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Nervy Checkpoint Charlie stand-off remembered

The Local · 28 Oct 2011, 12:04

Published: 27 Oct 2011 17:26 GMT+02:00
Updated: 28 Oct 2011 12:04 GMT+02:00

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With tanks facing off just feet apart to see which side would blink first, a row over East Germans checking the passports of American military personnel as they went into Soviet-occupied East Berlin nearly escalated out of control.

After a terrifying 16 hours of eye-balling, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told his soldiers to turn back their tanks, which they did one at a time. The US forces mirrored the gesture tit for tat, averting a potentially disastrous conflict in divided Berlin.

Blink while on Friedrichstrasse now and you’re likely to be hit by a bus full of tourists. The checkpoint crossing is alive with visitors, crowding round the temporary hoardings printed up with slices of history and black and white photos, paying a couple of euros to be photographed next to two actors dressed in historical military uniforms.

On Thursday – exactly 50 years after tanks took their positions on the street – that road was host to a group of German tourists on Segway scooters, swaying hesitantly as their guide told them the story. A group of sight-seer-carrying East German Trabant cars also rattled past, the smell from their two-stroke engines leaving perhaps the most ‘authentic’ thing of the moment.

The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a private depositary of Berlin Wall artefacts quietly dominates, but is now surrounded by commercial signs of which side won the Cold War – MacDonald’s is there, as is Starbucks and German chain bakery shops Kemps and Backfactory.

The atmospheric Café Adler at the corner, reputedly a meeting place for spies, but also a haven for tourists wanting a taste of older Berlin with their coffee is also gone, replaced by a Cafe Einstein, the historical décor replaced by neon lighting.

Independent shops have gone

“Most of the independent shops have gone; they were forced out by high rents,” Karin Radloff told The Local. She owns the Laden am Checkpoint which has been selling tobacco since 1905 and now also stocks newspapers and magazines from around the world.

“There is a lot of history here, and I think we are portraying it well. We clubbed together, shops in the area, to build the checkpoint hut. I know that some people are less than positive about it, and the actors standing there, but I like it. At Brandenburg Gate there are people dressed up as polar bears and things. At least here it’s historical, it fits.”

A metal plaque is set into the wall covered in sandbags between the two men dressed as soldiers, commemorating the stand-off between the Soviets and Americans there. It briefly sketches out the moment the Soviets turned back.

Clemens Pfaff, 70, remembers the feeling of the time. The pastor at Berlin’s English-speaking Roman Catholic Mission was showing a friend the site. “I was in England at the time actually, studying theology and preparing to go as a missionary to East Africa,” he told The Local.

“There was a very real feeling at the time that there could be another war," he said. "I remember the Cuba crisis afterwards very clearly. You had got used to the Cold War, and the nuclear weapons, but everyone was just hoping it would not come to war.”

Those hoping perhaps more than anyone else included Heinz Schäfer, an East German border guard at the time. “We had pistols, the Americans were armed – if only one soldier had lost their nerve, I don’t know if we would be sitting here today,” he said. “It was hard, it was dangerous, but we survived it without bloodshed.”

Tyler Willson was in one of the American M-48 Patton tanks. Speaking from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, he told the Jacksonville.com news site the Cold War suddenly seemed awfully hot with Soviet T-54 tanks just about 100 metres away.

“One dumb move and I don’t know if it would have been World War III but it wouldn’t have been good,” he said.

He said he was thinking, “I’m a dead man if they pull the trigger first. And we weren’t going to pull the trigger first.”

Orders to load tank guns

John Jungkeit, an American soldier with the 102nd Army Security Agency at the time, told The Local via email, “With three real war alerts in one week, troops were issued live ammunition in the field for the first time since the end of WW2.

"The Berlin Battle Groups had just been issued the new M14 rifle and a new type of ammunition. All other American troops in Germany still used the M1 rifle with different ammo.

“My job was monitoring friendly electronic communications to find out what secrets were leaking out to the East. I heard a US M48 tank commander receive orders to load a round in his 90mm gun, and leave off safety while keeping his sights on a T54

Story continues below…

around 100 yards away. All the tanks guns were loaded and ready to fire at the height of the alert.

