One piece of wall that still divides the Germans
Imre Karacs on the village that is trying to preserve a relic of Cold War history
Sunday 18 August 1996
But the wreckers somehow never got to Hotensleben, a pretty village of 2,000 souls in what is still called the "Border District". Six years ago, when the area found itself abruptly in the middle of Germany, the locals swapped currencies, punched a hole through the wall for the road leading west, toppled the Communist monument on the main square in front of the church and eased themselves into a new routine. The barracks of the hated border troops were turned over to asylum-seekers from the Third World.
The Warsaw Pact's last line of defence still stands almost undisturbed at the edge of the vegetable patches, but has lately become a source of parish rancour. Some villagers have organised a petition calling for its demolition, while another section wants it preserved. The "Hotensleben Border Monument Association", set up by civic-minded residents with a sense of history, is raising funds to return the structure to its former glory. The government in Bonn will not hear of it, the regional administration is claiming penury, and bits of it continue to vanish in the middle of the night. About two thirds of the line is intact; the rest can be found in scrapyards and incorporated into the fences separating neighbours.
Fighting this amnesia-inspired vandalism is Achim Walther, the association's president, who has lived in the village since 1973. "It is very important to understand that this is the wall which kept 17 million people in prison," he explains. "It is a monument to remind people of injustice."
And it's not just any old wall, as the 60-year old historian is quick to point out. Built in 1952, it was the prototype of the structure that was to seal off half of Berlin nine years later. Most of East Germany's fortifications were simple fences surrounded by minefields and overlooked by watch-towers. Only villages and towns lying along the "internal border" merited walls. Hotensleben had all the trimmings: walls, strips of raked sand to show up footprints, scatter guns that killed escapers automatically, searchlights and Alsatians.
Many of the villagers think this is nothing to be proud of. "A costly eyesore" was how an old lady tending the gladioli described the spectacle at the bottom of her garden. Beyond her stood a 10ft concrete wall crowned with barbed wire; behind the wall a wire mesh fence tough enough to stop a charging lorry. In no man's land two ponies grazed beneath the lamps; further ahead stood another wall.
These lines run north for 300 yards towards a watch-tower on the top of a ridge. At night the area used to be illuminated by a row of street lights where there was no street, and anyone who thought otherwise was likely to be shot. Hotensleben's grisly toll is inscribed by the road which runs through the fortifications: two people killed by mines, one shot by the scatter guns, a couple seriously injured by a mine and another person mauled by two guard dogs. Today's tourists are warned not to stray from the paths: some mines might still be lurking.
Mr Walther wants to buy more tank traps and barbed wire, and to reconnect the fence's electronic eyes. The cost of the dream to recreate the authentic look - minus the guns - runs to about DM200,000 (pounds 86,800), to be raised almost entirely from donations. An appeal has been launched, and the funds are beginning to pour in. Last week the association received DM60,000 from the German lottery.
He may yet fulfil his dream, but the hope of declaring the village a national monument seems forlorn. Bonn's favourite memorial is at Marienborn, 12 miles away. From Hotensleben it is reached by a bone-shaking tarred road which tapers into a track, but the high-powered visitors who gathered there last Tuesday to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Berlin Wall had travelled a different route.
They had driven to Marienborn on the motorway that used to link West Germany with West Berlin. The road was a Western corridor funded by West Germany for the benefit of West Germans, and built by East German workers, who at one point demanded to be paid part of their wages in hard currency. The East German guards carried out their checks, but the motorists in effect never left the Federal Republic. Inconvenience - yes; hardship - no.
There is no wall at Marienborn, just a few plain fences, some passport control booths much like Dover's, and even a veterinary inspection office where the tourists' pets were examined. Yet the government, which wants to be rid of Hotensleben's wall, has officially proclaimed this as a "Memorial to German Partition". Vast amounts of public money are to be spent restoring the nondescript buildings, and the site will form part of Hannover's Expo 2000, promising to disgorge coachloads of tourists in four years' time upon the one small hotel that the neighbourhood offers.
Mr Walther wanted the two memorials linked, to connect the experiences of the two halves of the country. "You must see both at the same time to understand the division," he says. "Marienborn is a monument for West Germans. We in Hotensleben are a monument for the East."
The government, however, has decided that never the twain shall meet. Hotensleben's wall will no doubt survive as a memorial to German division, while Marienborn is destined to become a monument to united Germany's lingering disunity.
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