If you travel to Berlin, by all means visit Checkpoint Charlie, as much to commune with ghosts as to see what remains there (including a museum founded by a human rights activist).
Way back in the late fall of 1961, I was excited to make my first visit to Berlin, from which my mom’s family had emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century. This was the city on behalf of which my country had orchestrated a post-WWII airlift when access roads were blockaded at the behest of the USSR, once our ally against Hitler, then our Cold War enemy.
Like one of my college roommates, who was engaged to marry a young woman from West Berlin, I was on a grand tour of Europe, as recipient of a “travelling fellowship” given by our college. Free to gallivant around the continent, we felt invulnerable, the way many guys in their early 20s did. We flew into Tempelhof, where more than 200,000 flights had unloaded coal, food, and other necessities, while we lads were still in grade school.
Staying with the young woman’s family (she was in the U.S. as an exchange student), we witnessed a torchlight parade about the very recently built wall that blocked off East Berlin. One placard in the parade denounced what Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin, had called “Schandmauer und Stacheldraht,” the wall of shame and barbed wire. I had previously seen torchlight in Berlin only in old newsreels from the Nazi era.
There was a way through the wall, called Checkpoint Charlie. Soviet and U.S. tanks had faced off there in October 1961 before withdrawing. But we had at least a day of wondering whether this was the prelude to war.
Shortly after the torchlight parade, my friend and I decided to make a peaceful visit to East Berlin. Walking over the line, we slid our U.S. passports through a slot in a blank office wall to go into the East Sector and, after a nervous pause, we were admitted. Our first destination was the spot where Hitler’s body had been burned in 1945, outside his bunker, as Soviet troops fought their way into the city.
Then we found something called the Karl Marx Buchhandlung and entered the shop to scan the shelves. I hadn’t known that Josef Stalin had composed an entire book on linguistics (or at least, in the way of some leaders, had signed a ghost-written book). We walked through Alexanderplatz, after which a 1929 novel had been named, a novel as famous in German as Joyce is here but full of slang that makes it almost untranslatable. We delivered heart medicine to East Berlin relatives of my friend’s fiancée and were served tea with a plate of scarce pastries.
The next day, back on the other side, I wandered onto Bernauerstrasse, where a butcher shop on the boundary had been bricked up as part of the wall. Alone, I was starting into a fatuous reverie about how the wall, so hastily thrown up, had unGermanic curves as it slurped over the curbs, when I glanced up and saw, on the other side, an East Berlin border guard with a machine gun watching me.
In the Cold War, it was essential for Americans to identify with the occupants of that city, encapsulated by the East German state but, as the old capitol, divided into sectors ruled by the four main victors in the war against Hitler. That is why our hero of the time, JFK, later flew to the city and declared before a wildly enthusiastic crowd, “Ich bin [I am] ein Berliner.” In the local argot, ein Berliner was a kind of pastry, but as the U.S. President pounded his right fist on the podium the crowd understood his meaning.
At Checkpoint Charlie these are some of the ghosts that dwell around a wall that no longer exists. In October 1989, shortly before the original Cold War ended, the wall was opened after standing for 28 years. It was then torn down, with slabs sold as memorials, many slabs covered on one side with graffiti.
For other adventures during my year traveling around Europe, see articles set in Venice (tea with Peggy Guggenheim), London (the British poet and painter David Jones), and Edinburgh and Amsterdam (the social fiction of the “invisible hand”). Of these encounters, only Berlin offered an encounter with the Iron Curtain, through a version of which we were able to pass at the checkpoint.