During the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point located midway across Berlin, just inside the city’s Western half, and administered by the United States Army. If you were going Eastward, once you passed through Checkpoint Charlie your next obstacle lay only a few feet away: Soviet soldiers and East German border guards. And behind them, the Berlin Wall. The place was always tense. In 1961, when the Communists began building the Wall, American and Soviet soldiers near Checkpoint Charlie faced each other in tanks. Fortunately, nobody fired.
When I visited Berlin in May 1990, the Wall was essentially defunct — allowing hundreds of people to pass through between East and West every hour — and so Checkpoint Charlie was a different place. Or was it? Inside the checkpoint’s booth, an American Sergeant told me that I, being a U.S. Army Reservist, needed a U.S. Army dress uniform before he would allow me to enter East Berlin.
East Germany’s regulations had changed. The U.S. Army’s regulations had not.
Well, I had not come halfway around the world to a place where Communism was literally crumbling, only to be stopped by an outmoded military regulation. So I suddenly I portrayed myself as an ill-informed civilian tourist — not very convincingly, I suspect, but he let the matter drop. (A month later, the entire Checkpoint Charlie booth was removed and transported to what is today the Allied Museum, or Alliierten Museum in German. Near the old location is Das Mauermuseum – Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. Also nearby is the BlackBox Cold War Museum, which likewise remembers Checkpoint Charlie and the decades of history it witnessed. Yes, the original location has become very touristy. I suppose that was inevitable.)
Crossing into East Berlin in that extremely brief era when East Germany still existed but was no longer Communist, I experienced no trouble with the East German officials. Nobody checked my passport. They merely smiled and nodded, continuously waving through a continuous caravan of Western tourists. (We were among the first tourists of a great many more to come, apparently.)
During the Communist time, East Berlin was notorious for its Communist modern-ish, very boring buildings, abutted by older, often dilapidated neighborhoods which still showed smoke scars and bullet marks from World War II. That was still true in 1990. Newly post-Wall, however, residents and tourists made downtown East Berlin feel outright jovial, like an outdoor festival. Young people abounded on the main boulevard, Unter den Linden. And other than the American Sergeant I met minutes earlier, I finally saw some Western soldiers in Berlin, whose presence in West Berlin was almost invisible. In East Berlin they drove around in jeeps, four men per jeep, all four attired in dress uniforms and looking very serious, which I’m sure they were. To say they were “showing the flag” almost understates the size of the flag, for each jeep had a prominent flagpole attached, flying either Old Glory, the Union Jack, or the French Tricolor.
Such Western patrols had been running throughout the Cold War, traveling all over East Germany, citing the terms of old agreements the Western Allies had signed with the Soviet Union dating back to World War II. Similar patrols by Soviet soldiers traveled throughout West Germany, although I, myself, hadn’t seen any of those, not even in West Berlin.
I did see a few Soviet conscript soldiers in East Berlin, unloading a truck on Unter den Linden: unloading the truck very slowly as they stared with wide-eyed fascination at everything around them. I wonder what their superior had told them about this place that became post-Communist so abruptly. Probably something like, “Shut up and go unload the truck.”
I visited a local Communist museum. It proved to be disappointingly kitschy, exhibiting bric-a-brac. I have vague memories of a few old ladies serving as museum staff. Vague memories, and yet those ladies were the only memorable aspect of my museum visit.
Despite its blasé museums, the old Communist regime was not entirely against tourists. After all, even Communists could benefit from Western tourists bringing in and spending capitalist money, also known as hard currency. For decades one of East Berlin’s most popular tourist sights was the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, a building which was guarded very ceremonially by impeccably uniformed and choreographed soldiers from the East German Army’s Friedrich Engels Guards Regiment. Then as now, most Germans call the place the Neue Wache, the New Guardhouse, for that was the building’s original purpose when built in 1816. It has been used as a war memorial since 1931. The building has a row of columns in front, giving the appearance of an ancient Greek temple which, frankly, has seen better days due to its dark gray exterior. The building is also surprisingly small for a grand memorial, its sparse interior about as spacious as a good-sized studio apartment.
