Book Review: Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie:
The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Iain MacGregor
Copyright 2019 by the author

It’s not really a history of The Wall, or the geopolitical situation in and around Berlin during the nearly three decades of its existence. There are plenty of books covering that, if you are interested. What MacGregor has collected here (and that’s a good term; it’s not a strict and straightforward textual history) is actually more an oral history of the Berlin Wall, from people who were there at the beginning, for key incidents during its “life”, and the ending.

As such, it’s a bit spotty and disjointed at times. MacGregor is from the UK, so most of his accounts are from that nation’s witnesses. He does include a few German accounts (from both sides), but there’s almost nothing from people from the US or France. A minor oversight, to be sure, but it would have been nice to get a broader selection of tales.

One of his more interesting interviewees is Adolf Knackstedt. Born in New York to German immigrants, when WWII broke out his family decided they’d be better off in Germany than in an internment camp*. They managed to make it through the war, but after living for some time under Communist rule in the East, they couldn’t take it anymore. Using their American connections, they were able to relocate to West Berlin – where Adolf was summarily drafted for the Korean War. When his unusual background came to light, he was quickly picked up for military intelligence and sent back to West Berlin, where he’d interrogate refugees coming over from the East. As such, he was on duty that night in August 1961 when East Berlin rolled out the barbed wire.

If it does drag at times, that might actually be a good thing. If things got too exciting, that would have been because we got uncomfortably close to World War III. The only real “crisis” happened in the early weeks of the Wall – when it was still not much more than a glorified fence – and a Western diplomat trying to visit East Berlin to go to the opera resulted in an incident that saw tanks facing each other across the line before cooler heads prevailed and the paperwork got straightened out.

The opening section is matched by his coverage of the “Fall” of the Wall, on the night of November 9-10, 1989. An East German government official bungled a press conference – they were used to simply reading official government bulletins and not facing people who would ask questions – and let slip that actually, yes, they were going to end all travel restrictions from East Berlin to West Berlin.

The result? A big party, as people mobbed the crossings and climbed up onto those parts of the wall that weren’t topped by pipes. Fortunately, there was no violence – it seemed like that among all the security forces, there was one huge sigh of relief that they didn’t have to worry anymore. There wasn’t a “flood” of refugees streaming across either; it turned out that most of the people went across to West Berlin to visit friends and relatives or do some shopping before they went back home. Why not return home? Reunification was surely just a few months away, and now that you could pop over the border anytime you wanted to….

It is possible to make the point that the Wall – once it was fully up and all the regulations about access were finalized – actually helped defuse tensions in Europe. The finality of a huge concrete, steel, and wire barrier made it clear that there would be no talk of reunification; the status quo would prevail. Diplomatic attention could be focused elsewhere. The Cold War would move on to different battlegrounds.

Oh, and some cocktail party trivia for you. “Checkpoint Charlie” wasn’t the only border crossing in Berlin; it was just the only one of the dozen or so that non-Germans could use. “Checkpoint Bravo” was the equivalent border crossing between West Berlin and East Germany proper, and “Checkpoint Alpha” served the same function between West and East Germany.

* Bet you thought it was only Japanese who got interned. Nope, Germans (and even Italians) whose loyalties were “suspect” got relocated as well.

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