“The crowds on the east side of Checkpoint Charlie were giving wreaths of flowers to the Soviet tankers and cheering them on. On the west, the lead M48 had a small vase with a flower sitting on his turret.

"A short distance away, out of sight of the check point, a 3/4 ton truck sat with its engine running, ammo crates broken open with mortar shells ready to fire in their freshly dug fox hole. The engine was idling for a fast get away.

“On the parade grounds where the Battle Groups were waiting for orders, troops sharpened their bayonets and prepared their weapons for battle. When the alert was cancelled, fist fights broke out amongst the troops because they were so keyed up to fight. A nervous soldier on either side could have started a war.”

In the event, nerves were held, no triggers were pulled, and Berlin lived to eventually pull down its Wall, shake off its division and turn it into history.

“We love it, there is so much history here, we are working hard to understand everything here,” said Padmavathy Rajasekaran from Mumbai, on a holiday in Berlin with her family. “It all looks great, you can see where it was all happening back then, almost imagine it.”

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

17:39 October 27, 2011 by MonkeyMania
Where is the guy posing with the Berliner Bär gone? He was there yesterday.
17:45 October 27, 2011 by Whipmanager
Well, this is a very interesting article. You see, the further from that date we get, the more we forget. Mr. Putin is putting back his empire, he has a vision and it will create another Warsaw PAct/NATO type of atmosphere. COmplicate it with China Rising to power. There will be other Berlin's around the Globe. I know that Berlin has gone through some very difficult times,and the few that are left from that era have great stories to tell. Thank God nothing happened, frmo the tunnels, the border wars secretly being fought, the exchanges of spies, the fear that any moment could be the end. I lived through much of that "feeling" during my first stay in Germany, those were exciting times, and I miss them.

The RAF, the bombings, the never knowing when the alram went off if it was a drill or real, how was it written? .....they were the best of times, they were the worst of times, yet, looking back, they certainly weren't the worst of times,

Thank God one of the coolest cities in teh world, Berlin, is still there.
21:34 October 27, 2011 by TRJ
I find it amazing to read that some people are very interested in the area because of its history. I have been to Berlin several times in the last few years and find Checkpoint Charlie to be wholly unrecognizable to what it was during the cold war. During the 70's we, as children, feared touching the wall even on the West side because our parents would say, "don't give them a reason to shoot." Dramatic, yes, but that is the way it was for Berliners. To fully understand the spirit of the time, one must appreciate the dour and forboding mood that dominated the wall. All of that is completely gone; perhaps understandably with the inevitable commercialism of the area. Still, what now stands in the area is almost farcical in the saturated level of cheesy touristy commercialism. I now avoid this area when in Berlin.
22:47 October 27, 2011 by wood artist
There is history everywhere, both in Berlin and Germany. True, the places don't look the same, but the history is there nonetheless. I was 6000 miles away back then, but I remember the pictures in the papers, and the looks my parents gave us when we asked questions. The whole world was on the edge. Thankfully, a couple men were smart enough to back off a little.

01:24 October 28, 2011 by rwk
Stories about the postwar (a.k.a. cold war) period, particularly postwar Germany, have always fascinated me. I wish I had managed to get to Berlin in the four years between my high school graduation and Die Wende, but I didn't have the money, the language skills, or even a passport! I've been to Germany ten times since my first trip in 2000, always to Leipzig. I need to see Berlin, but worry that it has become an inauthentic tourist trap. Sometimes I am proud of the actions of my fellow Americans, such as during the Berlin airlift, and sometimes either horrified (Dresden) or embarrassed (Kennedy's Berliner gaffe). While the era is worthy of study and remembrance, I am unsettled by the 'Ostalgie' that has been sweeping the East. I am reminded of the Confederate emotions of the American South. There is also a disturbing distortion of history in Germany, more dangerous than similar ignorance in America because Europe is less willing to admit that many of its people are woefully ignorant of history. It is on specially occasions like this anniversary that curiosity is pricked and perhaps people can learn the depth of their own ignorance and take steps to rectify the problem.
03:47 October 28, 2011 by DOZ
Unfortunately the little boys want to play war again, with Canada's Steven Harper bringing out his new toy planes, boats and spit polished buttons. Where will the next Berlin be? Gaza or Iqaluit.
12:22 October 28, 2011 by storymann
Whipmanager,, yes, I to remember those days ,i served here during the cold war ,Those were tense times in Germany,as you said they also were the best of times.

