Chapter 2 Theory in Practice case studies

States, Nations and Empires


Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie’s iconic status derives partly from its depiction in numerous Cold War spy stories, what might be called ideological warfare by cultural artefact. It was also the location of a tense stand-off between US and Soviet tanks in 1961. The confrontation, so soon after its establishment, looks a lot like the behaviour of territorial primates, who gather at boundaries to claim their exclusive rights and to emphasize their separateness.

The checkpoint was the main thoroughfare through the Berlin Wall between two states, East and West Germany. East Germany was not officially part of the Soviet Union, but was a key ‘buffer state’ between it and the ‘free world’. At various times, the checkpoint could be said to divide ideologies, empires, states, and nations. It was therefore a key locus of global history.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) rose after the Russian Empire of the Tsars collapsed into a chaotic civil war after the October Revolution of 1917. When it was formed in 1922 the so-called Republics included much of Central Asia. It received a huge boost in 1940 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany, including the Baltic States and half of Poland. Then Hitler decided to invade eastward. This was one of the biggest mistakes in history.

As Stalin’s Red Army stormed back west after the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, it occupied Berlin and eastern Germany, massively expanding the Soviet ‘sphere of influence. Armies rarely retreat from conquests, and the armies of the Soviets and of the western Allies were no exception. The victorious Allies agreed to divide Berlin, otherwise surrounded by Soviet forces, among the USSR, the UK, the US, and France.

Relations deteriorated and, in 1961, seeing the flow of people almost exclusively east to west, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the Berlin Wall built. The edifice between East and West Berlin thus became also the border between East and West Germany, and between the Eastern bloc and western Europe, backed by the US.

Every wall requires a gate, and Checkpoint Charlie achieved legendary status as a symbol of contact between otherwise insurmountable divisions. It was popular among story-tellers because it was the perfect place for dramatic separations and reunions. The Soviet bloc, as represented by the Warsaw Pact, stood opposed to the ‘free world’ with its own military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The phenomenon of ‘performing borders’ is observable in two famous speeches given not far from Checkpoint Charlie, by US Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, a generation apart. When Kennedy said “ich bin ein Berliner [I am a Berliner]” he was reinforcing the US’s otherwise ambiguous commitment to defence of West Germany and western Europe. When Reagan exhorted Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” he had a more ambitious agenda in mind.

Local people were not allowed through, only diplomats and other foreigners. People were thus forced to belong to one side or the other, regardless of their wishes. Some argue that the cultural differences thus delineated exist today. Hence, Checkpoint Charlie can be described as a passage from empire to empire, from one worldview to another – radically opposed – between states and nations. Its story makes clear that, while boundaries are important, the passages through them are also crucial.

Charlie also had a creative function. The armoured stand-off is an example of social construction, as each side sought to demonstrate the immutability of the barrier to the forces of the other. The gate creates and reinforces culture and territory.

Discussion questions

  1. How does the history of Checkpoint Charlie help us to understand the nature of the nation-state? (See box 2.3)
  2. What’s the significance of the culture change caused by the division of Germany, given that it has been unified for about the same time as it was divided? Discuss this in the context of nations, states, and state systems.
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