on August 31, 2011
In a city that is rich with history, both good and bad, Checkpoint Charlie and the museum that sits next to it is possibly one of the most interesting and one of the most prominent reminders of Germany's chequered past. The Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie is located next to the old allied crossing point for the Berlin wall and houses an exhibition of the history of the wall.Briefly, the Berlin wall was built by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1961 to officially prevent 'the fascist elements conspiring to prevent the will of the people by building a socialist state in Eastern Germany'. In reality is was designed to prevent the mass emigration of Germans trying to escape the communist Eastern bloc. The tearing down of the wall wasn't quite the immediate process that people might remember from news reports as it happened in stages (first more checkpoints were opened, then people could apply for closely monitored visas that allowed them to visit the West), but it is widely thought that the Berlin wall fell on 9th November 1989 when many Eastern Germans came with sledge hammers and the like to help bring it down.Nothing remains in situ of the wall itself and the checkpoint hut is actually a replica of the one that stood there. Nevertheless, it makes for a good photo opportunity. In fact, funnily enough, the best place to take a photograph of the hut and the museum is from the balcony of the McDonalds restaurant across the road, as we discovered when we went to use the facilities there. Also, you'll probably want a photograph of the sign that declares that you are leaving the American sector in four different languages. Don't worry if you can't get a photograph though, because you'll find that the souvenir shops in the area have a million and one things with it on.On to the museum itself then. Well it isn't cheap to get in - full price tickets are over twelve Euros per person and there are only small reductions in that prices for juniors and groups. It isn't that big either, so you may feel a little short changed. However there is information a plenty - some of it much more interesting than the other bits. By far the most popular and the most interesting (in my opinion) were the details of attempts to cross the Berlin wall illegally. There are good descriptions of the various methods used as well as replica cars and makeshift balloons that were adapted to suit the purpose of smuggling people through. The information is presented on the walls in the style of newspaper cuttings, which was quite novel I thought. Like I said, there is an awful lot of information there, almost as if the museum wants to honour every single person who died (or succeeded) in their attempt. It is a lot to take in, but I found that I just read articles here and there rather than looking at every single one. Despite the fact that the museum was ridiculously busy (and it is like that all year round by all accounts), I felt like I disappeared into the stories of the people presented and that the crowds didn't bother me. Some of the stories of attempted escape are quite frankly horrifying and I spent large parts of the museum with the hairs on my neck standing on end. I think the most frightening thing for me was that it wasn't that long ago; it's not like usual history when you are thinking about things that happened so long ago that it's hard to imagine - this was in our life time. In fact many of the people in Berlin would remember what it was like to have their city torn in two by a wall that separated families and friends. It's pretty scary really and to that end, the museum is incredibly thought provoking.There is a whole room upstairs dedicated to Ronald Reagan who was considered to be something of a hero after his speech from the Brandenburg Gate where he famously challenged Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary of the communist party) to 'tear down this wall'. There is also a timeline that compares what was happening in Germany to what was happening in the wider world in popular culture, politics and so on, once again impressing upon you just how recently this all took place.Something I thought was particularly good about the museum was the fact that it was split into two. The downstairs part told of the despair and the escape attempts. Here the walls are yellowing and everything is packed in closely together. Upstairs tells the story of how the wall fell and the general feeling of elation that the country was once again united. The rooms here are much lighter with huge windows. I don't know whether this was done purposely, but if not they should claim it was because it really does change your emotions throughout the visit according to what you perhaps should feel.Overall I would recommend the Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie. It is a fascinating place if a little expensive and a little claustrophobic in places, but it tells an important story and is an educational and emotive exhibition.
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