I returned to Berlin for work some years later and have remained here. I also think it is a great city.
20:37 October 28, 2011 by Whipmanager
(Being sarcastic now) I note a lack of the word Nazi, some reference to racism and muslims, some complaint about killing all americans around the world for all the bad we are....LOL

Storyman, I left Germany in 2000. I have been backtwice since. When I read your post I felt a heaviness in my heart for being away so long, and missing it so much.

When I went to Berlin in 99, I saw what they did to Checkpoint Charlie, and I nearly cried or laughed, it was a mix of emotions. there was so much history, so much to remember about that particular area. I remember seeing SOviet CD plates around Germany, and remembered we had to call Base ASAp and notify them of the plate number, location, time and date we noted the plates. In teh 80's I remember finding a few people crawling the woods in Ramstein AB, ready to blow up a NATO fuel line, I reported this, it was around 3 AM, as I was hiding from my boss in teh woods, eating lunch from the night shift, and when teh Polizei caught up with the car, it was registered to someone who was found tied up and knocked out in his house. I can't think about how life has become so tranquil for me now...

Germany, teh smell of coffee, teh street worker in front of my house at 7 AM drinking his permenator getting ready to start working on a sidewalk they were rebuilding; the Bratwurst, the Curry Wurst, the Snow, shoveling 1000 Sq Ft Ramp so my F-4 could park on it, next to the F-104; the schnitzel; teh gravies, the ice cold perfectly poured Veltin's, my equally Ice COld Asbach Uralt and Coke, teh best pizza ever or the Doner Kebap and Pommes....tehy may not be the same now, but the memory is so ever present in my mind.

My German friends and Family, my second home, a supre great Country on the cusp of disaster at any moment. Yes they were great times, and that country is still an awesome place with promise and problems, but where isnt?
20:11 October 31, 2011 by sullivan1212
Hello in there, oh... I've tried to put a comment in twice, and they disappear... What's going on? Are there still "games" being played At Checkpoint Charlie?
15:38 November 5, 2011 by strahlungsamt
I remember the House on Checkpoint Charlie museum back in the day. How it had all the escapes documented and converted cars and planes that people built to sneak over or under the Wall. Then, you would go outside and hurl abuse at the East German guards in protest. I remember how the last 3 meters in front of the Wall was already East Germany and how the Polizei couldn't arrest you there. Happy days.

Ever since Rainer Hiltebrandt, the founder of the museum, died, his wife took it over and turned it into a shrine for Reagan and the Neocons (I'm surprised I didn't see Obama = Satan). There's only about half the exhibits there used to be and the rest is pure propaganda. The whole atmosphere is gone now. Also, it costs 10 euros to get in now, compared to 3DM back then.
21:57 November 6, 2011 by wenddiver
What exciting times. I was a young College Student who had recieved an Early Commission under Reagan's Combat Arms program. I took my troops to Germany three times for Exercise Reforger, twice with the 5th Infantry Division (MECH). I got to see Germany from the Ring Mount of a .50 Cal. Machine Gun on an M-113 and the passenger seat of a M-151 Gun Jeep.

One Sunday myself and several of my men stopped at a German Church and went to services after washing our hands and face, field gear and all. Everybody was very surprised and nice.

One night we heard some noise in our area and when I went out to investigate found a Czech Army helmet, it sits on my desk at work to this day. We met a lot of Girls, had several traffic accidents, saw lots of history, worked and played hard, posed with a few German Grandfathers who had fought the 5th ID in WWII when we were a lead element of Patton's Third Army.

We were all pretty young and it truelly was a Grand adventure, I feel sorry for the young men who staid home and wouldn't have missed it for the World.
09:29 November 15, 2011 by ford cars
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
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