Bit of German history available for the taking

December 29, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BERLIN -- An ugly, two-story border tower from which East German agents surveyed and controlled the tense Checkpoint Charlie crossing, a building that once stood at the very center of world politics, is now on the collector's market.

What's more, it's free to the right bidder.

As recently as five years ago, this tower posed the final barrier for anyone seeking to come west through Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin's best-known crossing.

"The Berlin Wall was the center of the division of the world, and Checkpoint Charlie was at the center of the wall," said Rainer Hildebrandt, director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which owns the tower. "It symbolizes a lot."

The noncommunist government that briefly ruled East Germany in 1990 gave the tower to Mr. Hildebrandt's museum as a gesture of gratitude for his decades of work on behalf of East German political prisoners. Now, however, the museum is falling victim to the Berlin real estate boom that has followed unification.

A business center is to be built where the historic border tower has stood for years. It must be moved, and Mr. Hildebrandt does not have enough room to display it suitably on land around the corner that has been allotted to his museum.

"I don't want money," the 79-year-old museum director and rights advocate said.

"I'm prepared to give it away to someone who can pay the moving costs and who will work with us on a future display," he said. "The idea is to create a display that reflects the importance of this tower in world history."

As if this artifact were not remarkable enough, Mr. Hildebrandt is offering another treasure from his collection, also without charge to someone who will move it and use it well.

It is one of the last remaining watchtowers from which East German sharpshooters monitored the "death strip" that separated East and West Berlin.

The watchtower, 90 feet high, used to stand at Stallschreiberstrasse, less than a mile from Checkpoint Charlie. It was one of about 900 such watchtowers that were put up to guard East Germany's border with the West, 300 of which stood inside Berlin.

They were part of one of the world's most tightly controlled borders, a wall that East German leader Erich Honecker predicted in 1988 would remain standing for "50 or perhaps 100 years."

After the end of communist rule in 1990, acting with an enthusiasm that at times seemed tinged with a desire to wipe away history, German officials ordered nearly all of the Berlin Wall quickly torn down. They also allowed the destruction of almost every watchtower.

Mr. Hildebrandt was given his at the same time he received the border tower. Only about a dozen others survive.

Although he says he is open to suggestions, Mr. Hildebrandt would prefer to find someone who could take both the Checkpoint Charlie border tower and the watchtower from Stallschreiberstrasse for use in a single display.

Hagen Koch, who was the East German official in charge of distributing such souvenirs in 1990, said, "It would be a real shame if these towers end up in a garbage pile."

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