Payne: Return to Checkpoint Charlie

Posted by hpayne on June 19, 2012

(Michigan View editor Henry Payne traveled to Germany this month to revisit Berlin and Frankfurt for the first time in 28 years. He reports on what has changed in the once-divided country and what Market Socialist Europe – the troubled economic model for the Granholm and Obama administrations – portends for the U.S. First of three parts)

Berlin – Standing at the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, I witnessed a new, bright orange Chevy Camaro ZR1 – its 6.2-liter V8 growling – round the corner and rumble south right through Checkpoint Charlie. The vehicle oozed American swagger, western individuality, and capitalist success. No gate stopped him. No guard shot at him. No East German soldier threw star nails across the street to flatten his tires.

Because today East Berlin is free.

It’s been twenty-eight years since I stood at the same spot, a 22-year old college graduate a little unsettled about what I was about to do. Actually I was sitting – on a bus with other Western tourists waiting to cross the heavily-fortified checkpoint that was the only way in and out of East Berlin. Friedrichstrasse (Friedrich Street) was an armed camp with East German dogs straining at their leashes, sniffing the undersides of returning buses for escapees while their soldier masters swept mirrors under vehicles looking for the same thing. As the gate rose and we crossed through the infamous Berlin Wall I had a sense of passing from a color movie to a black and white film. Commerce ended. Freedom ended. Misery began.

Today, it has all changed – but for the little hut preserved awkwardly in the middle of the bustling street to remind the world of what once cleaved Berlin in two. On the Freidrichstrasse’s west side is a museum cataloguing the history of the wall – its barbed wire, its guards, and those who tried to breach it.

On the west side of the street are shops. In fact all of Friedrichstrasse in Berlin’s central district is crammed with retail stores. It is one of Berlin’s major shopping thoroughfares hosting everything from car dealerships to giant clothing stores to McDonald’s restaurants where 25 years ago there was nothing but grim concrete apartments and government buildings.

The wonderful irony of 21st century Friedrichstrasse is that 20th century Soviet communism was a system designed to prevent this capitalist mecca of consumer goods and individual property rights.

The very human desire to control others is present everywhere. You see it in the Green parties of Europe. In France’s new Socialist government. In Republican Mayor Bloomberg’s diktat on what the collective should eat. In Democrat Barack Obama’s mandate that everyone in the collective should have health insurance. But East Berlin had achieved totalitarianism in its fully-realized form.

No individual had rights. Everyone was subject to the state. All were watched by an army of secret Stasi agents for crimes against the collective. All were necessary to make the collective work. None could leave.

That nightmare has been erased. The wall fell in 1990. Soviet socialism died and Berlin was reunited. And standing on that street corner watching that Camaro rumble past Checkpoint Charlie sent goose bumps down my spine.

It felt like victory. Liberty had won.


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