Marcel Krueger on the history of one of Berlin’s major cold war checkpoints…
There’s not much to see on the Autobahn 115 as one passes through Dreilinden—just a medial strip between the four lanes of motorway on which stands a small statue of a Berlin bear, its upper paws awkwardly raised and a smattering of faded red buildings reminiscent of an abandoned 1980s motorway service area.
It’s hard to imagine that this was once the location of a cold war checkpoint (Checkpoint Bravo). As I pull into a deserted parking space, I cannot help but imagine how it must have been to pass through here at the beginning of the 1980s. In order to travel from Berlin to West Germany, West Berliners were required to use specific East German transit routes, the so-called Transitstrecken, one of which was this one at Dreilinden.
There were police and customs agents stationed here, though travellers were only required to stop if there were goods to declare. After leaving the West German customs area, drivers would next see the famous “You Are Now Leaving The American Sector” message painted on the side of a concrete overpass. Behind that overpass was East Germany—and a dramatic change of mood and landscape.
The motorway was suddenly framed by mesh wire fences on both sides, and a Russian T34 tank memorial peered out from behind the fence on the left side, a remnant of the war but a reminder of whose jurisdiction you were now in. Next came a long row of customs huts and ensembles of grey concrete buildings and watchtowers from where GDR border officials and customs agents could monitor incoming and outgoing traffic with the utmost scrutiny.
The security of the outward-facing border and of the border crossings was maintained by special security divisions of the GDR border guard troops (SiK, short for Sicherungskompanien). Stone-faced men in green-grey uniforms, these Kalashnikov-carrying troops would demand papers and intermittently direct cars to a nearby parking area for closer inspection. In winter, their long coats and fur hats made them indistinguishable from Russian soldiers, though their Saxon accents gave them away.
The actual inspections of vehicle and pedestrian traffic were carried out by the passport control units (PKE or Passkontrolleinheiten). The PKE units were not under the command of the GDR border guard troops, but the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), though while on duty at the border station they would wear the same uniforms as the border guard troops.
Passports, identification cards and other papers could be copied and transmitted from the inspection sites to a central processing centre on site, using closed-circuit television and ultraviolet light, where they were recorded. Commands could also be issued from the processing centre to the passport control unit using a numeric display, using codes for orders like ‘flip page’ or ‘delay processing’.
At transit crossings like Dreilinden, travellers would have certain statistical demographic data recorded, and could occasionally be inspected for the purpose of criminal investigations. There was also a large area where freight traffic bound for other countries was subject to detailled customs processing, with mirrors held under lorries and Alsatians trying to sniff out hidden human cargo—a much bigger form of trafficking than drugs during the Cold War era.
East German border guards issued a transit visa for a fee, and for journeys between West Berlin and Poland or Czechoslovakia through East Germany each traveller was required to present a valid visa for the destination country. In 1951 the GDR started to levy road tolls from cars using the transit routes. At first the toll amounted to 10 Eastern Deutsche Marks (Ostmarks) per passenger car and up 50 further Ostmarks for lorries (Eastern Deutsche Marks had to be exchanged for Western Deutsche Marks at a rate of 1:1).
But in 1955 East Germany raised the toll for passenger cars to 30 Deutsche Marks. Following an agreement between the GDR and West Germany in 1980, the Western Federal Government paid an annual lump sum of 50 million Deutschmark West to the Eastern government, so that transit passengers no longer had to pay tolls individually.
The transit routes for road travel connecting West Berlin to other destinations usually consisted of motorways, marked by ‘Transit’ signs. Transit travellers were prohibited to leave the transit routes, and occasional traffic checkpoints would check for violators. There were four transit routes between West Berlin and West Germany: one between West Berlin’s Heerstraße with the East German checkpoint in Dallgow and Staaken for destinations in Northern Germany; a second transit route connecting Dreilinden with the inner German border at Marienborn (Checkpoint Alpha); a third route to Southwestern Germany consisting of today’s A9 and A4 with the border crossing at Wartha; and the last one to Southern Germany with border crossings at Mount Juchhöh. The latter three routes used the Autobahn built during the Nazi era, and all left West Berlin at Dreilinden/Checkpoint Bravo.
The transit routes were also used for East German domestic traffic. This meant that transit passengers could potentially meet East Germans and East Berliners at motorway rest stops. Since such meetings were deemed illegal by the East German government, border guards would calculate the travel duration from the time of entry and exit of the transit route. Excessive time spent for transit travel could arouse suspicion and prompt questioning or additional checking by border guards.
Western coaches could stop only at dedicated service areas, since the East German government was concerned that East Germans might potentially use coaches to escape into the West. The drive between Dreilinden and Marienborn was supposed to take two hours. If the trip was made in under two hours, this means travellers had sped and were potentially issued another fee. If the trip took longer than that it meant additional checks and the collection of statements.
At Checkpoint Bravo, the Allied occupation forces also established checkpoints, but they were not relevant to regular personal and business traffic and only served as processing stations for military units as well as a display of military presence. Their designated authority to perform further inspections was utilized only rarely. If a member of the Allied forces would pass through here, U.S. military police would show the travelling route on a map and corresponding pictures, and explain how to process through the GDR checkpoints and which autobahn to use.
The Allied traveller was instructed to do the so-called ‘out-processing’ at the next Allied checkpoint at the inter-German border. The police at the checkpoint were also provided with ‘breakdown cards’ to give to Allied travellers in case they had an accident or their car broke down. If they were pulled over by the East German police they were instructed always to ask to see a Soviet officer. The cards were written in German, Russian and English with statements like “I wish to proceed without further delay” or “I demand to see a Soviet officer”.
Today there is no Soviet officer at Dreilinden. All the elaborate border structures of the GDR—the meshwire fence, the barbed wire, the Kalashnikovs—have been removed and the buildings demolished or turned into a business park.
The only thing remaining of this decades-long checkpoint is a small memorial and museum in the last remaining GDR command tower, right next to the motorway. And opposite where the Soviet tank memorial used to aim its gun at Berlin (it was taken away when the Wall fell), a brown sign with a pictogram of the Wall and a watchtower with the words: “German Division 1945-1990”.