Berlin Council Targets 'Checkpoint Charlie' Memorial
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
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First, in Berlin this morning, workmen began removing a monument near the former site of the Berlin Wall. The monument to East Germans killed trying to cross the wall to freedom in the West was located just next to Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War border crossing. But it's private land there now, and a German bank wants to sell it. There are Berliners who want the memorial to stay and say the city letting it go is an act of civic moral failure. Kyle James reports from Berlin.
KYLE JAMES reporting:
The privately run museum at Checkpoint Charlie is one of the city's main tourist draws. It documents the history of the division of Berlin and the tensions between East and West here at ground zero of the Cold War.
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JAMES: Among its exhibits are videos of daring escapes over the Berlin Wall, like the two brothers who flew another brother out of East Berlin in a small plane. But not every escape was successful, and museum director Alexandra Hildebrandt says she wanted to commemorate those who lost their lives trying to flee the Communist dictatorship.
Ms. ALEXANDRA HILDEBRANDT (Museum Director): Checkpoint Charlie is a freedom memorial where the people can think about the victims of the German division and can say thanks to the American for the protection of her West Berlin.
JAMES: Last October, she erected 1,065 large wooden crosses on two vacant lots next to the museum. That figure is the museum's tally of the number of people killed trying to cross the border. She also put up a re-creation of the wall itself along the plots of land. The striking monument was a draw for tourists, but caused controversy immediately. Critics complained that the memorial wasn't historically accurate, that the wall re-creation wasn't authentic and even that the whole thing was too kitschy, a kind of Disneyland version of the wall. Hildebrandt denies that vehemently.
Ms. HILDEBRANDT: But Disneyland is a fairy tale for the children and, you know, here we have the crosses for the victims who died because they did want to be free. It has nothing to do with fairy tales.
JAMES: But Marie Nooke, who heads the city-run Berlin Documentation Center, says the Checkpoint Charlie isn't appropriate or educational.
Ms. MARIE NOOKE (Berlin Documentation Center): (Through Translator) When you go to the memorial, you have the feeling that it's all about tourism and marketing, and I think it's not the right way to commemorate the wall. Commemoration means more than going there once, having a look and buying the T-shirt. And then, of course, it's problematic when an alleged central memorial is in breach of the law.
JAMES: Illegal because the owner of the plots, a bank in western Germany, wants the land back. The museum's lease on the property ran out at the end of 2004, and a court ordered the memorial removed. In the end, the bank offered to sell the land, but the Checkpoint Charlie Museum says it can't afford the $43 million.
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JAMES: A pastor was brought out to give a blessing as the debate over the memorial's fate got louder as the July 5th deadline for the purchase approached. Museum director Hildebrandt wrote a letter to President Bush. The German chapter of the US group Republicans Abroad got involved, starting a signature campaign. This tourist from Maryland signed it. She would only give her last name, Bailey(ph).
Ms. BAILEY (Tourist): I think it's a crime. I think they should leave it. A lot of people died for this, and they should be remembered. It shouldn't be torn down.
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JAMES: But large numbers of police stood by in the early hours of this morning. Workmen began removing the crosses and tearing down the wall as protesters jeered.
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JAMES: Wolfgang Meier(ph) spent time in an East German prison and had chained himself to one of the crosses, appealing to the city's mayor to get involved and stop the demolition.
Mr. WOLFGANG MEIER (Protester): (Through Translator) I didn't think this would be possible. Even yesterday, I had hoped that the Berlin mayor would change his mind. And now he's created a scandal that's just unbearable for us who suffered for our political beliefs in East Germany.
JAMES: Museum director Hildebrandt says she's determined to get the monument rebuilt at the site. The city, for its part, says it's developing a new concept that will commemorate the victims of the wall but in a historically appropriate way. For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin.
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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick, and DAY TO DAY continues.
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