Checkpoint Charlie, the world-famous border crossing between East and West Berlin until German unification in 1990, has deteriorated into a tacky tourist trap unworthy of its historical significance as a symbol of the Cold War, say tourists and local politicians.
The place where American and Soviet tanks staged a six-day standoff in October 1961 is lined with snack bars -- one called "Snackpoint Charlie" -- and souvenir shops. A replica wooden guard hut surrounded by sandbags stands on a traffic island in the street and three men dressed as a American, Russian and French soldier charge €1 to pose with tourists.
The area looks run down and is congested with tour buses. Roadside stalls sell pristine-looking vintage East German flags, Soviet military style fur hats, Russian Matryoshka dolls and chunky Russian watches.
Tourists stare at the iconic signpost that says "You Are Leaving the American Sector" and crowd around the hut to take pictures.
"It's totally tacky, you'd think the government would do something about it," Dennis O'Connell, an American tourist standing at the checkpoint, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I'm disappointed. This place has too much historical significance to be treated like this."
"A lot of people died trying to get over the Berlin Wall and this doesn't really pay tribute to them," said O'Connell, who was on his first visit to Berlin. "The museum is pretty amateurish too."
Former US Army Colonel Verner Pike, who used to be a commander at Checkpoint Charlie, has written a letter to the city of Berlin complaining about the fake soldiers as an "unacceptable spectacle" that is inappropriate for the location and its historical importance, the tabloid Bild newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Checkpoint Charlie was the only place in the world where the armies of the US and the Soviet Union confronted each other directly, gun barrel to gun barrel, during the Cold War.
It was set up in August 1961 after construction of the Berlin Wall began, and its use as a thoroughfare was confined to Western military personnel and diplomats, certain West and East German officials and non-German citizens. Berliners with the necessary permits had to use other crossing points.
Kevin Sullivan, a tourist from Britain, said: "There are more shops here than when I last came four years ago. It was more impressive then."
Another British tourist said: "The American burger bars jump out at you around here. It looks a mess."
It was just a few meters from here that Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, was shot by East German guards as he climbed the Wall in August 1962. He fell to the ground on the eastern side and was left to bleed to death in no-man's land as he cried for help.
Crossing to East Berlin through the checkpoint could be a drawn-out affair. Officious guards on the eastern side would spend an inordinately long amount of time scrutinizing one's passport and checking bags and wallets before releasing visitors into the gray streets of East Berlin for a few hours.
Rainer Klemke, the Berlin city official in charge of managing public memorial sites, criticized the fake soldiers now charging tourists for photos at the site.
"It's historically false to have a Russian soldier standing in front of the guard hut on the western side," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Besides the soldier isn't even wearing a proper Soviet army uniform, it's a Russian one. And they shouldn't be accosting tourists to demand money from them."
Klemke said the guard hut, located in the middle of the busy street, was a hazard because tourists obstruct traffic as they mill around it to take photos. The city was considering taking legal action to ban the soldiers from the site, he said.
Still No Plan in Sight
Opposite the checkpoint on either side of the street are two large empty plots of land surrounded by a fence lined with information placards about the site and the history of the Berlin Wall -- a temporary open-air exhibition put up by the city.
Even almost two decades after the fall of the Wall, it is striking that the city still hasn't managed to come up with a plan for commemorating a site as important as Checkpoint Charlie.
It's a criticism frequently levelled at the city -- that it is has been too slow set up museums, exhibitions and memorials that commemorate its Cold War history.
Most of the Wall was hastily dismantled after it fell in 1989 and so little of it remains intact in the city center that even old Berliners sometimes have trouble remembering where it stood.
The city has only recently started putting up improved information boards at locations and it plans to expand its main memorial to the Wall at Bernauer Strasse, which is well off the tourist track.
Scars of History
Maybe the Cold War still remains too recent and painful for Berlin city to tackle its history with the necessary distance and vigour. Even the criticism of Checkpoint Charlie, which seems entirely justified, has sparked a political row based on lingering Cold war enmities.
When Thomas Flierl, Berlin's former cultural affairs minister, attacked the American and Russian soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie as "tasteless mockery," his remarks were immediately dismissed by fellow Berliners irked by his membership of the Left Party, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled East Germany.
"I refuse to comment on anything that Herr Flierl has to say," said Alexandra Hildebrandt, director of the privately-run Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which stands at the site. Hubertus Knabe, director of a memorial to the victims of East Germany's Stasi secret police, said: "The Left Party politician may be right in what he says but he doesn't have any credibility."
Improvements to Checkpoint Charlie are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. The city has plans for the site but that they won't be realized before 2010.
Plans for Museum One Day
"Checkpoint Charlie is a place of international historical importance and we believe the story of the Cold War should be told here," said Klemke of Berlin's cultural department. "We haven't decided yet whether to set up a small exhibition or monument here or to opt for a large museum of the Cold War."
Berlin will host a conference of politicians and scientists in November to discuss whether to build a museum.
Meanwhile, Hildebrandt's Checkpoint Charlie Museum revised up its unofficial estimate for the number of people killed under the East German regime to 1,303 from 1,245.
The figure includes people killed trying to escape from East Germany, as well as Soviet and East German army deserters who died. The museum publishes revised estimates each year to coincide with the August 13 anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.