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Checkpoint Alpha: The ABC of Berlin Checkpoints

Car Entry at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint AlphaTo West Germans it was Kontrollpunkt Helmstedt, to East Germans, Grenzübergangsstelle Marienborn, but outside Germany, the inner German border crossing point was most commonly referred to by the name given to it by the Allied powers, Checkpoint Alpha.

Note: While Checkpoint Alpha was only officially the name of the West German checkpoint at Helmstedt, for the sake of simplicity I will use the term to refer to the border crossing Helmstedt-Marienborn as a whole.

Observation Gangway at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

The checkpoint marked the beginning or end of a 170km (110 mile) drive along a walled or fenced motorway through East Germany with no available exits for travellers between West Germany and West Berlin or vice versa.

Having spoken to German friends about journeys along the transit road I think the following quote from Philip Hensher’s Berlin novel, Pleasured* sums up what was an unpleasant and unsettling experience.

…it was a frightening road. The temporary blocks on the road surface, laid coarsely next to each other, made the car thud with the regularity of a muffled ticking clock, not soporifically, but angrily.

The bumpy ride and claustrophobic route weren’t the end of the ordeal though.  Crossing inspections were nerve-racking affairs even for those who knew that they had done nothing wrong.  Border guards could be painstakingly thorough in their searches, which meant long waits and sometimes a car being taken to pieces (and possibly left that way).

The first Allied control point at Helmstedt was opened on 1 July 1945 between the British and Soviet zones.  An expanded control area was built by East Germany in 1972 on a 35-hectare site near Marienborn.  Around 1,000 people worked here – passport control and custom officers, East German border troops and civilian employees.

45 years after it first opened, the border crossing officially ceased controls when the social and economic systems of East and West Germany were united on 1 July 1990.

Truck and Bus Entry at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

Floodlights at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

Looking out from the Car Entry at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

Gas supply station at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) was opened on the site of the former East German control point at Checkpoint Alpha in 1996.  It is intended as a place of remembrance and education.

Motorbike in the permanent exhibition'GDR Marienborn Border Crossing: Bulwark, Eye of the Needle, Seismograph' in the former main office building at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

1953 Travel Permit in the permanent exhibition'GDR Marienborn Border Crossing: Bulwark, Eye of the Needle, Seismograph' in the former main office building at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

1953 receipt for payment to use the roads of East Germany (DDR) in the permanent exhibition'GDR Marienborn Border Crossing: Bulwark, Eye of the Needle, Seismograph' in the former main office building at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

The former main office building now houses a permanent exhibition – The GDR Marienborn Border Crossing: Bulwark, Eye of the Needle, Seismograph – made up of film and photo exhibits, documents and objects of interest.

Customs Office with portrait of Erich Honecker at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

There is another exhibition, Customs of the GDR, which focuses on the technical process for customs checks at the border crossing, in the former customs control area.

Additional points of interest include the car entry area and passport control, the control tower and the inspection garage.

Passport Control office at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

Control Tower at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

Buildings at The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn (Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn) at Checkpoint Alpha

The Grenzdenkmal Hötensbleben – a 350m long border memorial 18km to the south – was incorporated into the Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn in 2004 (more on that in a future post).

The checkpoint at Helmstedt-Marienborn, along with its counterparts in Berlin, Checkoint Bravo at Dreilinden and Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, was one of the most important border crossings of the Cold War.

The Memorial to the Division of Germany in Marienborn at the former Checkpoint Alpha is open Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00 (check the website for current opening hours) and presents a valuable reminder of the infrastructure that was required to control history’s most notorious border.

* This is an Amazon Affiliate Link – this means that if you buy something from Amazon after clicking on this link I will get some beer money (enough to buy the odd Sterni maybe, not a whole brewery).   This doesn’t affect the price you pay.

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3 Responses to Checkpoint Alpha: The ABC of Berlin Checkpoints

  1. Margaret Coffey 16 June, 2017 at 10:33 pm #

    I just finished ” The Berlin Wall,” by Frederick Taylor, and parts of it reminded me of the trip friends and I–all teachers at Heidelberg American High School– took in 1964 at Easter time (as I recall) from Heidelberg to Berlin via Helmstedt. The experience was truly memorable–and pretty nerve-wracking. The American MP’s at Helmstedt prepared us for driving the Autobahn to Berlin, at 40 mph! We were told the time we should reach Berlin (based on the time we left Helmstedt) and warned that if we reached Checkpoint Bravo too soon, we would receive a speeding ticket, as that would be proof that we had exceeded the 40 mph speed limit. On the other hand, if we didn’t check in at Checkpoint Bravo at the appointed time, the military police would come looking for us. I think the speed limit was so low because the American forces did not want the East Germans to have an excuse for ticketing us.

    The MP’s recorded our odometer readings, and we were told not to leave the Autobahn for any reason, and we were shown slides of the two Autobahn exits we would encounter and were given our odometer readings at those exits with firm instructions not to leave the Autobahn at those exits.

    We were given a packet of papers and instructed that if we were stopped by the Polizei we should give the packet to a passing West German or American car. We were also told that we should insist on speaking to a Russian officer, not to East German police, the reason being that the US did not officially recognize East Germany at the time.

    All went well, and we had no problems reaching Berlin, but the leadup to the trip was pretty impressive.

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