Rene — Cold War guards return to haunt Berlin landmark

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Cold War guards return to haunt Berlin landmark
By David Crossland
05/18/04 21:04 ET
BERLIN, May 19 (Reuters) – Visitors to Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin’s Cold War
border crossing, have been startled to find it manned by menacing East
German border guards bellowing orders through loudspeakers and offering to search cars.
Strutting up and down the street with visa stamps at the ready, they could
be mistaken for unemployed Communist coppers pining for the Berlin Wall and
determined to relive the past.
In fact they’re actors in original uniforms charging one euro to pose in
photographs — a new tourist attraction in a city where traces of the Cold War
are fast disappearing, to the dismay of tourists.
“Sometimes we board tour buses and go up the aisle demanding to stamp
documents,” said Tom Luszeit, 30, clad in a green uniform of the “Volkspolizei,”
East Germany’s police force.
“We have had cars pull over thinking we really want to search them. Some
people come up to us asking in fake East German accents to be searched.”
Others offer them bananas, once a rare delicacy in the comand economy of the Communist German Democratic Republic.
Luszeit came up with the idea and got permission from the Berlin city authorities after two years of trying. He has been operating the Checkpoint at weekends for several months with a troupe of 10 fellow actors. Three go on patrol at a time.
Checkpoint Charlie divided the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin and was one
of the most famous symbols of the Cold War. It was a crossing point for
foreigners such as Allied diplomats, soldiers and western tourists.
Luszeit and his comrades, one dressed as an East German army major, were a
hit with passing tourists as they handed out Communist era soldiers’ caps and
posed with them for souvenir photos in front of a replica Allied guardhouse
and U.S. flag.
Their position on the U.S. side of the former border is historically
inaccurate, but they did not get permission to station themselves further down the street on the eastern side.
“History is being forgotten so we thoght we’d do something about it,” said
Luszeit, who also works as a stripper when not not on patrol.
“We tell people about the Wall. More of it should have been left intact as a
reminder. They should also have left the watchtower and the barriers here.”
“People don’t know their East from their West anymore. When you ask them to
point out which was which, many take a look at the grotty buildings in the
west and say that was East Berlin.”
Most of the 97-mile (156 km) Wall has been removed since its legendary
breach in 1989 brought down the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for 40 years.
New office buildings and stores have filled what used to be the brooding,
grey centre of East Berlin, and it’s the west of the city that is starting to
look worse for wear.
Tourists have trouble locating the few stretches of Wall that remain, and
developers caused outrage in 2000 when they tore down an old East German
watchtower at Checkpoint Charlie.
“I’d like to see more of the Wall, I’m old enough to remmber,” said Barbara
Burnette, a teacher from Salt Lake City who posed for a photo with Luszeit.
Luszeit, who is half American, remembers spending hours passing through the
checkpoint where Soviet and American tanks once faced each other a block
apart, and says he can’t understand the recent nostalgia for East Germany.
High unemployment since unification in 1990 has led many in the east to
recall fondly the advantages of living under a communist government, the main one
being that they always had a job.
The dark side is too easily forgotten, said Luszeit. “By standing here we
get people to think about the past, it’s partly about provoking them,” he said.
“There wasn’t much to laugh about in East Germany. If someone looked at a
policeman in a funny way they could be locked up and questioned for hours.”
The presence of Luszeit’s Cold War squad confuses some elderly East Germans, and he is occasionally confronted with people’s memories of suffering.
“I’ve had people come up to me saying I’m a riminal and that they were
locked up by guys like me.”