PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification
It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.
Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.
We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.
On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.
Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.
The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.
Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.
Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.
Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.
“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”
“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.
At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.
Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”
A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.
The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.
In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.
The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.
Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.
Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de
HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de
For more info, www.germany.travel
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.