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Checkpoint Alpha

Compared to the German Reich of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, post-war Germany was a geographically emaciated state. Her new borders were decided at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, nine weeks after Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. There, the three principal victors – the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom – established that the Oder and the Neisse rivers would form the international border between Germany and Poland.

The establishment of the new borders had dramatic consequences, both on a personal and geopolitical level. Defeated Germany was to lose over 41,600 square miles of territory to the east of the Oder–Neisse line; territory that included the historical Prussian cities of Danzig and Königsberg; territory that was also important and central to the Prussian psyche. Poland acquired most of what, was to them, the ‘Recovered Territories’, while the Soviet Union obtained the strategically important, historic Prussian city of Königsberg, soon to be renamed as Kaliningrad.

This meant that around 12 to 14 million Germans had to leave the place they called home and move westwards. Many were forcibly expelled while others simply fled, with most of them choosing to resettle in the much shrunken German and Austrian states (many others also opted to emigrate to the United States or Australia). The upshot was that, not only did Germany have to endure a massive shrinking of her external borders, but had also to accommodate a huge human migration.

Set against the redrawing of Germany’s external borders, was the political wrangling over the internal borders. The Potsdam Conference had not only shrunk Germany, but had carved what was left up into four zones of occupation. The American zone of occupation contained Bavaria and the southwest of Germany; the British the northwest; the French the far west; and the Soviet Union the east. The problems arose not from the administrative division, but the subsequent differences over how Germany should be governed.

The conventional wisdom in Washington was that the harsh reparations inflicted upon Germany after the First World War had led to the conditions that had brought about the subsequent war. The Americans in particular, then, were keen to ensure that Germany could rebuild. They wanted to create a Germany that could prosper but not dominate. Decentralisation – of the industry, the seat(s) of power, the finance – would be the best way to serve this goal.

The Soviet Union, though, which had suffered enormous loss of life during the conflict with the Nazis, was less enthusiastic about actively rebuilding Germany. In their zone of occupation – and in Berlin in particular – the Soviets stripped factories of machinery and equipment. Whole industries were relocated from the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany to the Soviet Union itself.

These irreconcilable differences regarding the political and economic future of Germany, led to a hardening of the interzonal border between the Soviet zone and the American and British zones. Since the establishment of occupation zones in 1945, there had always been light traffic checks at the borders, mainly as a means of preventing former, high-ranking Nazi officials from escaping. But in September of 1947, the rising tensions led to the Soviets increasing the numbers of soldiers deployed at the checkpoints.  

By 1949 things had deteriorated so much that there were now two Germanies. The Soviet zone of occupation became East Germany, a one-party socialist state, while West Germany became a free market democracy. The border between the two states became an international one. West Germany established the Federal Border Protection force, 20,000 men strong, whose job it was to protect the border from the west. East Germany established the Volkspolizei, who, along with Soviet troops, manned the border from the east. Meanwhile, relations between the East and the West, continued to worsen, mainly in relation to Berlin, the half-city state, marooned 200 kilometres within East German territory.

There was just one last chance to save the situation from spiralling out of control. It came in 1952, just three years after the two Germanies were established as independent states. The Kremlin delivered the ‘Stalin Note’ to the West, proposing a reunified, neutral Germany. Stalin was keen to keep Poland as a buffer between Germany and the Soviet Union. He therefore demanded acceptance of the Oder-Niese line as a precondition of a reunified Germany. This West Germany could not accept. The millions of Germans who had emigrated from the former Prussian lands to West Germany were a powerful lobby group. They wanted, one day, to see Germany expand back eastwards and incorporate the former Prussian territory, east of the Oder and Niese rivers. The political pressure that they exerted meant that the hands of the Western leaders were tied, and the Stalin’s offer had to be rejected. The West’s inability to accept the shrunken German external border prevented a reunified Germany from being realised.  

By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the disagreements between the Soviet Union and the West had reached new heights. The Cold War risked becoming a hot war. The border between East and West Germany was no ordinary border, but the Iron Curtain itself. The armies of NATO poured into West Germany; the Armies of the Warsaw Pact countries took residence in East Germany. In total, over a million soldiers were based on the territories of the two countries, facing each other across the Iron Curtain. Nuclear missiles, stocked in both countries in their thousands, sat ready to be launched should the command come. Germany was the main battlefield of this new, dangerous Cold War, and the Iron Curtain was the frontier.

Metal fences, barbed wire, anti-vehicle ditches, alarms, watchtowers and minefields – this is what separated one Germany from the other. It was, though, not an entirely sealed border, as both sides were rational enough to accept that some movements of goods was necessary (and the people required to transport those goods) for the health of both economies. But crossing the border illegally, without going through one of the few legally designated checkpoints, would almost certainly result in death, at least for those crossing from the East to West. East Germans, with very few exceptions, were prevented from crossing into the West. West Germans could cross eastwards, but it involved extensive bureaucracy and the acceptance of a whole host of limiting restrictions.

Nethertheless, crossings were necessary, despite their inconvenience. West Berlin, on its own, simply could not provide for itself, and was completely independent on imported goods from the West. Along the entire 1,393 kilometre border, there were just three Autobahn crossings.  By far the most important of the three was the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing. Located on the Hanover–Berlin Autobahn, the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing was the crossing through which nearly all the goods into Berlin were exported. Because of its significance, the border crossing was codenamed Checkpoint Alpha.

Two Germanies, two Europes, two ideologies, two opposing  military and political blocs. Checkpoint Alpha was the main gateway through one and into the other. A thousand border police and civilian employees worked at the customs office, yet still there were regularly tailbacks.  To the Germans, it was ‘the eye of the needle’, the one way through. It was the true artery to Berlin, with roughly nine million journeys made each year through the crossing.

With Berlin 170 Kilometres to the east and Hannover 100 kilometres to the west, the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing was somewhat isolated and remote. Located in the heavily wooded, hilly region know as the Lappwald, the sprawling infrastructure of watchtowers, garages and checkpoint bays must have appeared menacingly ill-suited to its pastoral surroundings to those who passed through during the Cold War.

Passport and document checks by the Stasi; trained dogs, used to sniff out smuggled goods and people; enormous light-towers, each fitted with 8,000 watt bulbs to keep the night as bright as day; a ‘gamma gun’, that fired doses of caesium 137 to detect for hidden goods. Crossing the Iron Curtain was not trivial!

Also stationed at the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing were officers of the Red Army. They had their own facilities, completely separate from the GDR’s, and their job was extraordinarily peculiar given the wider context of the Cold War. They formed a division of the Red Army known as the ‘Soviet Allied Control,’ and their explicit and only purpose was to allow through – and then accompany – American and British military vehicles making their way to bases in Berlin. While the two sides were engaged in an arms race, and had civilisation destroying nuclear weapons aimed at one another, there remained enough goodwill to see the Potsdam Conference agreements regarding Berlin upheld. So it was, then, that Soviet military vehicles would escort NATO military vehicles through East Germany and to their bases in Berlin.

On the 30th of June, 1990 – seven months after the fall of the Berlin wall – East and West Germany were finally reunited. For the first time in 45 years Germans were free to travel from east to west, west to east without facing restrictions. Six years later, Checkpoint Alpha was opened as a sombre memorial to the past division of Germany and of Europe.  


Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
Checkpoint Alpha, the Iron Curtain, Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing
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