AoH Book Club: Iain MacGregor on Checkpoint Charlie

Iain MacGregor

The most famous gateway into East Berlin was at Checkpoint Charlie where travellers were warned they were leaving the American Sector. Historian Iain Macgregor wrote an acclaimed book and our editor caught up with him to talk about the iconic crossing.
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Iain, Checkpoint Charlie was your second history book, but your first on the 20th century. What is it about Checkpoint Charlie that fascinates us, nearly 35 years after the Wall came down?

For those like me who grew up as teenagers in the 1980s, the Cold War was a real and an ever-present threat. Whether it was a constant stream of news stories from around the world as the Soviet Union, the United States and their proxy allies faced off against one another, or, back at home watching countless documentaries and films. East versus West, Ronald Reagan versus Mikhail Gorbachev, NATO facing off against the Warsaw Pact. Cruise and Pershing missiles based in the UK and Western Europe, and the fantastical potential of the Star Wars programme in outer space. The slightest error of judgement between the two sides intelligence agencies, or a slip of a finger of a border guard could spell disaster.

By 1984 studying for my history a-level and having already travelled to both East Germany and to Russia on student exchanges, art mirrored reality, too. Clint Eastwood’s Firefox and Tom Cruise’s ubiquitous Top Gun gave us the outlandish storylines and heroes, whilst closer to home John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy mirrored the more accurate dreary day to day, greyness of post-war espionage in Europe. It completely grabbed my imagination. To this day it still does. Central to the drama, and of course pivotal to all European political intrigue between East and West was the old capital of Germany, Berlin. The cradle of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, and post-war the bauble craved by both Stalin and the western allies to occupy and thus establish a dominant foot in central European life.

Visiting Berlin today with my own teenage children, both now studying a-level history and politics, to try and convey how central Berlin was to the strategy for both sides in the Cold War, but to also on a more personal level how horrific the splitting of the city with a deadly war was to the population, can only really be appreciated by taking them there. By seeing for themselves the sites that remain of the wall, the ‘Death Strip’ that lay between the Soviet and the allied zones, and the various installations and prisons run by the East German regime, did the penny drop for my children just what a pressure cooker living and serving in this city must have been like. Their experience is one of many millions of visitors who travel to Berlin annually – whether tourists or veterans reliving their service. That is what keeps the Berlin Cold War story alive even today.

How was the research process – were you able to find people who had worked on both sides, as well as those who tried to cross illegally?

It was a very long, twin-tracked process which lasted almost three years. The bedrock of research was in archives in Germany, Britain, and the United States, both military and civilian, reading official documents, records, and testimonies. This then led me to focusing on specific events to find living eyewitnesses who might wish to be interviewed: French gendarmes, British and American veterans from their respective Berlin garrisons, East German border guards and politicians, Soviet servicemen, spies from both sides, and of course ordinary Berliners and East Germans who tried to escape. Over this period I interviewed at least seventy-five people, from a waitress in a West Berlin café overlooking Checkpoint Charlie in 1961 who witnessed a killing, to Secretary of State James Baker III who served President George Bush Senior during that critical period of 1989 when the wall fell.

What was life like in East Berlin during the time the Wall was up?

Grey. Considering that East Berlin was meant to be the showpiece capital of the successes of the East German state, apart from the government sectors and arterial routes in and out of the city, there were many sections still in ruins from the aerial bombing by the allies and the street fighting of the invading Red Army at the end of the Second World War. Whilst the western half of the city ruled over by the allies had been rebuilt and, in many areas, refashioned into a capitalist haven of bright lights, well-stocked supermarkets and department stores and bustling streets, on the other side of the wall was a dystopian world of very little nightlife, the stench of diesel fumes from poorly constructed vehicles, delipidated streets and buildings that had never been touched since the end of 1945. Added to that was an Orwellian police state keeping a constant eye not only on its enemies across the wall, but equally on its own population. Citizens of the GDR were only a denunciation away from being taken from their homes, or swept off the street by roving state security units and lost in the labyrinth of holding centres and prisons.

Do we know how many died trying to get into West Berlin?

Records vary, but at least 185-200 people died attempting to cross the ‘Death Strip’ during the lifetime of the Berlin Wall’s existence. This does not include the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, who made an escape attempt but might not have made it to the initial crossing before being apprehended, or who were injured making the actual crossing – whether through, over or under the wall, swimming a canal, or being smuggled in a vehicle through a checkpoint. These victims would have been taken away by the authorities, some of them with serious injuries, and there is little paperwork to follow to find out what became of them. So, the figure of fatalities might well be far higher.

The wall went up in 1961 and at a stroke divided families. There is a tragedy to the building of the Wall that sometimes gets lost in all the thrilling tales of secret agents and spying. What was the most heart-breaking story you found?

