Checkpoint Charlie would be 50 years old today

August 13, 2011 | Alyson

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Brandenburg gate

On August 13, 1961 the German Democratic Republic began building the Berlin Wall, or in Orwellian Newspeak der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart).  It was designed to stop the flood of East German emigres by cutting off West Berlin from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany. 


 A few facts:

The length of the Berlin Wall: 43 kilometres

The number of East Germans who fled to the west before the wall: 3.5 million

The number of attempted escapes over, under or through the wall: approximately 100,000

The number who successfully made it: approximately 5,000

The number who died while trying to cross: the figure is disputed, but numbers from 136 to 200 people have been recorded.

The year the wall came down: 1989

The number of days the wall divided Berlin: 10,315

Mauerkrankeit, wall sickness, is a recognised psychiatric illness characterised by paranoia, claustrophobia and suicidal feelings.

The Guardian created a time-line of the wall's history here.


Checkpoint charlie sign I crossed into East Berlin via its most famous border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie,  one summer while I was on a student work-abroad program. I had the weekend off and traveled to Berlin. A lot of people had the same idea because I couldn't find a room anywhere in the city and had to sleep in the train station. East Berlin had nothing to recommend it; it was dull and grey. There was little to do but ride the tram and nothing to buy. The most memorable sight was the stereotypically severe, lantern-jawed guard who scrutinised my passport. Looking back, I think many cities would have looked shabby beside sexy, shiny, vibrant West Berlin. It must have shone like Oz in East German eyes.


The Berlin Wall has been a rich source of inspiration for  writers, artists and filmmakers. John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold might be the best espionage thriller ever written.  For a cinematic glimpse into life on the east side of the wall, borrow the chilling The Lives of Others. It even inspired David Hasselhoff who for his own reasons, stood atop the wall and sang a song about freedom  while dressed in a light-up jacket.  I bet that showed those Communists a thing or two.

Of course, Checkpoint Charlie still exists as a tourist attraction. You can also visit preserved parts of the wall and get your photo taken with people dressed as armed border guards. And there you have it: from symbol of oppression to theme park in under a generation. Maybe it is just a tacky Disneyfication of a terrible time, but maybe it also says something wondrous about human resilience.