Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Scribner, 2019, 352 pp., $30
At the beginning of his classic spy novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré sets the scene by mapping the lay of the land. We are in Berlin at the height of the Cold War and an East German double agent is about to defect. The obstacle in his way is the seemingly insurmountable Wall, “a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp.” Not that the surrounding landscape is any prettier: “East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.”
Le Carré’s game-changing third book was published in 1963, two years after construction began on the Berlin Wall. Many a novel, thriller or otherwise, has played out in this “half-world of ruin” and in the shadow of that infamous edifice which defined a regime, divided a city, and curtailed the freedom of its people. And far more nonfiction works have been written about the subject—so many, indeed, that one might suspect any new publication would constitute a redundant rehash of what has gone before.
With Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, British author Iain MacGregor shows that this need not be the case. His narrative is neither a catch-all history nor an in-depth analysis. Rather, it comprises a collection of stories told by a wide range of ordinary people who lived, worked, and served in both East and West Berlin and their hinterland. Many interviewees give their versions of events for the first time. Some were previously silenced from speaking out. Others make up a chorus of unsung heroes. The majority came in contact with the Wall’s most well-known gateway in some shape or form. All are worth listening to and help enlarge our understanding of day-to-day life in a fractured city during a period of high tension and higher stakes.
MacGregor’s early chapters trace the postwar clashes between the authorities in Germany’s Allied and Soviet zones. Hostilities come to a head when the Soviets mount a blockade of the German capital in 1948. Instead of capitulating and withdrawing from the city the Allies respond with the Berlin Airlift, delivering more than 2.4 million tons of aid in more than 200,000 sorties over 300 days. In the early 1950s Stalin clamps down again by officially drawing up a demarcation line between East and West Germany, from the Baltic Sea to the border with Czechoslovakia. It is not so much an iron curtain as a porous frontier through which flow a steady stream of refugees seeking sanctuary in the West. German Democratic Republic leader Walter Ulbricht declares that “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!” (“No one has the intention to erect a wall!”). But this turns out to be a hollow assurance. In the early hours of Sunday August 13, 1961, the East German military begin sealing off the east sector to West Berlin and the zonal border to the Federal Republic of Germany with barbed-wire barriers. “The Wire” will be the first incarnation of the Wall.
MacGregor continues by sketching the origins and the functions of Checkpoint Charlie, which was quickly designated the major crossing point for Allied personnel, foreigners, and diplomats in the center of Berlin. He then emphasizes that it was also far more than this: “Checkpoint Charlie physically may have been a small wooden hut, but it stood as a beacon of hope to the east – for freedom.” There follow recollections from reporters who worked on both sides of the Wall and who traversed through the checkpoint on a daily basis (“never once did I see a GDR guard smiling”). Others cross less openly. We hear of the exploits of Detachment “A,” an elite Special Forces unit tasked with penetrating East German territory, sabotaging key installations and, if possible, eliminating enemies. The various tales of derring-do come prefaced with a sobering statistic: the life expectancy of a Det A member on a “suicide mission” was figured at just 72 hours.
As Berlin becomes “a city of spies,” smaller-scale covert operations are carried out on a daily basis. MacGregor explains how the “liaison officer” involved in diplomatic duties was all too often a false front for a sanctioned secret agent. Fact feels very much like fiction: the life of an Allied agent is made up of “high-speed off-road car chases, furtive photography, ingenious concealment, sangfroid in the face of the enemy, and a looming risk of injury or death.” MacGregor charts Allied intelligence triumphs concerning East German military might, many of which allay fears of the Cold War heating up and bubbling over.
That it never does is a miracle. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard not to be shocked by MacGregor’s accounts of the ruthlessly—and at times recklessly—dangerous game both sides played, and just how close we came to the brink of another all-out war or nuclear catastrophe.
By 1989 the GDR teetered on a different kind of brink. No longer just morally bankrupt, East Germany faced the prospect of financial ruin. MacGregor reveals how on November 9 Günther Schabowski, the press spokesman for the East German Communist Party politburo, “inadvertently fired the starting gun” at what should have been an insignificant press conference. Misreading his instructions, Schabowski announced to the assembled journalists and television crews that citizens of the GDR were free to leave the country through any of the border crossings “immediately, without delay.” As the news spread, stunned disbelief gave way to waves of hysteria and tears of joy. For news networks, the opening and subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall was “their D-Day, JFK assassination, moon landing, and death of Elvis all rolled into one.” For Berliners who lived on either side of the divide it was the end of an era, the start of a new chapter, and a huge first step in a crucial healing process.