Once the authorities started building the barrier – which in its first iteration was merely breezeblocks, and in many places simple barbed wires fences, there of course are many heart-breaking scenes captured by the western media of desperate people trying to safety, back to loved ones, and to gain their freedom. My book covers many of these, but the one that I just find terribly sad is the man responsible for the most iconic image of the whole Cold War – East German border guard Hans Konrad Schumann. Egged on by West Berlienrs gathering near to the barrier his unit were guarding on the 15 August, 1961, Schumann jumped across the barbed wire, his machine gun cast to one side as he leapt to freedom. The nineteen-year-old’s daring escape was immortalised by a West German photographer Peter Leibling, and today you will find it on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and badges. Paranoid throughout the years of living in the west that the Stasi would kidnap him, Schuman thought he was only truly free once the Cold War ended. Alas, trying to then reconnect with his lost East German family ended in their rejection, branding him a traitor, and bouts of depression led the embittered Schumann to take his own life by hanging in June 1998.

One figure who plays a significant role in the book is Robert Corbett, an Irish Guards officer who is first stationed in Berlin as a young man in ’61, and who was there in 1989. How did you find him and what made him unique?

Top of my list was to make contact with the three allied commandants of their respective sectors in West Berlin in November 1989 when the checkpoints opened. Major General Raymond Haddock of the United States Army was sadly too ill to be interviewed for my book. The French commandant General Francois Cann was a pleasure to interview and bizarrely he had a close connection to his British counterpart Major General Robert Corbett which your readers can discover if they read my book. Corbett was a career military man, whose effective leadership ability, allied to language skills (he spoke fluent French and German) landed him the coveted command of the British garrison in West Berlin in 1989. As my book details, Corbett’s career actually began just as the wall had been constructed in 1961, so his story bookends the twenty-eight-year life of the Berlin Wall. I was recommended to talk to him by another interviewee who passed on his contacts, and from there we established a firm friendship as I met with him several times to for interviews. Sir Robert’s calm and calculated actions on the night of 9 November, 1989 and then the weeks afterwards, arguably helped defused what could have seen civil unrest in the city morph into a bloody crackdown by the East German authorities. Both sides were feeling their way through what were exceptional circumstances, and it needed real leadership to ensure things did not escalate. He achieved that as I detail in my book.

Conrad Schumann was the subject of a famous photograph showing his leap for freedom during construction of the Wall. Frieda Schulze is perhaps less well known – what was her story?

Freida Schulze was a 77-year-old widow, whose apartment block became the frontline between East and West Berlin in the north of the city where the French sector lay. The East German planners had mapped out their barrier to not only construct a wall, but also use existing budlings as a barrier with the intent of sealing off streets to keep the citizens away. What they hadn’t bargained for in those first few weeks of the operation to split the city was Berliners taking risks to escape to freedom. Schulze’s apartment lay on Bernauer Strasse, and residents had quickly realised that by simply jumping out of their apartment windows, they could land in the French zone and freedom.

A cat and mouse game ensued as the East German authorities moved to move residents out of the building and seal off the windows. Schulze had lived on the ground floor, but upon realising on 24 September it would be her turn to relocate from her home, she quickly moved upstairs to plead for help from the watching crowd standing in the French zone. The West Berlin fire department were dispatched with firemen pleading with her to jump into their safety net below. The old lady’s decision was made for her once East German police broke down the door of her room to arrest her. Western media had by now appeared and recorded the bizarre spectacle of this old women clinging to a window ledge, being pulled up by East German police whilst West Berliners attempted to grab her legs to pull her down to freedom. A metaphor perhaps of the whole period. Her escape was successful and captured on film, to be displayed all over the world.

If you were to have a new edition published, is there anything you would change?

I had interviewed Dirk Bachmann, who had succeeded the infamous Erich Mielke, ex head of the East German security services – the Stasi – as well as Minister of the Interior. Mielke’s history of revolution, murder and intrigue and he was a man who was the backbone of the regime throughout its life, schooled in the Stalin methods of control and coercion. Bachmann on the other hand, was a career policeman in East Germany who had been promoted on ability rather than political connections. Once the wall was opening up in November 1989, and the regime would fall, Mielke’s time was up and Bachmann found himself in the position of being offered the post of Minister of the Interior. A role he would only hold a few months before democratic elections ousted him. I enjoyed interviewing him as he had led such an interesting life and of course was an eyewitness to the duration of the GDR experiment. Sadly, I just couldn’t see a way of logically fitting in his story as my book’s narrative structure would finish in November 1989. Perhaps I will add an extended epilogue one day.

Iain MacGregor is a historian and the author of Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, which is highly recommended.