Checkpoint Charlie under wraps

Old cold war border in Berlin is site of new conflict.

Nothing is at it seems these days at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

At first glance, the famous checkpoint looks like an object out of rural Idaho, with the hut - marking the historic wall crossing from East to West Berlin - enveloped in a gigantic blue tarp with duct tape. Historically playing homage to the American soldiers who served there, the site, with its new wrap job, is now a protest - against the "soldiers" who are there these days.

The soldiers aren't what they seem either, though, and therein lies the rub.

Since January, local actors in Allied uniforms have been patrolling the central Berlin location, posing with tourists, and charging up to $6 per photo, a new tourist attraction in a place where traces of the cold war are disappearing with the years.

It was a late May wardrobe change by one of the young entrepreneurs to a uniform of the so-called Stasi, or East German secret police, which really incensed management at the nearby Wall Museum who administer Checkpoint Charlie.

The historically important site, they argue, demands more dignity, and the presence of communist-clad "soldiers," and especially one in Stasi garb, is an affront to those who died trying to cross the wall or who were imprisoned by the brutal East German regime. So June 3 they had the shack - a replica of the original - covered up.

"It is just as though somebody would pose in an SS uniform in front of the Topography of Terror [former Gestapo headquarters site]," says Alexandra Hildebrandt, director of the Wall Museum. "It's embarrassing for Berlin - a real stain on the city."

That the situation is considered embarrassing represents the only point on which the two sides agree. On the day after the checkpoint was wrapped, Tom Luszeit, the Stasi portrayer, showed up shrouded in toilet paper. He says the museum overreacted.

"I really can't believe that they would do this," says Mr. Luszeit. "It's a joke."

Checkpoint Charlie, named after the third letter in the American military alphabet, is a magnet for tourists in Berlin with over 700,000 visitors annually. As a symbol of the cold war, the hut gained its fame in 1961 with a muzzle-to-muzzle stare down between American and Soviet tanks - an argument turned international crisis between the world powers over access to the Soviet zone. Later, it played host to a massive impromptu party of East and West Berliners when the wall finally came down in November 1989.

The checkpoint's most current controversy - despite explanations for the protest in three languages taped to all sides of the covered shack - has proven difficult for visitors to comprehend.

"I think it's a bit funny actually," says American traveler Joseph Baldwin. "Maybe I don't really understand the history well enough, but it really seems over the top."

"Is this because of the Iraq war?" asks another visitor from Hong Kong.

Many in Germany still take their pre-wall history seriously. Ms. Hildebrandt has received support for her protest from Rainer Schubert of the German Association of Stasi Victims. Himself a former West German soldier who was kidnapped by the Stasi in 1974 and held in an East German political prison for nine years, he sees Checkpoint Charlie as a symbol not only of the four-decade East-West standoff, but also of the crimes committed by the East German state.

"I think covering the checkpoint was the correct thing to do," says Mr. Schubert. "We have taken away the backdrop for the pictures. Of course we don't own the street here - tourists can take pictures if they like. But we don't need Stasi uniforms here."

He and Hildebrandt have resolved to keep the checkpoint covered until the city enacts rules of conduct for the site. That process could take months. Mr. Luszeit, meanwhile, is not without his supporters.

Local souvenir shop owner Gerhard Lindner says he finds nothing wrong with the posing. But, of course, Mr. Lindner, as it turns out, isn't exactly what he seems, either. Last week, it was discovered that he has something in common with Luszeit's new character: In the 1980s he worked as a Stasi spy.

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