MacGregor’s book is thoroughly researched and routinely fascinating. It loses its way on the few occasions that it strays from its remit and attempts to build a larger geopolitical picture by encompassing the thoughts and deeds of world leaders. Certain snippets are of interest (JFK confiding to his younger brother Robert that negotiating with Khrushchev was “like dealing with Dad. All give and no take!”) but a whole chapter devoted to the President’s crowd-pleasing visit to West Berlin in 1963 offers no fresh insight and sees MacGregor panning out rather than homing in, and prioritizing the general over the particular.
The book is at its most absorbing when MacGregor’s Berlin-based interviewees share their varied first-hand experiences. Western journalists relay how they went about their business fully aware that they were being tailed, tapped and photographed by the Stasi, East Germany’s sinister secret police. One reporter declares that surveillance was more widespread. “You lived with secret services. We had the Reuters offices in West Berlin bugged not just by the Stasi, but by the French, the Americans, and the British. I don’t know whether the West Germans did it as well – probably.” A former American soldier explains how all personnel believed they were just a “trip wire”—there not so much to defend Berlin as to be the first ones the Warsaw Pact nations would take if war broke out. Although they regularly made light of their dilemma, they were also forced to discuss an emergency exit strategy: “Our idea for escaping the city was to change uniforms with the street cleaners […] It sounds ridiculous now and it sounded ridiculous then, but that was probably the only thing we felt we could do.”
But it is the real-life escape stories over the Wall that truly command our attention. People throw their belongings out of high windows then leap into blankets, eiderdowns, or nothing at all. A father and his young daughter take a colossal risk (“Prison for him and a state-run home for Peggy”) by hitching a ride in the trunk of a car belonging to a U.S. Army sergeant. One great escape is recounted over the course of a chapter with verve, pace and excitement: instead of clambering over the Wall or smuggling themselves through it, three East German men spent three arduous and suspenseful weeks tunneling under it using only a small shovel, a knife and a tin box to remove the earth.
Not all the fugitives—or in GDR parlance, “border violators”—were civilians. MacGregor informs us that in the early days, the Stasi compiled a report alerting—and alarming—the regime about the defection of 85 Volkspolizei (People’s Police) officers, border guards, and militiamen. And of course not all the fugitives made it out alive. At least 140 people were killed or died at the Wall in connection with the East German border authorities. MacGregor lists some of the ill-fated escape attempts. One particularly tragic case was also one of the earliest. In August 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter tried his luck but was shot in the back and legs. Volkspolizei and American GIs at Checkpoint Charlie looked on as he bled to death in No Man’s Land. Thousands of West Berliners stood on car roofs and watched with despair and horror. West German police made the noble yet futile gesture of scaling the Wall and throwing a first-aid kit to the victim. He died in vain, for instead of relaxing their iron grip, Khrushchev and Ulbricht tightened it, issuing orders to shoot to kill any individuals attempting to escape the GDR fortress.
Harrowing stories such as these alternate with the gripping accounts of standoffs, skirmishes and secret missions. MacGregor also ensures we remain engrossed by the less sensational testimonies about everyday life in the GDR. In the final analysis it is anything Wall-related that keeps us immersed and turning the pages, so much so that the book’s title starts to feel like a misnomer: the Wall is the dominant force throughout and therefore deserves top billing. It attracts and repels in equal measure. We follow its hideous construction, from barbed-wired barrier cutting Berlin in two (even bisecting a cemetery and separating guests at a wedding) to 11-foot-high, 79-mile-long “anti-fascist protective wall,” complete with Todesstreifen (“Death Strip”), watchtowers, searchlights, minefields, bunkers, anti-vehicle traps, and machine-gun-toting guards. East German police block people with cameras as it is being erected, shouting—somewhat comically—“This is Free Berlin, taking photographs is not allowed here!” One old woman learns the hard way when she asks a transport police officer when the next train for West Berlin is due. “That is all over now, Granny,” he sneers. “You are all sitting in a mousetrap now.” Much needed relief comes in the book’s last section as those who witnessed the opening of the Wall relive their blissfully happy memories of history in the making. Ecstatic crowds climb atop the Wall, chip away at it, and sing and dance on it to a much-repeated yet strangely inappropriate song: Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”
The publication of MacGregor’s book chimes with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The physical barrier may have been dismantled but old habits die hard and many Germans still talk about the Mauer im Kopf, or “wall in the head.” MacGregor makes no mention of this sensibility, nor does he note the friction that exists between some Wessies and Ossies. These omissions aside, it is hard to fault this oral history. MacGregor has produced not just a worthy new addition to Cold War literature but a vital one.