While there are hundreds of military museums around the world, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, or the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, is one of few memorials that expressly document the tyrannical force of dictatorship — in this instance, the Communist cruelty that operated with an iron fist thanks to a methodically conceived Iron Curtain. The museum ranks with far wealthier museums that document the horrors of fascist tyranny, such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The story of the Berlin Wall begins on Saturday, Aug. 12, 1961, a seemingly lackluster summer day in Berlin. Residents from the eastern and western parts of town traveled to their favorite summer spots, to luxuriate in the last summer rays of the sun. Little did they know that something strange was unfolding, and by the end of the night, casually traversing to the opposite end of the city would become impossible. It would be a day Berliners would never be able to forget, and a day Rainer Hildebrandt’s Checkpoint Charlie Museum will try to make sure the world too never forgets.
The same night, leading Politburo members of the German Democratic Republic (Soviet-controlled East Germany) were partaking in an awkward “get-together” at the government guesthouse in Döllnsee. While it was not uncommon for the Politburo to have conferences in Döllnsee, there was something different about this particular gathering. The housekeeping staff was ordered to spend the night, as were the guests. The uneasy small talk and forced socialization — as some noticed, under the supervision of military men — lasted for what seemed like hours, until around 10 p.m., when the decision to close the sector borders between East and West Berlin was presented as a fait accompli. Just a few days earlier, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had given the Politburo permission to build a wall to stop East Berliners from moving to the western sector. The explanation? This migration was undermining the GDR’s credibility and workforce. By midnight, more than 30,000 East German troops had left their garrisons to surround the entire West Berlin border.
When news of the blockade spread throughout Berlin the next morning, people were unsure how to react. It had become increasingly difficult to cross Berlin without being harassed for identification and paperwork by the Soviet forces and their accomplices in the East Berlin security forces.
The “American Sector” (West Berlin) was a small island of Western freedom inside the GDR, and the exodus to this zone had begun well before the border was closed. In the twelve years since pro-Soviet Communists had taken over East Germany, more than 2.5 million people voluntarily moved to the West — of which 144,000 left in 1959, 199,000 in 1960 and 207,000 in the first seven months of 1961 alone. Germans yearned for freedom and were keen to get out of the Communist sector. But rather than address the root causes of the exodus (dictatorial oppression), the Soviets decided they had the right to keep what East German Stalinist Walter Ubricht called “their” labor force from leaving, so erecting a wall was seen as the most efficient social-engineering solution.
Overnight, barbed wire festooned the perimeter, and suddenly it was official: Millions of Germans were trapped in East Berlin — unable to leave the enormous prison that had become East Germany. No exit. It was not enough for the Politburo that most East Berliners were silent about this sudden change — they needed to be certain they had the citizenry’s full support. To do this, they rounded up people they considered dissenters, including not only those who overtly criticized the government but also people who had studied or worked in the West — the “border-crossers.” And they were sent to prisons run by the GDR state police, the infamous Stasi, and to “labor-exchange factories,” a euphemism for a term many historians continue to deny: slave-labor factories.
According to official numbers, 28 people managed to escape East Berlin on the first day, and 41 on the second day. That night, shots were fired at a couple swimming the Teltow Canal. Although there were no casualities, it was an ominous harbinger of what was to come. East Germans who lived on Bernauer Straße — the street that lined the Berlin Wall — were throwing themselves out the windows of their apartments to cross into the West. Even after all their windows were sealed with bricks, some attempted to jump off their roofs. West Berlin sympathizers and firefighters would stand on the Western side of the border with sheets to break the escapees’ falls, but, between the East German police that came after them and the sheer impossibility of surviving such a fall, many simply plummeted to their deaths — preferring death to life without freedom.
One year later, Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, was shot by a border guard and left to bleed to death while his chilling calls for help could be heard on both sides of the wall. Fechter became the first victim of the Berlin Wall guards. When the GDR realized that the border-control guards, many of them young boys around the same age as the West Berlin demonstrators on the other side of the wall, were not shooting to kill, some sections of the wall were lined with motion-detecting automatic machine guns. In the next 28 years, 191 more people lost their lives in attempts to cross to West Berlin.
While the Cold War may seem far removed from 2011, the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, it is important to reexamine the devastation caused by Communist regimes and the historical framework in which something so atrocious as the splitting of a city was allowed to happen. Further, it should serve as a powerful reminder that a country that does not allow you to leave is, by every conceivable standard, a totalitarian state (today this is best exemplified by Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam, where having a passport is not a right of the common person, but rather a privilege the government reserves for a very small number of propaganda ambassadors and diplomats). German historian and anti-Communist activist Rainer Hildebrandt understood the necessity of this better than anyone else. On Oct. 19, 1962, a mere 13 months after the barrier was formed, Hildebrandt hosted his first exhibition in a modest two-room apartment on the infamous Bernauer Straße.
