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The Border Crossing

Historical photo of Checkpoint Charlie

The border at the corner of Zimmerstraße and Friedrichstraße © Berlin Wall Foundation, Photo: Michael-Reiner Ernst

The Most Famous Border Crossing in Berlin

The site became famous through a single event: In October 1961, U.S. and Soviet tanks engaged in a menacing standoff in the middle of Berlin. Photos of this event were seen around the world and have become iconic images of the Cold War.

The GDR had closed the border in Berlin ten weeks earlier and created a border crossing at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. It was meant to be used exclusively by Western Allied military personnel, diplomats, and people from abroad. The Western Allies protested against this restriction on their freedom of movement, which was guaranteed to them through the city’s four-power status. But eventually they accepted it and set up their own checkpoint on the West Berlin side. Following the NATO alphabet, it was named Checkpoint Charlie – after Checkpoint Alpha on the inner-German border and Checkpoint Bravo on the border between East Germany and West Berlin. At first, the U.S. occupying power checked border traffic and safeguarded their rights here alone, but it were soon joined British and French occupation forces.

The conflict that precipitated the tank confrontation began when the GDR tried to restrict the Western Allies’ ability to cross the border unchecked. GDR border police officers refused to let members of the Western Allies in civilian clothes pass unless they showed their IDs. The United States responded by having armed military police escort these vehicles across the border. They eventually sent tanks to the checkpoint. Behind the scenes, the U.S. and Soviet Union were holding talks that appeared unsuccessful at first. An agreement was not reached until after the Soviets sent their tanks on October 27 and the two superpowers faced each other in a combat-ready stance. The strategic power struggle that drew strong media attention ended after 16 hours, when Moscow and then Washington withdraw their tanks.

On official state visits, guests were often taken to this world-famous site of the Berlin Wall. It also became a popular place for protests. The protesters were often welcomed by the House at Checkpoint Charlie, a museum run by Rainer Hildebrandt. In 1963, he opened an exhibition about the Berlin Wall here that presented different escape attempts and addressed human rights issues. Thanks to this exhibition and a large viewing platform erected at the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction.

 

Expanding the Border Crossing

On the East Berlin side, the GDR continued to expand its border crossing and border strip. Throughout the 1960s, the GDR extended the border crossing over a wide area. It cleared ruins from the Friedrichstrasse grounds and erected security and clearance buildings there. The border was blocked by barriers, massive concrete obstacles and tank traps. Pedestrians now had to enter a narrow passageway on the sidewalk. A small control tower was erected in the middle of Friedrichstrasse, not far from Zimmerstrasse. It was replaced by a taller one in the early 1970s. To accommodate the increase in tourist traffic at the border in the 1970s, plans for an entirely new crossing were developed, but the new design was not completed until the 1980s. The border crossing area was paved with asphalt and more vehicle lanes were added. Border traffic was now routed not only along Friedrichstrasse, but also across the adjacent property between Friedrichstrasse and Mauerstrasse. In the mid-1980s, another major expansion took place and the lanes were moved again. New control towers were erected and clearance buildings were placed beneath a large overhead construction.

The Allied control point underwent structural changes too. The wooden guardhouse was enlarged and then replaced by a metal container in the mid-1970s. But it always remained an impermanent structure in the middle of Friedrichstrasse as a way for the United States to demonstrate its non-recognition of the city’s division. 

Hole in the Wall

The border crossing at Friedrichstrasse/Zimmerstrasse was a “hole in the wall” in two respects. For one, people from all over the world crossed the East-West border here, bringing different lifestyles and viewpoints into East Berlin and the GDR. At the same time, people from the GDR were able to escape to the West from here – using fake passports, phony uniforms, converted vehicles and more. Some people lost their lives trying to get across the Wall here: In 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter was shot by border guards and bled to death in the border grounds in front the Wall not far from the checkpoint. Twelve years later, border guards shot Burkhard Niering, a 23-year-old conscript, at the border crossing. He had taken a member of the passport control unit hostage and attempted to cross the border on foot.

More about the victims of the Berliner Mauer is available at the website “Chronicle of the Berlin Wall”

Detail from a service map of the border troops from 1986, showing the course of the border as it stood in 1986

Detail from a service map of the border troops from 1986, showing the course of the border as it stood in 1986 © Berlin Wall Foundation

Victims in the Vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie

Four people die at the Berlin Wall in the vicinity of the GDR border crossing point at Friedrichstrasse/Zimmerstrasse. The deaths occurred in the early 1960s and mid-1970s. Three of them were shot by border guards while trying to cross the border. One of the victims is a border guard who is shot by an escape agent.

Peter Fechter (1944–1962)

Langtext

Peter Fechter bleeds to death at the wall in Zimmerstraße during his escape attempt on 17 August 1962 after border guards shot at him without warning.

Read his full biography via the "Chronicle of the Berlin Wall" website here.

 

Herbert Halli (1953–1975)

Langtext

Herbert Halli suffers fatal gunshot wounds during his escape attempt in Zimmerstraße on 3 April 1975.

Read his full biography via the "Chronicle of the Berlin Wall" website here.

Reinhold Huhn (1942–1962)

Langtext

Border guard Reinhold Huhn is shot dead by an escape agent on 18 June 1962 while stopping refugees on their way to an escape tunnel.

Read his full biography via the "Chronicle of the Berlin Wall" website here.

 

Burkhard Niering (1950–1974)

Langtext

Burkhard Niering is fatally wounded by gunshots on 5 January 1974 while armed and attempting to cross the Friedrich/Zimmerstrasse border crossing with a hostage.

Read his full biography via the "Chronicle of the Berlin Wall" website here.

 

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