I own a 1965 Baedeker guide to Berlin. Like all Baedekers it’s superbly detailed, a model of pragmatic advice and scrupulous information. It’s also a historical artefact as it was published just four years after the Berlin Wall went up. Here, in precise, neutral commentary, is all you need to know – as a tourist in Berlin – about the Wall and its baleful presence in the city. The four military zones are illustrated with neat diagrams – as if depicting different rooms and floors of a museum – and the beautiful multicoloured fold-out maps of the city’s various districts (Kreuzberg, Mitte,
Prenzlauer Berg) are all traversed by a cross-hatched, dark grey line: Die Mauer – the Wall. According to this edition of Baedeker, the Wall seems as permanent a feature of the city’s topography as Berlin’s river, the Spree. Of course, history has educated us otherwise.
As the 30-year anniversary of the breaching and demolition of the all approaches, Iain MacGregor’s Checkpoint Charlie is a fascinating and telling reminder of what was perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War. The Wall only stood for 28 years yet it looms large in the collective imagination and memory of those of us old enough to have been around both for its erection and its passing. It seems strange that there is a whole new generation for whom the Berlin Wall is as remote a fragment of recent history as the moon landings of 1969. Even in Berlin today the traces have been almost entirely erased, apart from a few nurtured spots here and there to remind the populace of what once divided them. The famous “Checkpoint Charlie”, one of the crossing points from West to East during the Wall era, is now a much-visited tourist attraction. You can buy the T-shirt – and any amount of souvenir bric-a-brac.