“We suggested that tourists be thankful to those border guards who do not shoot to kill: ‘See through the uniform!’ we would tell them. Some guards saw that we understood, and after their own escapes came to work with us,” wrote Hildebrandt. “The large number of visitors encouraged us to look for new premises.” A year later, Hildebrandt opened Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, also known as Mauermuseum, a collection of photos, stories, and miscellaneous items documenting the damage the wall had caused. In a stirring testimony to the irrepressible spirit of liberty, the museum today documents the daring successful escapes — most of them involving ordinary people with nothing at their disposal except courage and creativity. Home-made submarines, military disguises, secret compartments in cars, home-made airplanes, human catapults, identity theft — the museum contains information and objects detailing the most breathtaking of escapes.
Located next to the prominent border-crossing checkpoint from which it took its name, the museum also became a sort of safe haven for escapees and a place from which escape-helpers monitored movement at the borders. Hildebrandt’s dogged fervor for this cause culminated in the creation of an exhaustive repository of GDR memorabilia that to this day remains open every day of the year at its original location near Checkpoint Charlie. The museum also houses the Czechoslovakian Charter 77 typewriter, the death mask of Elena Bonner’s partner Andrei Sakharov, and Mahatma Gandhi’s diary and sandals, making it certainly one of the first museums of international nonviolent protest.
Hildebrandt’s project, marked by his indefatigable attention to detail, has served as a far more captivating reminder of Soviet cruelty than anything that can be found in the United States or Western Europe.
The best effort in the United States to document Communist history was the formation of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. This non-profit was established by an Act of Congress and is chaired by the American equivalent of Rainer Hildebrandt, Lee Edwards, who originally intended to raise $100 million for a memorial and museum with plans to create an exhibit that included statues of notable freedom fighters and a recreation of the gulag, in addition to artifacts of Communist regimes. Regrettably, owing to an unforgivable lack of interest by philanthropists and institutional donors in the United States, the museum project had to be put on hold.
Undefeated, Edwards soldiered on and on June 12, 2007, the 20th anniversary of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, a monument was unveiled on Capitol Hill to memorialize the victims of Communism. It is a sculpture of the “Goddess of Democracy,” a bronze replica of the statue constructed by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (prior to their being murdered by the government that continues to rule China). I was there with Lee Edwards that day in June, and what made it particularly moving was that it was the late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, and the only American congressman to have survived the horror of Nazi Germany, who drove the point home about Soviet Communism. Edwards has since focused his efforts on education, founding an online Global Museum of Communism, with an extensive trove of Communist-era remnants, interactive graphics and texts, as well as evidence of Communist atrocities. Arguably, an online museum can reach more people than an actual edifice. Edwards’s foundation is now preparing a curriculum on the history of Communism for use in American secondary education.
November 9, 1989, was the day that Politburo official Gunter Schabowski announced that travel “abroad” from East Germany would be allowed. Immediately, Berliners from the East and West stormed the Berlin Wall, ignoring the caveat that permission still had to be granted for travel. For a few hours, the confused border control attempted to hold the crowd back but was soon overwhelmed by the crowd’s euphoria and began allowing people to pass through freely for the first time in 28 years. This is when the history books tell us that the Berlin Wall “fell.” No, dear reader, it was torn down, mostly by young people with hammers, pickaxes, tractors, pulleys, and a strength of spirit that was made stronger over the years by the peaceful actions of those who stood against, documented, and bore witness to the cruelty and inhumanity of the Communist tyranny.
Recognition and attention should be paid to men like Hildebrandt whose life’s work has affected millions yet who seldom get the recognition they so richly deserve. Tonight in New York City, the Atlas Foundation, a global public-policy think tank focused on “advancing the cause of liberty,” will host a dinner to commemorate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Let’s hope someone raises a glass to Hildebrandt’s work. Meanwhile, at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the current curator, Alexandra Hildebrandt, has wasted no time carrying forward her husband’s struggle beyond Berlin: On November 15, the museum will unveil the “Sergei Magnitsky Exhibition.” To be opened by the German justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the exhibit will detail the life and ghastly death of 39-year-old Sergei Magnitsky, tortured to death by Vladimir Putin’s government for blowing the whistle on corruption in modern Russia. The Magnitsky case is a key element in any discussion of human rights in Russia and the exhibit is well worth a visit. The museum previously had an exhibit about the continued imprisonment of Russia’s most egregious political prisoner case in post-Soviet Russia: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another Putin adversary.
Hildebrandt well understands that in places such as Russia, North Korea, Syria, China, Cuba, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and too many African countries to list here, entire peoples are still besieged within their nations by oppressive governments. Lucky for them, there still exists a piece of “the American Sector” in Berlin at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where they will find allies in the struggle for liberty.
— Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.