The Wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie itself features a few large-scale artefacts on its façade that sport a much higher degree of authenticity. Star pieces include a GDR
state logo, a segment of the Berlin Wall
, and the last Soviet
flag that ever flew from the Kremlin
! When I saw the latter in 2010 it looked weather-beaten, frail and its red colour quite faded. On my latest return trip to Berlin, however, I suddenly found it resplendent in a fresh-looking deep red. So I am wondering whether this still is the original or a new replica instead.
Inside, the permanent exhibition contains various Wall-related artefacts and documents. One 'star piece' is certainly the SM 70 spring-gun, which in 1976 had been 'stolen' from the border by Michael Gartenschläger – a former political prisoner in the GDR who after his release into the West started campaigning against the GDR's border security system. This included such risky actions as dismantling two of these deadly devices in order to make it known in the West, how inhumane the border had become. And indeed things got much worse for him: on his third attempt to dismantle such a spring-gun Stasi snipers were waiting for him and he was shot dead.
Other prominent museum objects include some original artefacts used in escapes. After all, help for people wanting to flee the GDR
had always been one of the core aims of the Museum during the Cold War
years. On display are a number of cars used in such efforts, as well as some truly spectacular and/or ingenious other relics of escapes. For instance there are a couple of light-weight planes used to cross over the Wall by air.
Another such attempt was made in a hot-air balloon by two families in 1979. The balloon was laboriously sewn together at home in secrecy and then, after an initial failed attempt, used successfully in what still stands as one of the most dramatic such stories ever. Now parts of this balloon are on display in the museum too.
People also managed to flee over, or even under, the sea: one of the most hair-raising artefacts on display in the museum is the mini submarine that one GDR citizen built which pulled him all the way to the West under the surface of the Baltic Sea.
Another object of special note as far as the ingenuity in these escape attempts is concerned is a speaker cabinet that a Dutch musician used to smuggle his girlfriend and later wife out of the East.
Of course, not all escape stories had such a happy ending. And the failed attempts are also the topic of this museum. Likewise the whole system of repression in the GDR
, which too is illustrated with smaller artefacts, as well as lots of photos and documents.
One section is devoted to the spying methods of the GDR secret police, the Stasi
. Again, specimens of those infamous "scent samples" of yellow pieces of fabric in jars can be seen here (see Stasi exhibition
and Stasi museum
A separate wing of the building contains parts of the museum less directly linked to the topic of the Wall and escapes from the GDR. One extensive section here is about art, and it includes some marvellous pieces of communist kitsch too, e.g. Stalin
busts, paintings and mosaics. There's also an especially remarkable piece of "booty", a stuffed badger taken from Erich Mielke
's house – apparently he even shot the poor thing himself!
At the time of my latest visit a few years back I found a whole extensive section about non-violent resistance movements worldwide – from Gandhi (some of whose personal belongings are on display), the peaceful (and not so peaceful) revolutions in the rest of the Eastern Bloc
, such as in Poland
, to the latest revolutionary movements in the Arab world from 2011 (e.g. large photos from protests in Cairo). So there was clearly an ambition to remain up to date. Meanwhile, of course, we know that the "Arab Spring" turned out to have largely failed.
Back over in the Western world, there's a whole room dedicated to Ronald Reagan! Yes, you can probably guess why: because he once made that famous speech in 1987 right by the Brandenburg Gate in which he urged "Mr Gorbachev: tear down this wall!". To this day too many people misunderstand that mere propagandistic gesture as actually having had anything to do with the fall of the Wall years later. It's a tad disappointing that the Checkpoint Charlie Museum has fallen for that misconception too. Even more disturbing is the full-on unabashed Reagan glorification that overflows in this room, complete with display cabinets containing his cowboy hat, cowboy boots, as well as countless pro-Reagan election campaign badges. Given that it was Reagan who so massively raised the power of the US military-industrial complex like no other president before him, restarted the production of chemical (nerve gas) weapons, initiated the dangerously destabilizing "Star Wars
" programme, and often enough behaved like bull in a china shop in diplomatic terms too (remember his "empire of evil" insults?), it is a bit off-putting to find him portrayed so one-sidedly as a heroic man of peace in this museum (of all places).
Back on more familiar territory, the museum also covers the last days of the Soviet Union, especially the failed 1991 coup in the USSR
, esp. Moscow
. On display is the huge flag in Russian national colours that protesters – with Boris Yeltsin taking the helm – gathered behind as a symbol of their determination not to let the old communist guard have their way.
On the other hand, the contemporary political repression in Russia under its new "tsar" Vladimir Putin is also given significant space in the museum. Covered in particular are those cases of assassinated critical journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, or the imprisonment of former oligarch and Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There was ongoing refurbishment and expansion work especially in this section at the time of my last visit (in November 2011), so it may be interesting to see how this topic will be represented by the museum in the future.
The texts and labelling in the museum's exhibition(s) are by and large in four languages: German, English, French and Russian. The order in which they appear on the large text panels varies, apparently at random. A few bits of the older parts of the exhibition occasionally lack the Russian version (and have generally a more cobbled-together feel than the more recent additions). The quality of the translations into English is overall OK.
More general background information about the museum's main themes is provided by various short documentaries shown on a loop as well as longer films that can be viewed in the museum's cinema. There's also a library that is open to the public (upon prior registration).
The museum's shop sells all manner of the usual Wall memorabilia including T-shirts, books, postcards, and (allegedly) original little concrete pieces of the Berlin Wall
More souvenir shops line the streets around the museum. In fact, the commercialism that has developed here can be a bit overwhelming and certainly detracts even further from any trace of authenticity the place may still exude.
As if to counter all this more or less cheap commercialism, there are now long walls with information panels lining several streets around Checkpoint Charlie. Instead of riding the sensationalist bandwagon even further, these panels make a much more sober, historically informational attempt, including some remarkable photos, but also some rather "elementary" information that's more for beginners and will likely bore visitors who are already halfway familiar with the story of the Cold War
and the Berlin Wall. In addition, however, they also provide information about many (though not all) of the various other Wall-related points of interest in Berlin (all of these, and more, are also covered here – see under Berlin Wall
If you're new to Berlin
and the whole topic of the former border, then these information panels are surely a very good starting point, from where to take your Wall sightseeing further.