Checkpoint Charlie.

Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Iain MacGregor’s Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth, and there’s a point of Hattic interest in Checkpoint Charlie’s Other Names; after explaining that the well-known term comes from the NATO phonetic alphabet (there was a Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt/Marienborn and a Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden/Drewitz), MacGregor continues:

Checkpoint Charlie was now designated the major crossing point for Allied personnel, foreigners, and diplomats in the heart of Berlin. The Russians simply called it the “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point,” and their East German cousins the Grenzübergangsstelle (“Border Crossing Point”) Friedrich/Zimmerstraße—which was geographically where the checkpoint was located.

Naturally I wanted to confirm these statements, but it turns out the Russian Wikipedia article is named Чекпойнт Чарли, and does not mention that there was any more common Russian version (and when I did a corpus search on Фридрихштрассе I found nothing relevant); furthermore, the Russian Wikipedia article mentions Yulian Semyonov’s spy novel Бомба для председателя (written 1970), whose text contains many mentions of “Чек Пойнт Чарли” [Chek Point Charli] but none of any “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point.” Does anybody know anything about either Russian or German usage back in the ’70s?


  1. John Emerson says

    Very distantly relevant: I had a friend who was on a US tank battalion on the German border in the early 60s, and he served as a courier at point. One day he opened the envelope containing the updated battle plan and found that his unit’s mission was to slow down a the Soviet tanks by 10 minutes before being destroyed. Did a lot for his morale.

    The US troops were basically hostages, serving as a trip wire to guarantee that the US would go to war if the Soviets invaded. They could just as well have gone after the Soviet tanks with baseball bats and broomsticks.

  2. Online history of the 133rd separate motorized rifle battalion which manned border checkpoints in Berlin calls it КПП Фридрихштрассе (Control and crossing point Friedrichstraße)

  3. If you do a Google search for “Grenzübergangsstelle Friedrich/Zimmerstraße”, you’ll find some hits; for adding some confusion, several of these hits refer to “Grenzübergangsstelle Friedrich/Zimmerstraße und Checkpoint Charlie”, as if these were slightly different concepts…
    In any case, the designation as “Grenzübergangsstelle” was purely Eastern German, because in accordance with Western German and Western allied doctrine, there was no international border inside Berlin; it was one occupied city divided into sectors.
    I don’t know how Eastern Germans called that place when they weren’t speaking in an official capacity; in Western Germany people called it “Checkpoint Charlie”.

  4. Thanks to all of you; interesting stuff!

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Apparently there was also a “Checkpoint Delta,” but no Echo or Foxtrot etc.

  6. Where were Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo?

  7. Checkpoint Alpha was located not in Berlin, but on West German-GDR border (current border between Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt).


  8. I find that there is an insoluble puzzle with how to write certain names, like those of the German checkpoints. In official American government documents, the famous cross was originally “Checkpoint C,” and I believe that it kept this written designation all the way up through 1990. (Although the practical need for the checkpoints basically ended in November 1989, they continued to exist for a while longer.) However, because of the way that name was pronounced, following the NATO alphabet, it was always spelled out in the media as “Checkpoint Charlie.” To me, neither spelling convention really seems satisfactory. A similar situation exists with the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, designated as “Camp X” by the Navy, but always “Camp X-ray” in news copy.

    Of course, things could be even stranger. Although I cannot think of any famous examples off the top of my head, there must have been names, including “A” and “B” that changed pronunciation with the consolidation of the NATO alphabet in 1956 through the merger of the American and Commonwealth radio alphabets. [When I was a child, I did not get the joke in the name of the mouse who runs the bakery in Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Able Baker Charlie. Although I knew the NATO alphabet from a fairly young age, I was not aware of the earlier versions. I just Googled, and I discovered that there are also, even more than sixty years later, a fair number of real bakeries called “(The) Able Baker.”]

