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  • Karin Gambaracci

The mystery of Checkpoint Charlie

By Marco Pavan

One of the most popular places for tourists in Berlin is definitely Checkpoint Charlie. A place that seems to exude a strong attraction, but nowadays is a bit of a miniature Disneyland. There is practically nothing original about it anymore, nevertheless, tourists still crowd Friedrichstraße in front of the replica of a checkpoint shack and have their pictures taken with young men dressed up as American or Russian soldiers. But why?

Checkpoint Charlie was one of many checkpoints between the various sectors of the city. 'Charlie' is not a name, but rather refers to the military alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was thus the third blockhouse reserved for foreigners in the military system of the four powers. West Germans could not use it and crossed the border at the Friedrichstraße station or the Oberbaumbrücke bridge, for example.

So why did this checkpoint go down in history? For an image. One only has to read a little Didi-Huberman to understand the overwhelming force of the emergence, spread and entrenchment of images in our contemporary world.

By Marco Pavan

I am talking about that one photography of the US and Russian tanks facing each other, for days, right there at Checkpoint Charlie. What had happened? The agreements between the Allies and the Soviet Union stipulated that the soldiers of the four powers could move freely within the city without having to cross any kind of checkpoint. In October 1961, an American general wanted to pass Checkpoint Charlie to go to the theater with his wife, but he was denied by the Russians.

It was a game of strength. The Russians had already tried to put pressure on the Allies several times, as for example in 1948, when they blocked all access and supply routes to West Berlin. In short, the situation escalated and enemy tanks faced each other for days at Checkpoint Charlie.

It was an epoch-making image, because it symbolized the tensions of the entire world, poised between America and Russia. A world afraid of this cold war, which could have broken out any day. A war that would have been truly... atomic.

And so, we can understand today's Checkpoint Charlie. This almost mystical attraction of a place that is now commercial and touristic... but always up to a point. Next to the fake control shack, in fact, thanks to an art project, two photographs have been installed. Looking from the east, one sees an American soldier, little more than a boy. On the other side, a Russian peer. Both uncertain guardians, tense, waiting.

This is the power of images.

By Marco Pavan


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