Leaving East Germany – as easy as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie?

By Helen Maguire, DPA,

Berlin : In the winter of 1962, just months after the Berlin Wall was built, bus driver and war veteran Hans Weidner decided he was fed up with life in East Germany.

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Weidner equipped his passenger bus with metal plates and, on a bitterly cold Christmas Day, charged through the Drewitz border crossing into West Berlin, with two families on board. This is just one of many Cold War experiences that Peter Boeger, head of the Checkpoint Bravo foundation, hopes to preserve.

In its heyday, the Drewitz crossing between West Berlin and the southwesterly town of Potsdam – named Checkpoint Bravo by the Allies – spanned half a kilometre of roadside. Checkpoint Bravo was the largest East German border crossing, but never achieved the international fame of Checkpoint Charlie, the Allied crossing point between East and West Berlin.

Another border crossing, Checkpoint Alpha near the former West German city of Helmstedt, followed the same military naming convention.

All that is left today of the sprawling Drewitz border post, separating the island of West Berlin from surrounding East Germany, is a lone lookout tower perched along the A115 motorway. Its former observation deck now houses an exhibition, which includes a large brown suitcase which a lovestruck West Berliner used to sneak his East German girlfriend across the border, strapped to the back of a motor scooter.

In 1998, a group of volunteers formed to rescue the tower from being dismantled and keep alive the memory of people such as Weidner, whose lives were shaped by Drewitz – and those who were less fortunate.

In 1969, a 28-year-old woman, Monika, from Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), tried to escape East Germany in the stomach of a stuffed cow. The animal, hollowed out for a party trick, seemed sure to fool the border guards. At Drewitz however, officers singled out the lorry with its unusual load.

Monika was sentenced to several years’ prison and manual labour, where she endured tough conditions from which she never truly recovered.

Meanwhile the cow toured the East German checkpoints to brace the border guards for future ingenious escape attempts.

Former East German lieutenant colonel Hans-Dieter Behrend remembers the stuffed cow. From 1965 until reunification in 1990, he was in charge of passport controls at all 13 crossing points in the Potsdam region bordering West Berlin.

“Courtesy was of the highest order,” Behrend said, adding that he spent hours watching officers perform their job, in the stifling summer heat and bitter winter chills.

West Germans, travelling between West Berlin and the rest of the country, spent hours waiting for a spot in one of several bays, where officials checked papers and searched cars for contraband or stowaways.

“The guards were trained to say, ‘Good day, East German passport control’,” Behrend added. The image of surly East German officers delaying travellers was nothing but western propaganda, the 79-year-old said.

An agreement signed in 1972 eased the congestion, as the process was simplified and cars could no longer be checked at random. Yet the traffic rose steadily, from a million transit vehicles in 1960 to more than 5.5 million by 1988.

Today, trees and shrubs have reclaimed the land around the surveillance tower, owned by an industrial park. Online auction house eBay and luxury car brand Porsche, icons of capitalism, both run operations from the site.

A West Berliner who has lived in the area all his life, 53-year-old Boeger says his desire to preserve the memories at Checkpoint Charlie stems from his own family history. In the 1920s and 30s, several of Boeger’s family members emigrated to the Soviet Union to follow their utopian ideals as teachers, engineers and journalists. They all disappeared under Stalin’s rule.

It was not until the 1990s, Boeger said, that evidence emerged proving that at least one of his relatives was arrested and killed, on suspicion of plotting against Stalin.

The Communist system was exported to East Germany by the Soviet victors after World War II and, in Boeger’s opinion, could only be sustained through the iron grip exercised in places such as Drewitz.

“I don’t want this to be a memorial site, I don’t want to stir up anti-Communist hatred, but I want to make it clear what terrible tragedies such erroneous paths can lead to,” Boeger said.