    My eight-year-old son is obsessed with Jurassic World, and we have watched it several times. I did notice that, of the four trained velociraptors, the last one, Echo, hardly ever gets its name mentioned, and Delta’s name does not come up very often either. Blue (replacing Beta, since she has distinctive blue coloration) and Charlie (which obviously sounds like an ordinary name) get called by name much more often. I had to explain to my eight-year-old where the names came from (although his older brother figured it out on his own).

  9. Where were Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo?

    See the parenthetical in the first sentence of the post.

  10. Brett, surely, as a physicist, you’ve heard of the Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow paper.

    Gamow, an unrepentant joker, couldn’t resist adding Bethe’s name on a lark to what was one of the keystone works of its field.

  11. Mentioned by David Marjanović in 2011; John Cowan responded “Alpher feared (and rightly) that two such big names on his seminal paper on Big Bang nucleosynthesis would end up depriving him of long-term credit as originator of the idea.”

  12. Aha, and Brett himself wrote in 2018:

    Alpher did not appreciate the joke of including Bethe’s name on the paper. (Bethe did not contribute to the paper, which was based on Alpher’s dissertation research on Big Bang nucleosynthesis, done under Gamow.) He felt that he would get less credit for the work if the world’s leading nuclear astrophysicist was added to the author list.

  13. Me, I say Gamow was an asshole. (As unrepentant jokers tend to be.)

  14. John Emerson says

    “Checkpoint Charlie” was from Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” , which was very popular with the high military brass. There.

  15. >Gamow was an asshole.

    Probably. There’s also the extraordinary fragility that would lead someone to think being lead author of a paper with the world’s leading nuclear astrophysicist in a minor supporting role would be bad for his reputation.

    But Gamow as his adviser should have been attuned to his feelings about it.

    >“Checkpoint Charlie” was from Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” , which was very popular with the high military brass. There.

    Is Oliver’s Army an army of hapless orphans — Oliver Twist as stand-in for the sort of unfortunate Brits who drafted in? That’s how I interpreted it

    Perhaps because of that, the Checkpoint Charlie reference in Oliver’s Army always left an tinny echo in my ear. Why “a Checkpoint Charlie” as if there were many such checkpoints? The next line has a pronoun, but I related it back to Oliver. Going back to be certain of the lyrics just now, I wonder whether Costello meant to create a character – a Checkpoint Charlie being a soldier stationed there. At any rate, it didn’t work for me.

  16. John Emerson says

    The Oliver was definitely Cromwell and not Twist and I have assumed some connection to English-Irish troubles.

  17. I have no idea who Oliver was, but I love that song to pieces — I’ll never forget hearing it blasting from a Los Angeles record shop as I walked by, not long after the album came out. I respect Elvis C’s later career as a soi-disant Cole Porter, but I don’t listen to that stuff; I like his early songs, the angry ones.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Speculation found on the internet:

    “It is also possible that the Oliver in question is Oliver Lyttelton, Winston Churchill’s President of the Board of Trade in the early stages of the Second World War. The Protected Occupations Act meant that any man not compelled to join the forces due to critically required trade skills were dubbed to be part of Oliver’s Army.”

    The song mentions a very wide range of non-Ulster geographical locations where a British soldier might theoretically end up being deployed. Maybe talking about everywhere but Ireland is somehow a way of talking about Ireland, but I don’t find that a particularly compelling theory …

  19. @J.W. Brewer: I thought the implication of the song was that the Tommy narrator is already posted in Northern Ireland (“murder mile”) as part of “Oliver [Cromwell]’s [New Model] Army.” That he is already enlisted in the British forces is clear from the first verse,

    My mind was sleepwalking
    While I’m putting the world to right.

    And he exceedingly unhappy about his posting:

    Oliver’s army is here to stay.

    And I would rather be anywhere else
    But here today.

