrier after removing his convertible’s windshield to lower the car’s height. In another famous but unsuccessful attempt, a teenager named Peter Fechter was shot to death by East German guards when he tried to escape to the other side. As he bled to death, his body tangled on the barbed wire, the American soldiers could only watch. Checkpoint Charlie was also the site of the famous tank confrontation in October 1961 when American and Soviet tanks took up position on either side of the gate.
After the Berlin Wall came down and the East and West were united, the guardhouse was removed and is now on display in the open-air museum of the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf. A replica of the guardhouse complete with actors dressed in military uniform and posing as Allied guards now stand where the original checkpoint once stood. Today, it is one of Berlin’s primary tourist attractions.