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Missing Berlin Wall touches off dispute

BERLIN — Trekking south across Berlin, the young overseas tourist never even noticed what used to be the world's most famous border crossing.

"Where's the Berlin Wall?" said Deborah Knott, a 22-year-old student from Melbourne, Australia, lifting her sunglasses for a better look at the vacant, sandy plot where the Cold War frontier post of Checkpoint Charlie once stood.

"It's a bit disappointing. We thought there'd be a bit of the wall that you could touch," she said.

That dismay goes to the heart of a new struggle at the former checkpoint where U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off at the height of East-West tension. Now, a property developer and a local museum are in a growing dispute over how to keep its history alive.

Pieces of the wall still stand at several points in the city, including at a somber memorial to the victims of communist repression. A 1,400-yard section along the Spree River has been preserved for the colorful graffiti sprayed by artists from around the world after the wall fell in 1989.

But Berlin's 6 million annual visitors are often left scratching their heads when they look for the gray concrete barrier that once snaked 23 miles through residential streets, across a bombed-out no man's land and past the Brandenburg Gate.

Often there were two parallel walls, with watchtowers, armed guards and dogs to catch anyone fleeing across what became known as the "death strip" in between.

Nowadays, Checkpoint Charlie features a reproduction of the guard house once manned by U.S. soldiers, complete with sandbag defenses and the tall white sign declaring: "You are now leaving the American sector."

But the guardhouse, as well as big photographs of a Russian and a U.S. soldier, are marooned on a traffic island and easily overlooked on bustling Friedrichstrasse avenue, revived as an upscale shopping street after Germany reunited in 1990.

A privately run wall museum has campaigned for wall sections to be taken out of storage and returned to the site, now owned by a property developer who bought it from the city government.

The museum claims the developer promised to devote space in a planned new office building to a wall memorial.

Instead, frustration turned to outrage this month — also for neighborhood businesses — after stalls and tents offering souvenirs and fast food appeared on the site.

Developer Abraham Rosenthal said his IdealWert company still intends to build the office complex. But he said the Berlin property market was too weak for the project for the foreseeable future — hence the decision to rent out the plot for the stalls.

"The plans have not changed, but you can't go against the real estate market," Rosenthal said.

"It's a disgrace," said Alexandra Hildebrandt of the House at Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which documents how almost 1,000 East Germans died trying to reach the West during the Cold War, including 230 at the wall. Many were shot by patrolling East German soldiers.

"This place symbolizes freedom for all the citizens of the world," said Hildebrandt. "In a place where you can feel human blood and suffering, you can't put on a circus like this."

The museum has urged the city government to buy back the site and put up a replica of the top half of the Statue of Liberty as well as wall sections, and maybe a statue of ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The proposal appears doomed — Berlin is deep in debt. But some officials and politicians have sympathy for other ideas: renaming a nearby subway station Checkpoint Charlie and naming the disputed plot Checkpoint Charlie Square.

With Germany and the United States at odds over Iraq, the conservative opposition in city hall says it wants to focus attention on how the United States defended then West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War.

"Germans could be more grateful for what the United States did for us" after World War II, one local conservative lawmaker told a recent protest meeting in the museum. "That gratitude should be made clearer here."