Germany Holidays: Checkpoint Alpha

Everyone has heard of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the former crossing point between the American sector in the West and the Soviet sector in the East. But how did it get that name?

The answer lies 120 miles to the west, at the former border crossing between Helmstedt in former West Germany (FRG) and Marienborn in former East Germany (GDR), once known as Checkpoint Alpha.

To complete the lexicon of the day, in between the two was Checkpoint Bravo on the outskirts of the city where traffic that had passed through Alpha and East Germany entered West Berlin (which was surrounded at the time). So the naming was as simple as ABC.

The GDR government began erecting the fortifications at Checkpoint Alpha in the mid 1950s, several years before the Berlin Wall was built, to make crossing from East to West as difficult as possible.

Whilst the crossing was marked by a modest building on the Helmstedt (western) side of the border, the operation was of a much greater size in Marienborn over in the east. Over the years, particularly in the 1970s when much greater cross-border traffic was permitted, it evolved into a large complex that housed up to 1,000 guards, police, security officials and other personnel (including Stasi officers) until it was dismantled following reunification of the two countries in 1990. The entire site has been designated a monument of national heritage, and is now the largest existing memorial to the internal border.

A huge operation

Adding to the overall sense of intimidation, alongside the East German security apparatus the Soviet Red Army had a base in Marienborn, whose sole purpose was to accompany Allied (US, British or French) traffic passing through it en route to West Berlin. The process of crossing the border could take hours with cars often secretly XRayed or even taken apart during examination by extremely thorough and officious guards. It was never a pleasant experience.

Not all the original buildings remain but there are sufficient to get a feel for the size of the security operation. The installations on the western side have been demolished but on the eastern side the passport control point for cars, the checkpoint for lorries, the light masts (the whole site was illuminated in the dark), the administration offices, the watchtower and even the morgue are still there.

These have now been turned into a museum about the former border, entry to which is free.  Within the Passport control office there is a permanent exhibition charting in chronological order the development of the fortifications at the site and the story of the border in general. There are also a variety of other exhibitions detailing how the checkpoint worked and the methods taken by the GDR to prevent illicit border crossings. There is a display of artefacts from the time including the guns used by the guards.

The whole site can be walked freely (though the inside of some buildings are inaccessible) and gives an indication of the efforts the GDR went to in order to restrict the movements of its citizens. It is a perfect monument to that country’s attempts to control and intimidate its captive population. – Mark Arrol

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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