    The third verse is then spent fantasizing places he would rather be sent than his domestic posting in Northern Ireland.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: “Murder mile” is hardly an unambiguous reference to Northern Ireland and if you search for it in google books limited to the decade before the song was released (also the decade in which the Troubles flared up) it seems like maybe the plurality of hits refer to Ledra Street in Nicosia, Cyprus, where the ordinary British soldier also had found himself in the middle of a complex ethnoreligious conflict he might rather not have had to deal with, along with other hits referencing other Murder Miles in Aden, Delhi, and, yes, Northern Ireland (plus other locales difficult to suss out via snippet view). So there’s a bootstrapping problem where if you assume an Ulster setting you can make sense of the MM reference but the reference does not itself justify the assumption.

  21. It is a great song. Just the Checkpoint Charlie bit rang oddly for me. The use of the n-word in the song seems to confirm an Irish setting now that I call more of it to mind. But I don’t think it’s from a rigorous point of view. “We can send you to Johannesburg.”

    I wonder if the “one more widow one less” line prevents playtime on oldies stations. With his other sweet lilting songs about murdering significant others, Watching the Detectives and Allison, it’s like he didn’t want radio play.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps there is a trans-Atlantic difference here, but when you hear the epithet Ryan delicately alludes to, “Irish setting” is really not what comes to mind to the American listener. Mainstream commercial rock radio in 1979 (at least where I lived) had no problem with that line, but it is probably true that broadcast mores have shifted since then. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” which made the U.S. Top 40 a few years earlier, uses the taboo part of the same epithet for the same lazy rhyme with “trigger.”

  23. I respect Elvis C’s later career as a soi-disant Cole Porter, but I don’t listen to that stuff; I like his early songs, the angry ones.

    I mostly agree, but I am very fond of his album with Burt Bacharach.

  24. I think I’m on the same side of the Atlantic. I take that line to be about a victim of Oliver’s Army, and Ireland one of the few places where such a victim would be white.

  25. With his other sweet lilting songs about murdering significant others, Watching the Detectives and Allison

    You forgot Psycho!

  26. David Marjanović says

    lead author of a paper with the world’s leading nuclear astrophysicist in a minor supporting role

    These aren’t biologists. Physicists lack that cultural convention about the order of authors and just put the authors in alphabetical order.

  27. Not necessarily. The first author(s) listed are usually the ones who played major roles in the work, with the rest then following alphabetically, or grouped by institution, or according to some vague sense of their contributions. At least that’s how it was long ago when I was in the academic biz.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Oh, so the physicists are the ones who have the first-author convention but not the last-author convention, and I confused them with someone else – maybe the medical researchers?

  29. Several years I worked as a consultant on a project that had to with emergency preparedness with a little bit of medical epidemiology thrown in, and I was listed as the last author on the paper that resulted. I was somewhat surprised to be listed at all, but figured last place was appropriate, whereas the other consultant I worked with, who had a biosciences background, remarked that they must have really liked what I did to put my name last.

    In short, who the heck knows what it all means. It’s like reading tea leaves.

  30. That’s why some journals now require to state explicitly which author did what.

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought the point of a collaborative work is that the real work is in deciding the question, the scope and apportioning the “mechanical” or “journeyman” part among the researchers. So it is not like piecework or building a car, where each worker has performed (or was responsible for the performance of) specific tasks.

  32. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Most of my papers have one or two, occasionally three, authors. However, there is one in which I’m one of 42 authors. The first five are not in alphabetical order, but the last 37 (including me) are: it’s easy for a reader to guess who did most of the work. (In general I don’t like papers with lots of authors, but in this case it was justified by the fact that it was a “recommendations” paper and it’s important for readers to know that lots of people agreed with the recommendations.)

    Alphabetic order on CERN papers can produce weird results. A colleague of mine (not really, but we’re in the same university), Georges Aad, finds himself first on quite a few papers with 2000+ authors. I thought that with a name like that he couldn’t be beaten, but I think there is now someone even closer to the beginning of the alphabet.

  33. quite a few papers with 2000+ authors

    Good lord! How does that happen?

