Checkpoint Charlie has a name and fame that stretches out way beyond Berlin and even Germany. But did you know that it was called Charlie because there was also a Checkpoint Alpha and a Checkpoint Bravo? I’m taking you on a journey across the borders between the former West and East Germany – please follow me and don’t forget to bring your passport.
It occurred to me as I was driving from the Netherlands to Berlin the other week: it must have been a big and incredibly time consuming challenge to do the exact same thing around 30 years ago. Let’s say it was the same August day in 1986 (even then it would be another 9 months before I was born) and I was also traveling with two friends, coming from Utrecht and going to the Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin. We would have no problem crossing the border between the Netherlands and West Germany, since border controls between those two countries had been abolished the previous year. The only problem was, that although we would just be visiting West Berlin, we’d need to cross the GDR. And that would not be easy.
Checkpoint Alpha: from West to East
The difficulties would start around 300 km ahead of us, in Marienborn. This was Checkpoint Alpha, the first boundary between West and East that we would have to cross. The remains of the former border crossing can still be seen today, yet now you can cross it at a convenient speed of 140 km p/h. 30 years ago, we would have been stuck in a traffic jam long before we reached the checkpoint. After exercising the necessary amount of patience – people remember waiting for hours until they reached customs – the GDR border police would need our passports and vehicle registration forms. Stepping out of the car was normally not necessary, except when the police had a reason for suspicion.
If everything looked fine, we’d receive a transit visa: it would allow us to enter the GDR, but only for a limited amount of time. Leaving the highway or ‘transit road’ was strictly prohibited, except for short stops at gas stations or road side restaurants. Talking to citizens of the GDR was also verboten – although a short chat with the employees of gas stations was allowed. When leaving the GDR to enter West Berlin, the East German border police would check at what time we entered their country. If we had been on their territory any longer than usually necessary, we would have to leave the car and explain ourselves. Yet the secret police would have made sure that nothing forbidden had happened in between, as they were patrolling the highway in unmarked vehicles. If you’d exceed the 100 km p/h, they would fine you straight away.
Checkpoint Alpha now. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans
Checkpoint Bravo: from East to West
As Berlin began to appear on the horizon ahead of us, back in 1986, we’d have another hurdle before us. Where the land of Brandenburg (formerly GDR) ends, the city of (formerly West) Berlin starts – so 160 km after Checkpoint Alpha there was another border. In 1970 around 2.5 million cars would pass this border daily and they all had to be checked. We could expect a few more hours of waiting. To this day there is still quite a lot left of Checkpoint Bravo, which I visited few years ago. Most remarkable is the cylindrical red-yellow-blue restaurant, which opened in the start of the 1970s and closed around 20 years later when no-one was stopping there anymore. Back in 1986, even though we’d have left Utrecht fairly early, it would have been evening by now. But we were only in West Berlin and our final goal was the Karl-Marx-Allee, so another border was waiting for us.
Checkpoint Bravo now. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans
Checkpoint Charlie: from West to East
What West Berlin looked like back then is a whole other story, but we would get a pretty good idea by just passing through it on the way to our final checkpoint. We would drive through the green southern parts of Berlin, now the popular neighbourhoods Neukölln and Kreuzberg – back then it would be grey and have a lot of poverty. Checkpoint Charlie might be a tourist attraction now, but taking pictures back then was very much forbidden. It looked pretty much the same as it does now, but there was enough place for long queues of cars. Waiting could also take a long time over here.
We’d be prepared for the border controls, because entering the GDR – except for the transit road – was only allowed with a previously requested “Berechtigunsschein”. This was a warrant that just one travel agency in the Netherlands could arrange for you, on the condition you provided all the requested documents and then waited around 6 weeks for it. Without this warrant, a visit to the GDR was impossible since you needed it to receive your visa.
After checking our car for illegal contraband (which could be western magazines, books, records, stockings…) there was another important step to follow before we could enter the GDR: exchanging West German money for East German money. Not only because we would need some cash, but also because we would not be able enter the GDR without having at least 25 DM. The exchange rate was 1:1, even though the actual rate was 1:5. By the time we’d enter the country it would probably be dark already.
Finally: the Karl-Marx-Allee
From Checkpoint Charlie it was only a short ride to the Karl-Marx-Allee. Last week we could just park the car behind my house, drop our bags off and rent some bikes to discover the city together. We cycled from the Warschauer Straße (former East) to the Admiralbrücke (former West) and finally back to Karl-Marx-Allee (former East). The only thing reminding us of the former border was the brick lines in the road – if we had paid attention to that.
Would we have taken our trip in 1986, we would have had to stay at the only hotel at the Karl-Marx-Allee: Hotel Berolina. Want to know more about the hotel? Have a look at the blog post in which I wrote about it. The hotel disappeared, but the Karl-Marx-Allee would have looked as glorious as it does now and the cinema Kino International and Café Moskau would also be there. A lovely place to spend our days in East Berlin, but my friends and myself would probably just be very happy to see our beds after having crossed four borders in one day. East Berlin and the GDR could wait one more night.