The Battle over Checkpoint Charlie

How a new museum at the historic site could help prevent another cold war.

During the summer months in Berlin, thousands of tourists wearing flip-flops emerge from the U-Bahn stop near Checkpoint Charlie. Wide-eyed, they stroll down Friedrichstrasse before stumbling into a white border post in the midst of a busy intersection. One can gawk briefly at the mannequin guards and the bleak, mural-sized photos of life with the Berlin Wall—before sauntering on to a nearby museum devoted to sausages sprinkled with curry powder. Yet simply passing by this tourist site, you might fail to notice the quickly fading legacy of the Cold War.

Once the most widely known crossing between East and West Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie is now barely a blip on the radar in a city teeming with monuments to the past century. There are countless memorials about the Nazi period, the Holocaust and World War II. East Germany’s past is on display at the GDR Museum and the notorious political prison in the Orwellian-named neighborhood of Hohenschönhausen (“nice homes on the hill”). The Allied Museum depicts military life, and a small Cold War museum outside Berlin focuses on events that took place in Germany. Yet no single museum provides a clear, comprehensive picture of the Cold War.

Statesmen and scholars alike are aghast that one of the defining locations of the twentieth century’s great conflict between the East and West now must vie for attention with sausages. The likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, the late Václav Havel, James Baker III and Cold War historian Timothy Garton Ash argued in 2008 for a new museum at the checkpoint that would focus on the international context during an era in which there was a real risk of nuclear war. A new museum at the center of the Cold War conflict in Europe also, according to its supporters, would “safeguard for the long term the memory of the division of Europe and its liberation”—foreign concepts for generations born after 1989.

Yet this proposal has raised some eyebrows. Some opponents rather would see a museum devoted solely to the triumph of freedom over the Soviet bloc. Politicians from German chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party denounced the proposed museum’s concept as too sympathetic to communism; any attempt to present the stories of both sides would demean the struggle against the Soviet Union. But such arguments miss a broader point: the best museums do not seek to glorify the past but serve to inform the present.

One might assume that the lessons of the Cold War have long since been learned. Cold War studies programs and academic journals have sprung up from California to Washington and from London to Moscow. Scholars are continuously unearthing more archival material and reshaping long-held views of the international conflict between the two superpowers.

One common view is that the Cold War was primarily an ideological struggle between one system of capitalism and democracy and another based on communism and authoritarianism. The Soviet Union’s “evil empire” finally succumbed to external pressure and fell victim to the very economic and political freedoms it sought to suppress. The West’s Cold War victory long has been a satisfying argument for those who seek a more aggressive American posture in the world. According to this line of thinking, the United States need only apply the right amount of pressure to a given authoritarian country to nudge it toward freedom and democracy. This interventionist approach has been expressed in numerous decisions ranging from Senate declarations against human-rights abuses to unilateral military action such as the war in Iraq.

This view of the Cold War, however, oversimplifies the long, painstaking efforts made by many across the globe to preserve strategic stability. Europeans strove to forge ties across the wall, which helped facilitate understanding and prevented isolated Eastern Europeans from completely falling under the sway of propaganda. At a higher level, the strategic diplomacy between the two superpowers effectively reduced tensions and ultimately prevented nuclear war.

These lessons are of immediate consequence to today’s challenges. No issue in recent years has been more contentious or fraught with more uncertainty than the relationship between the United States and China. The financial crisis brought to a head U.S. economic vulnerability while highlighting the strengths of China’s economy. The buildup of the Chinese military and the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia have inclined leaders on both sides of the Pacific to see a future of conflict rather than cooperation. The architect of Sino-U.S. rapprochement, Henry Kissinger, has recently warned that “care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies” and find themselves trapped in another cold war.