  34. PlasticPaddy, overlap is allowed. The problem is that sometimes the contributions are very unequal. A lead researcher can suggest the idea and do some high level thinking, a grad student may do actual labwork, someone was a main person writing the text, part of the work might have been done in another researcher’s lab with some technical expertise of that person and maybe their postdoc etc.

    How does that happen?

    Lennon and McCartney gone wild.

  35. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I was anxious not to exaggerate, but 2000+ is nothing by CERN standards:

    Search for Higgs Boson Decays into a Z Boson and a Light Hadronically Decaying Resonance Using 13 TeV pp Collision Data from the ATLAS Detector
    Aaboud, M.; Aad, et al.
    Group Author(s): ATLAS Collaboration
    PHYSICAL REVIEW LETTERS Volume: ‏ 125 Issue: ‏ 22 Article Number: 221802

    has 2910 authors. M. Aaboud is now No. 1, pushing G. Aad into second place.

  36. No, but seriously, why so many authors? I can’t imagine what that means.

  37. “Son, you can’t be a painter. The Aabouds have always been particle physicists. It is our destiny. We mustn’t let the Aads get ahead of us.”

    Of course, the paper had to be about the Z boson.

  38. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Of course, the paper had to be about the Z boson

    Yes. Despite that, Lukasz Zwalinski can never hope to be No. 1 author.

    No, but seriously, why so many authors? I can’t imagine what that means.

    I agree that it’s completely crazy, but then I’m not a physicist, let alone a particle physicist. I think the CERN policy is that anyone who participated, in whatever role, has a right to be a coauthor.

  39. So it’s like movie credits, except they’re all up front where you can’t ignore them, and without any division by function. Doesn’t make sense to me, but not my circus, not my clowns.

  40. I am guessing it’s because it takes a lot of people with graduate degrees to do a high-energy physics experiment. If it was just lowly lab assistants at the bidding of a few professors, they could be collectively acknowledged. But here, every part, from designing the detectors, to designing the experiment, to analyzing the results, is done by a team of professors and grad students. Once you get to 50, might as well put down everyone who works at CERN, including the people who designed the accelerator years ago.

  41. If you are a cinematographer, it’s enough to put down Star Wars on your resumé. If you are an academic, you need to have your name on the paper to be acknowledged on your CV.

    Movie credits often run to hundreds of names, down to the caterers. They are just better organized.

  42. jinx!

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    If I ever get to meet Georges Aad (not very likely as we move in different circles and his campus is 8 km from mine) I can ask him how it works.

  44. jinx!

    Heh. But yeah, better organized makes a difference; surely it would be better for all concerned to divide up the credits so interested parties could see who did what rather than having one undifferentiated lump that just gets ignored unless somebody circles name #1,234 and says “See, that’s me!”

  45. By the way, I am a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2001.

    Received it for my “work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”

  46. There is no standard convention for author ordering that applies in all areas of physics. Some more theoretical physicists always use alphabetical author order, but that is not universal even in theoretical physics. In my collaborative papers with graduate students (representing pieces of their doctoral theses), I have always put the students first, but I have a colleague who uses alphabetical order even when he publishes with his students. For on-campus experimental research, the author order conventions are a lot like chemistry or biology—first author is the student who did most of the work, then others in decreasing order of contribution, and the head of the lab last.

    However, physics also has a lot of very large collaborations based around accelerator facilities. There is only one accelerator at the energy frontier now—the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which has two main detectors, ATLAS and CMS. That means that most of the community of experimental high-energy physicists are working on just those two experiments. Every physicist with a doctorate who joins one of those detector collaborations and does the required level of service work gets their name on all the papers that the collaboration releases. That’s how there come to be ATLAS papers with almost three thousand authors, and CMS papers with almost as many. Later in the life cycle of the LHC, there are expected to be a lot of combined ATLAS-CMS papers with even longer author lists. (For the huge collaborations, Physical Review Letters had to change their length restriction rules.) There are also lots of smaller nuclear and particle physics experiments not at the energy frontier, at which physicists study things like proton structure and neutrino oscillations at off-campus facilities; they typically have tens or hundreds, not thousands, of authors on their papers. Some collaborations (including ATLAS and CMS) have all their authors in alphabetical order every time. However, it is still very important who wrote each particular paper, and there is fierce competition among post-docs to be assigned the more interesting analyses; that information is just documented elsewhere, not on the author list. On the other hand, some smaller collaborations will put the small group of people who actually worked on a particular analysis at the beginning of the author list, with the remainder of the members listed alphabetically afterwards.

