Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on November 8, 2012

(by Thor Halvorssen, National Review) – …While the Cold War may seem far removed from [2012, the 51st] 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 [Berlin Wall was erected], Hildebrandt hosted his first exhibition in a modest two-room apartment on the infamous Bernauer Straße [the street that lined the Berlin Wall].

“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 [German Democratic Republic: Soviet-controlled East Germany] memorabilia that to this day remains open every day of the year at its original location near Checkpoint Charlie. [Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War.]

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.

Originally published Nov. 9, 2011.  Reprinted here on Nov. 8, 2012, for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from National Review. Visit the website at NationalReview.com.

Questions

1. The purpose of an editorial/commentary is to explain, persuade, warn, criticize, entertain, praise, exhort or answer. What do you think is the purpose of Mr. Halvorssen’s commentary? Explain your answer.

2.  Tone is the attitude a writer takes towards his subject: the tone can be serious, humorous, sarcastic, ironic, inspiring, solemn, objective, cynical, optimistic, encouraging, critical, enthusiastic, etc.
Which word do you think best describes the tone of Mr. Halvorssen’s commentary?  Explain your answer.


Background

The Berlin Wall was a wall in Berlin, Germany that separated Communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin.  The Wall was erected overnight on August 13-14, 1961. Over the 28 years that the wall was in place, East Germany jailed more than 75,000 people who tried to flee to the West across the Wall, and 809 people died/were killed in escape attempts.

On November 9, 1989, the East German government announced that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. The wall was finally torn down over the next few weeks. [The German Democratic Republic (GDR), informally called East Germany by West Germany and other countries, was a socialist state established in 1949 in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany, including East Berlin of the Allied-occupied capital city.]

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.

Resources

Visit the website for the Checkpoint Charlie museum at: mauermuseum.de

Read about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 at:
studentnewsdaily.com/blog/fall-of-the-berlin-wall.

Take a Berlin Wall quiz at Der Spiegel at
www1.spiegel.de/active/quiztool/fcgi/quiztool.fcgi?id=45748.

Read a commentary about the fall of the Berlin Wall at
humanevents.com/article.php?print=yes&id=34332.

Watch a video of President Ronald Reagan at Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, June 12, 1987 in which he urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

And a video – “The rise and fall of the Berlin wall”