Checkpoint Charlie, the triumph of 20th Century Capitalism in Berlin

There was nothing grand about the place – it was a movable, wooden building painted dull and white, but the number of tourists and visitors snapping pictures at the sight suggested a vastly more exciting and colourful past. Many were joining a queue for pictures with part-time actors posing as American soldiers.

This was Checkpoint Charlie. Where once this was a checkpoint that separated capitalism with communism, today it represents the complete triumph of capitalism in the 20th century turning from a societal symbol into a tourist trap.

The checkpoint was not built at the end of World War II but a whole 15 years later, however the Cold War had begun toto heat up in 1945 just as it became clear that Hitler’s Third Reich was at an end. The Allies (US, UK, France and USSR) had succesfully broken through Hitler’s empire and liberated it piece by piece in an informal race to Berlin. By the time the soldiers had broken into the State of Brandenburg, just outside of Berlin however, the war was realistically over. While Eisenhower saw no reason for his troops to continue into Berlin and face the bloodshed of a desperate defence, Stalin used every trick in the book to get his soldiers to march into Berlin. It’s is often thought that Stalin wanted to take Berlin as a symbol, but there was more to him than Western depictions tend to provide – Berlin was not just s symbol, it was the key battlefront in a new war that was going to take place, the Cold War.

Why start a new war after ending a bloody one? Because the alliance was never a stable one, it was a marriage of convenience between ideologically opposed global powers bend on removing a geopolitical threat to their rule. This might sound cynical until we consider the important concept in Geopolitcs that ‘Geography is Destiny’. The concept of Geography is destiny means that the behaviour of a state on the international stage. This concept explains why Poland has always been at the centre of conflict between global powers, why despite the Chinese and Russians being neighbours, they are more friends than rivals, why the UK is always seen as a people apart despite being part of the European continent (this series of comedies from the UK, and their hilarious irreverence for Europe and EU can trace its historical worldview to).

In the case of the USSR, it’s vast land area may suggest that it should be vary of many enemies, but that is not the case. It is separated from China by a huge mountain range and Mongolia (a small buffer state), the actual landmass that separates the two countries are cold and inhospitable, making it worthless for either side to attack each other. USSR’s majority population then as now was always in the European side, however, the European side of USSR was vast plains with nothing much y way of natural barrier from the rest of Europe, thereby exposing Moscow to attacks. That both Napoleon and Hitler were able to move troops all the way to the outskirts of Moscow and were only pushed back at the end says a lot. The USSR stretched from the Baltic sea in the north to the Balkans in the south. These meant that Russia has two trading lanes in the sea that needed protection, however there were no good ports owned by the USSR, former Leningrad (St Peterrburg) would freeze over in winter. The most important island in the Baltic sea was Gotland owned by Sweden. In the south, it was Crimea that provided access from the Black Sea out into the Mediterranean. Seeing as its Western flank facing Europe was most exposed, and had been incurred upon there was a vital need to form a collection of buffer states – Berlin was the furthest expense that Stalin could reach by the end of World War II to therefore create a huge gap between Moscow and Paris or London. It is not a dissimilar state of affairs for Russia today, even though the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Despite the drawing of the lines, now that the Nazi enemy was destroyed, the Allies could not just turn on each other – there was still the need for a modicum of mutual respect. And so barely two months after the conclusion of the European-side of the War, the Allies met in Potsdam to decide on the fate of Europe. These three countries carved up Europe according to their needs and wants.

Germany was split into four, each part administered by the French, British, American and Soviets respectively. Berlin was an extra special case that was likewise split into four, but physically located entirely within the Soviet part of Germany. The three Western administered parts of Berlin became, in essence, an island of capitalism within a sea of communism.

Miraculously, life went on as per normal for 15 years, the city was still an intact whole, East Germans could move between East and West Berlin without any trouble. The first cracks were beginning to show however, life in East Berlin and East Germany was no where near comparable to the West and Germans for the early period crossed from East Berlin to West Berlin to move to give themselves a better life. No West Berliners and West Germans were moving the other way.

The Soviet experiment was clearly failing bare two decades after it started. Then one day in 1961, West Berliners woke up to find that a wall had been built surround them, turning West Berlin into an isolated island. The objective of the wall was never to keep West Berliners out but to keep East Germans in the country and prevent them from fleeing. For a few months no contact at all was allowed into West Berlin, Stalin and the East Germans wanted to force the Western powers to give up West Berlin and make the West Berliners give into the East. This was not to happen, and the world witnesses the miraculous and heroic Berlin Airlift at the Templehof Airport.

The success of airlifts and the sheer volume of effort send a clear message, the Western powers were not going to leave Berlin to its fate pushed to the limit, the Soviet and East German forces, opened checkpoints to allow people to move between the two states. There were three checkpoints, Alpha – Between West and East Germany, Checkpoint Bravo between East Germany and West Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie, between East and West Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie became the internationally renowned once since journalists landing in Berlin at the time would have had to go through Checkpoint Charlie if they wished to enter the DDR. The Soviets had a big structure, while the Americans had a small wooden post (and it never changed) a symbolic statement of the belief that the barrier was temporary.

When the Berlin wall came down, so too did Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie came up again however, this time as a tourist attraction. By how did the Berlin wall rise and fall?

More on this in the next post.



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