  47. On the other hand, some smaller collaborations will put the small group of people who actually worked on a particular analysis at the beginning of the author list, with the remainder of the members listed alphabetically afterwards.

    That seems like it would be an extremely sensible thing to do in general.

  48. John Emerson says

    There’s an opposed and to my mind more significant problem: established scholars taking credit for their junior’s work. Sometime just “lead author” credit, but too often sole author credit.

  49. Sure, that’s much worse, but that’s human nature and there’s nothing to be done about it. The problem of thousands of “author” names is soluble.

  50. @languagehat: I agree that that way of determining with the author list is better than listing them all alphabetically (and relying on other sources of information to determine who did the actual analysis work).

    @John Emerson: I don’t know if this is universal, but for somebody situated they way I am (regular faculty in physics at a not-elite R1 university), there would be no value in trying to “steal” credit from much more junior people. For advancing my career, it is much more valuable to show that I can get graduate students and post-docs to produce good results than it would be to claim that I had produced those results myself.

  51. So it’s like movie credits, except they’re all up front where you can’t ignore them
    Wasn’t that the usual approach for movie credits, too, back in the 50s and 60s? I certainly remember old films that had the credits running directly after the title. Made it hard to ignore them, at least in the cinema; nowadays people just get up and leave (except for those films where you can expect cut scenes or similar after the credits.) I wonder why they changed that.

  52. Wasn’t that the usual approach for movie credits, too, back in the 50s and 60s?

    Yes, but there were a lot fewer than. Now there are hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands — I haven’t counted.

  53. And besides, they told you who did what, so it wasn’t just a bare list of names.

  54. My understanding is that alphabetical author lists are almost universal in mathematics, and this carries over into some more mathematical areas of physics. Other areas of physics, along with astronomy (my field), follow a most-to-least contribution ordering. For moderate-sized author lists (say, fifteen or more), this may be subdivided into “most-to-least contribution to the bulk of the paper”, followed by the rest of the collaboration in alphabetical order.

    These sorts of things vary from sub-field to sub-field, and most of the time people aren’t aware that anyone does things differently from the way they do it. I remember reading an analysis of author lists for preprints put on the physics/astronomy/math/comp-sci site, which had some interesting observations about gender fractions for first authors, etc. — and then wasted about 1/3 of the analysis on last names, under the assumption that these represented senior authors, heads of labs, etc. It turned out the person doing the analysis had a background in biostatistics and genetics, where that is a valid assumption.

  55. In the movies back when, a lot of people just wouldn’t get credit, including actors. That was one of the motivations for the formation of the Screen Actors’ Guild. imdb has some actors who worked in dozens of movies without on-screen credit in any of them. That was especially true for minorities (Indians, Blacks, Chinese) portraying minorities.

  56. My grandfather, a professor, insisted in some cases that a graduate student who collaborated with him get sole credit. He didn’t need one more item in his CV, and figured sole authorship would help the student’s career.

  57. Your grandfather was a mensch.

  58. He was. He really liked to help people out.

  59. David Marjanović says

    There’s an opposed and to my mind more significant problem: established scholars taking credit for their junior’s work. Sometime just “lead author” credit, but too often sole author credit.

    I haven’t actually heard of cases of that happening. I’ve heard of one case of the opposite happening: engineering students putting their professor on their manuscript without his knowledge, because that made it more likely for the manuscript to get accepted.