The German Communists loved euphemisms. This phrase sounds especially noble: the National People’s Army of the German Democratic Republic, guarding a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. But in this, as in so many other ways, Communist propaganda contradicted itself. For the armies of Nazi Germany and of later East Germany displayed some striking similarities, including almost identical uniforms and marching the goose-step. German Communists justified those similarities by claiming the Nazis had “perverted” Germany’s military traditions, which the Communists “restored.” Whatever. Even if you knew nothing about East Germany, you could sense the absurdity of guarding a “Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism” with goose-stepping soldiers frightfully reminiscent of Fascism and Militarism.
Inside the Memorial, centered on the floor was a sort of eternal flame encased in a box of glass tiles and metal, its interior composed of many diagonal glass plates to reflect the flame in different ways. On the wall behind was a mosaic of East Germany’s Communist Coat of Arms. Was the place solemn? More like merely interesting. I don’t want to be too critical because I presume the Memorial’s designers and artists were sincere; still, the place hardly implied the enormity of the horror supposedly being memorialized. Remove the Communist symbols and what was left? An artistic box with a flame inside, situated on an otherwise bare floor inside a Greek Revival-style building. It would feel almost tranquil. Of course, to achieve that tranquility, you would also have to remove the Guards.
I found very few people inside the Memorial itself and, suddenly, almost nobody. Where did everybody go? An East German Army lieutenant looked inside and said something very official-sounding. I don’t speak German and that fact made his words, and his uniform, that much more intimidating.
He was merely — and to his credit, very politely — announcing the Memorial’s Changing of the Guard. I went outside to observe it. The Guards goose-stepped into position, a quick but impressive display. Evidently, this one lieutenant in charge of them was proud of preserving whatever was left of his army’s discipline and ceremony. Well, actually just the ceremony. For as the Guards performed their choreographed motions, one Guard was blatantly smiling. Imagine an American Guard smiling at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It doesn’t happen.
(Only a few months after my visit, the Friedrich Engels Guards Regiment was marched back to its barracks for the last time and formally disbanded, along with the rest of the so-called National People’s Army of East Germany. Sometime thereafter, the Neue Wache was remodeled yet again. Today, it is the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. Where once stood the glass tile box with a flame inside, there is now a dark statue of a grieving mother and her dead son.)
Despite my slovenly appearance, including blue jeans, I was served lunch by a tuxedo-attired waiter in a rather fine restaurant. Although the establishment was still accepting East German money, I paid the bill with West German money, which was extraordinarily more valuable. He was thrilled.
Germans in the West used to say that if you wanted to see what Germany was like during the Second World War, go to the East. Walking the streets of East Berlin, I understood why. There were the goose-stepping Guards, of course, but also other reminders in neighborhoods some distance from the city center. There was no more rubble from the war, but still a few small ruins, remarkably. One such ruin I remember was a wall (an ordinary wall, not the Berlin Wall) made of bricks laid so thick, the Communists apparently deemed it too uneconomical to either repair or remove. No longer rectangular, which most walls are, its jagged shape was more like a rough trapezoid, separating nothing on either side of it, a wall effectively useless, smoky black and overgrown with grass and history. Very unlike the German reputation for order and efficiency. Very much like a country suffering from shortages, like a country at war. Or a country under Communism.
Throughout my time in East Berlin I encountered only one serious danger: Western cars. East Berlin lacked traffic lights, for during the Communist time they were considered unnecessary because so few people owned automobiles. The lucky few who did typically drove a Trabant, a car so puny that it was powered by a two-cylinder engine. (East Germans who drove to Hungary to “vacation” there, and then defected to Austria, left their Trabants behind in Hungary. What does that tell you?) But in newly open East Berlin, BMWs now roared by, driven by Westerners gleefully exploiting the city’s unregulated streets — and frequently putting pedestrians at risk. The risk made me briefly nostalgic for no-nonsense German policemen.
At the end of the day, when I departed that historic city undergoing that historic time, I left with plenty of pictures and souvenirs, including a few pieces of the crumbling Berlin Wall.
I was 27 years old.
— John G. Heidenrich