22 June 1990: On this day in Berlin history, the infamous control post at Checkpoint Charlie was hoisted off its foundations, placed on the back of a lorry and driven away. This simple act, executed to the sounds of a military brass band, was the closing stanza in a story which began in the messy aftermath of World War Two.
Situated at the official crossing point between the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin, the unassuming steel hut – as well as its smaller wooden predecessor – had been a conspicuous outpost on the front line of the Cold War for generations. Its removal, watched by thousands around the world, represented the easing of East-West tensions in Europe and the beginning of a bright new age in Berlin.
Attending the ceremony that day were representatives of the four powers which had occupied their respective sectors of the city since 1945 (France, Great Britain, USA and the Soviet Union). Seven months after the peaceful revolution of November 9th 1989, they were in Berlin to coordinate the withdrawal of their military forces, as well as to iron out the process of German reunification. Among the guests of honour seated before them was former mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. In office when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Brandt was one of many looking on that day – whether leaning from the windows of surrounding buildings, standing to attention in uniform, crouching behind the lens of a camera or even peering from beyond the East German border – who had witnessed very different scenes at this volatile flashpoint between east and west.
Collectively they had held their breath as, 29 years earlier, US and Soviet tanks stared each other down, engines revving and arms at the ready, just one shot away from nuclear war. They had mourned the brutal death of Peter Fechter, the 18 year old East Berliner gunned down by East German border guards and left to bleed to death in the death strip, just metres from the freedom he sought. Most recently they had joined the celebrations just a few months prior when the traffic barriers were raised and thousands flowed freely through the checkpoint, embracing the stunned border guards and revelling in their new and unexpected freedom.
It was these events and more which were running through the onlookers’ minds as they watched the diminutive beige Porta-cabin dangling on the end of a wire cable above them. For the citizens of that long divided city Checkpoint Charlie had been a beacon of hope and for some it’s departure was bitter sweet. But, with the iron curtain in tatters and the Soviet Union heading towards dissolution, the time had finally come – as British foreign minister Douglas Hurd so poignantly put it – “to bring Charlie in from the cold”.
Today, the only things blocking one’s path at the historic site of Checkpoint Charlie are selfie seekers and tour buses. The hut one finds on location, complete with sandbag bunker and American flag, is a replica of the original wooden building. The building which was removed with such ceremony 31 years ago can be found in the Allied Museum in Dahlem, a suburb in the west of the city.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.