    In fields that have the last-author convention, like all of biology, people are expected to drift from first to last author over their careers, because being last author implies you had the big idea that got the research going, and you attracted the funding. If you stay first or sole author for too long, people are going to think you can’t do that. Stealing your grad students’ research instead of being their last author would be flat-out counterproductive.

  60. John Emerson says

    I know of 2 junior scholars cheated that way, both in English. I think that in the humanities
    generally this is very common. Also, grad students as uncredited research assistants.

  61. @John Emerson: I can see that being more of an issue in humanities fields like English, where total publications can be far fewer in number, and direct research collaboration between graduate students and their advisors is not nigh-universal the way it is in the sciences. Fortunately, nobody I know has (so far as I am aware) been the victim of that kind of despicable behavior, but I’m sure it does exist.

    Thinking about this, it reminded me of another facet of these authorship issues, which is that graduate students are generally not very good at rating their own contributions to research. Of my last two doctoral students that have finished, one was among the strongest Ph. D. students we have had this century and the other among the weakest. And neither of them, or any of my other thesis students, have developed, on their own, a really solid grasp of how important their intellectual contributions have been to our collaborative research. In classic Dunning-Kruger fashion, the stronger students tend to underestimate their contributions, while the weaker students overestimate.

  62. That’s another way you can tell linguistics is part of the humanities rather than the sciences — the professors are shitty to their grad students. (Or at least were in my day.)

  63. John Emerson says

    “I am a humanist, like Erasmus and Montaigne! You don’t believe me? Watch me jerk this grad student around!”

  64. David Marjanović says

    Well, there are different ways of being shitty to grad students. There’s lots of dark humor in the natural sciences in the US about grad students being slaves.

  65. There are certainly faculty in the sciences who treat their graduate advisees badly. It just doesn’t typically take the form of denying the students authorship credit for their research work.

    In scientific fields, the most important demonstration of a faculty member’s research success is not actually their publications, but their ability to bring in outside funding. Compensation for graduate research assistants and post-doctoral research associates is the normally the biggest or second-biggest budget category on a major grant. An important factor in getting funding for future students is showing that that past and current students are producing high-quality research. This means a faculty member will naturally want to show that they have been successfully supervising students’ research programs, and that those programs have led to publications in high-impact journals.

  66. “You mean they are not paid for hard work? But that’s slavery, Dad!”
    “Yes, it is.”
    “I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have said if he learned about grad students….”

  67. David Marjanović says

    The abolition of slavery had an explicit exception “as a punishment for crime”. I guess studying at a US university is a heinous crime; it is, after all, punished with unbelievable annual fines already…

  68. @David Marjanović: The funny thing about the Thirteenth Amendment is that the Senate Judiciary Committee remembered to include a caveat for involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, but somehow they forgot to allow for a military draft—which was, of course, in effect at the time. While it was manifestly not the intent of the amendment’s framers to ban the draft, the actual wording makes it essentially impossible to argue for the legality of the draft under any honest “textualist” framework.

  69. Hat, David: I was exposed to a fine example of such dark humor (involving the treatment of grad students) penned by grad students in creole linguistics and circulated at a conference: they had written up a delicious description of their Department as a colonial-era slave plantation: The Church took the place of the University administration, the senior professors were the old masters, the younger tenure-track professors their heirs, undergraduate students were the cotton to be picked (=made to pay for their “education”), and grad students were the slaves who did the picking.

    At the conference where this document circulated some people had written suggestions and suggested corrections and criticism. My favorite (I am paraphrasing): “This is slanderous. In real life the Church would never have stood by something as crassly exploitative and spiritually shallow as a University Department”.

  70. I love it!

  71. I am a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2001

    Very nice; I’ve only made it up to Time’s Person of the Year 2006.

  72. Looking back in time, I discovered that my late grandma won the Nobel Peace Prize of 1963 “for promoting the principles of the Geneva Convention and cooperation with the UN”.

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