Zimmerstrasse: At the Center of the Cold War

The Berlin Center for Cold War Studies is located right in the middle of Berlin in immediate vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie. Zimmerstraße once ran directly alongside the “Iron Curtain” and continues to be a world-famous memorial site of the Cold War.

THE BUILDING OF THE BERLIN WALL

When the German Democratic Republic startet the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, Zimmerstrasse became finally a border road: The West Berlin buildings on the south side of the street were now separated by the Wall from the buildings in East Berlin on the north side of the street. The GDR placed its Grenzübergangsstelle Zimmerstraße (“Zimmerstrasse border crossing point”) at the corner of Friedrichstraße to permit international visitors and diplomats to enter and leave. The Allies in West Berlin constructed Checkpoint Charlie in return as a border crossing with a rather provisional feel to it.

ESCALATION AT CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

On October 22, 1961, only a few months later, the border crossing became a geopolitical flash point when East German border officials refused to permit the U.S. diplomat Edwin Allan Lightner unrestricted entry, which he demanded in accordance with the city’s four-power status. The SED Party leadership attempted in this way to establish the sovereignty of the GDR, which had not yet been recognized as a state by either the Western powers or the Federal Republic of Germany. The West’s response was swift: American tanks were sent in and faced off with their Soviet counterparts, arms at the ready, for days. This led to growing international fear of the military escalation between the two nuclear superpowers. Diplomatic channels finally served to de-escalate the situation on October 28.

THE DEATH OF PETER FECHTER

Over the course of years, an elaborate barrier system had been created on the East side of the Wall to prevent people in the GDR from fleeing to the other part of the city. Many would, nevertheless, risk their lives trying, including the 18 years old construction worker Peter Fechter. On August 17, 1962, Fechter and a friend attempted to cross the Wall, on foot and without any additional equipment – until they were discovered. The GDR border guards opened fire and Fechter was hit while his friend made it over the Wall to the West. The severely injured young man lay screaming and bleeding to death in no man’s land for nearly an hour, while numerous people on both sides of the wall – including journalists and the police in the West – could only watch. Given the tense international situation, nobody, not even the American military police, dared to cross the border. When the GDR border troops finally moved in to retrieve him, it was too late: Fechter died a few hours later in an East Berlin hospital. While he was not the first, Peter Fechter was certainly one of the best known victims of the Wall. His well-documented death led to the international condemnation of the order to shoot at the inner-German border and became a symbol of the inhumanity of the SED regime.

THE ZIMMERSTRASSE ESCAPE TUNNEL

Numerous people did, however, manage to escape – at Zimmerstrasse as well. Rudolf Müller, who had worked in the West until the Wall was built, but who lived with his family in East Berlin, was able to flee to the free part of the city while his family at first remained behind the Wall. Over the course of weeks, Müller and his friends dug a 22-meter-long tunnel, stretching from the grounds of the Springer Publishing Company to the basement of the building at Zimmerstrasse 56, on the East Berlin side of the street. On June 18, 1962, Müller climbed out of the tunnel to bring his family back with him to the West. A short time later, however, the returning family was stopped and checked by the GDR border officer Reinhold Huhn within the restricted area. Müller shot and killed Huhn, whereupon the GDR border police opened fire, but the family managed to escape through the tunnel unscathed. Reinhold Huhn would later be glorified in GDR propaganda as the victim of Western warmongers. Müller would not have to face charges for the incident until well after the German reunification.

THE FALL OF THE WALL

In the night of November 9-10, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell under the masses of people seeking to cross to the West, and the border was opened at Zimmerstrasse as well. As a symbol of violence and oppression, the Wall was subsequently taken down with the exception of a few remaining segments. The Grenzübergangsstelle Zimmerstraße was completely dismantled as well. The international aspects of Germany’s unification were negotiated in 1990 among the two German states and the four victorious powers of the Second World War. And on June 22, 1990, the countries’ six foreign ministers and the mayors of the two Berlins attended a festive ceremony to mark the closure of Checkpoint Charlie, now rendered obsolete.

A PLACE OF REMEMBRANCE AND RESEARCH ON THE COLD WAR

It would not take long for the memory of the Cold War to be commercialized on Zimmerstrasse. Just ten years after the checkpoint was dismantled, a replica was built in its place by the privately run ”Mauermuseum” there. It would become a popular tourist attraction with over 4 million visitors each year.

The Berlin Center for Cold War Studies began its move into its new quarters at Zimmerstrasse 56 in early 2019. As a joint project of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany, and the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Center serves as a place of international scholarly exchange and historical research on the Cold War.

Find out more about the Center’s Forschungsagenda and research projects.