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You're reading: Cold War museum plan prompts row over Berlin’s past

BERLIN - More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, differences over how to represent the Cold War past are hampering plans to build a new museum at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.

Every day thousands of tourists flock to the site of a
dramatic standoff between Soviet and American tanks in 1961 in
the centre of what is now the capital of a reunited Germany.

Though still a potent symbol of the confrontation between
communist East and capitalist West, the checkpoint today looks
rather ramshackle and has been dubbed “snackpoint Charlie” by
local media because of a proliferation of food stands.

The site features a rebuilt guard house and a cramped
private museum focused on the methods used by East Germans to
flee over the Wall. Drama students pose in U.S. and Soviet army
costumes and hawkers assail tourists with ersatz Red Army hats.

From September, a “Black Box” installation will provide more
information and images of the checkpoint, but this is just a
placeholder for the much larger museum project.

“Wall memory is local and specific, but the confrontation
behind it is a global one. We need a wider international frame
for understanding the Cold War,” said Konrad Jarausch, head of
the museum initiative, which is backed by the centre-left Social
Democrats (SPD) in the city government.

The Communist East presented the building of the Wall as a
response to Western attempts to undermine the East German
economy and infiltrate spies and saboteurs. Soviet bloc
histories and school books called it the “Anti-fascist
Protection Barrier”.

The museum, which has the backing of former statesmen such
as James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State when the Wall fell,
would try to explain what the Wall meant for both East and West
Germany and also show how conflicts in Korea, China and Vietnam
fed into superpower rivalry in the Cold War, said Jarausch.

This means turning a critical eye on U.S. as well as Soviet
policy, he added.

“There’s an Eastern side to it, and while the East
contributed to fear, propaganda and confrontation, we have to
offer something to visitors from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the
former Soviet Union, so they can see some of their experience in
it,” Jarausch said.

But the aim to represent Eastern as well as Western
perspectives on the Cold War has riled centre-right Christian
Democrats who govern Berlin in coalition with the SPD, and they
are blocking the museum blueprint.

“I find it questionable to present both sides equally,” said
Stefan Schlede, CDU spokesman for cultural affairs in the city
parliament. Before reunification, Schlede was the headmaster of
a school in West Berlin’s Neukoelln district, which was
encircled by the Berlin Wall on three sides.

“I was born in Berlin, witnessed the fall of the Wall and
what Germans experienced in terms of Soviet occupation is in no
way comparable to the post-war politics of the Americans.”

Jarausch, who teaches German history at a U.S. university,
said the museum should try to show all sides of the subject.

“I am not an apologist for communism. On the other hand, it
won’t suit to have a Western, triumphalist perspective. The Cold
War was an interactive process between East and West, and it
takes two to tango,” Jarausch told Reuters.


Debates on how to represent history are not new to Berlin,
which abounds with memorials to its divided past. In the early
1990s, when most of the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, plans
to preserve parts of it as a memorial came under heavy fire from
politicians who had fought hard for the city’s unification.

CDU politicians have offered a counter-proposal for a
“Museum of Freedom” that would partner with the Museum of the
Allied Forces in Tempelhof, a former airport and base for the
Berlin airlift during the Cold War.

Jarausch’s backers say this would be too biased.

“When people look at history from a victor’s perspective,
they always talk about how terrible it was,” said artist Yadegar
Asisi, whose panorama depicting everyday life at the Berlin Wall
will open to the public in late September.

The Iranian-Austrian Asisi, who grew up in East Germany,
lived in both East and West Berlin in the 1970s.

“Many people in this city talk about the division in terms
of good and evil, but people forget about the everyday
compromises that were made,” Asisi said, urging a non-political
approach to memory. Strangers who come to Berlin can’t imagine
how you could have a normal life, living next to the Wall.”

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