Checkpoint Charlie souvenir

Checkpoint Charlie

Materials: printed plastic, magnet
Dimensions: 5 centimeters high
Place Acquired: Mauer Museum, Berlin
Place of manufacture: unknown

Here is a little piece of Cold War history from Germany. It’s a souvenir fridge magnet about half the size of a credit card that reproduces the famous Checkpoint Charlie sign, a simple six word message repeated in four languages. The web address printed on the bottom of the magnet tells us that it was bought at the Mauer Museum (the Wall Museum). This is a privately-run museum dedicated to documenting the history of the Berlin Wall. It is situated in Freidrichtstrasse in the centre of Berlin and it was founded by Rainer Hildebrandt, an anticommunist activist who established a propaganda exhibition in West Berlin as far back as 1962. In the absence of any official museum of Berlin’s divided history it has grown into a big tourist attraction. Checkpoint Charlie, and its famous sign, was only a hundred yards from where the Mauer Museum is now situated. The souvenir magnet is clearly one of the museum shop’s biggest sellers.

The words on the sign seem quite simple and prosaic, but they have come to mean much more. Or maybe they always intended to mean more. It’s worth looking at line by line:

English is the first language. On the face of it the words just state a mundane fact: in passing this sign you are leaving the American Sector. What is much more pertinent, but is not said, is that you are entering another sector – the Russian Sector. You are crossing the Iron Curtain into the land of the enemy. Effectively the sign is telling you to beware.

The next language is Russian. There is no real need to flatter the Soviets by giving them a translation, but perhaps it serves a purpose. Its unfamiliar cyrillic type reinforces the alienness of the territory you are about to enter. Again, beware.

Then comes the French. This is protocol, the French have their own secteur of the city, but it also lends legitimacy and credibility to the western cause. It says that the West is not just one nation, but an equal alliance of many, in contrast to the monolithic Soviet empire.

Last of all comes German. Not only last, but a much smaller, condensed typeface that squeezes it on to a single line. Germany at this point was merely the land on which much bigger adversaries were facing each other.

The sign seems in retrospect to encapsulate quite eloquently one of the greatest ideological struggles of the 20th century. And perhaps its new role as a fridge ornament incapsulates something, for better or worse, about the victorious ideology.