Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rough Guides writer John Malathronas remembers his experience crossing Checkpoint Charlie.
It was in August 1989 when I presented myself to Checkpoint Charlie – a bit scared, very curious, but mostly excited – and crossed to what was then East Berlin.
Life in West Berlin, an island surrounded by East Germany, was what it must have been like in medieval castles during a siege. The claustrophobia started from the approach: I took the train from Hannover to Bahnhof Zoo, then the West Berlin terminus. Once through the border, it slowed down to a crawl: the track was badly maintained and the train could not attain full speed. As I looked out of the window, funny little Trabant cars raced in the streets and storks were nesting on wooden pylons along the route. There were no stops.
The first thing I did was rush to see the Wall which, at twelve feet, seemed terribly insignificant. I was surprised how close I could get to it. In fact, from the West you could touch it – in order to spray it with graffiti, it seems. But when I climbed on the lookout points I saw a no-man’s-land with barbed wire, foxholes and guns peeking from bunkers aiming at me.
Photograph by John Malathronas
So, at Checkpoint Charlie I was slightly nervous as I walked interminably through zigzag corridors, overlooked by grim-faced guards. After I crossed, I entered a different world. Posters, posters, and more posters; Lenin and Marx statues; flags and garlands for the 40th anniversary of the GDR; hammers and sickles. Yes, there was advertising beyond the Iron Curtain, but not for consumer products.
I only had a one-day visa that expired at midnight and, as a condition, I had to change 25DM at the rate of 1:1 with East German Deutschmarks that were worthless outside the country. But hey, 25DM was not enough to buy you lunch in West Berlin. Surely, it couldn’t be enough for a whole day in the East? How wrong I was…
I cautiously scrimped on my money by going to a fast food joint on Alexanderplatz that proved an excellent introduction to a centrally planned economy. I paid in advance, got three tokens and stood in three different queues: one for the burger, one for the chips and one for the cola. Some smartass bureaucrat had calculated that this was the optimum way to distribute fast food. The convenience of consumers, of course, was never part of the equation.
Photograph by Hans Peter Merten
I walked over to the start of Unter den Linden to see the Wall from the other side, but you couldn’t get to within 200 metres of it: a small white barrier – totally graffiti-free – demarcated the limit of approach. I wondered if the East Germans even knew about the existence of those bunkers and foxholes. They couldn’t see them, after all.
East Berlin had the top museums in Germany and it was there that I spent much of my time. The “museum island” in today’s Berlin lay entirely in the East and its Pergamon Museum is still one of Europe’s best as it was then. As the evening fell, I ventured further in and ended up in Treptower Park where the Soviet memorial still looms large. In 1987 Barclay James Harvest played the first open-air rock concert in the GDR there, but on that day I was alone.
I had a quick sit-down bite at a café, because I couldn’t find a restaurant that would let me in; with my Levis and Raybans I exuded Westernness and the risk of ideological infection must have seemed too great a risk. I still had fifteen Deutschmarks to spend, and it was 9pm already. Then it hit me.
Photograph by Jacob Bøtter
I walked towards Friedrichstrasse – along with Checkpoint Charlie the only exit point to the West – found a bar, got in and did what I’ve always wanted to do. I went to the barman and said: “I’m going to buy everyone a drink.”
I speak German, which is just as well, because everyone’s tongue became loose. My West German friends were all called Andy, Tim or Mike, but here I met people called Siegfried, Ewald and Heinrich. Yes, everyone was watching West German TV. Everyone was dreaming of Coca Cola and blue jeans. Everyone wanted to know about me and my life. And no one supported the regime.
I left at 11:30pm and reached the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint drunk but Deutschmark-free. I crossed with fifteen minutes to spare, drawing suspicious looks from passport controllers. I took the S-Bahn, passed above the Wall and was immediately blinded by the light of a thousand neon signs. I was back home.