Across the great divide

For 40 years Germany was riven by a 900-mile 'inner frontier'. Now tourists can view the ugly scars of Cold War

Just a garden fence: that's what the Berlin Wall, which fell so memorably 10 years ago this week, was when compared with the "Inner-German Frontier" that scarred Europe's largest country for two generations. For 40 years and 866 miles, a strip of desecration ripped through the middle of Germany. It formed the ideological frontline between capitalism and communism.

Just a garden fence: that's what the Berlin Wall, which fell so memorably 10 years ago this week, was when compared with the "Inner-German Frontier" that scarred Europe's largest country for two generations. For 40 years and 866 miles, a strip of desecration ripped through the middle of Germany. It formed the ideological frontline between capitalism and communism.

At a conference that began in Potsdam between Stalin, Truman and Churchill in July 1945, the Allied leaders used pre-war provincial boundaries to carve up the country into British, French, American and Soviet sectors. The first three merged into West Germany; the USSR's portion became East Germany. Barriers began to divide families and friends. The purpose of the frontier was ostensibly self-defence, but its real aim was to stem the economic migration depleting Eastern Europe's most productive nation.

The frontier hardened over the next generation. "You may encounter a sense of simmering resentment when you brightly announce your imminent departure to the West," a 1989 travel guide warned tourists helpfully. The book was published shortly before East Germany was about to celebrate its 40th anniversary; instead, the people refused to suspend their disbelief any longer, and the country ceased to exist. These days, the boundary between the German Federal Republic and the "Democratic" version has been defused, and is now pursuing a new life as a tourist trail.

To visit the relics of repression, only so recently abandoned, is both chilling and thrilling. No guidebook will yet direct you to the relics of conflict, but Cold War memories are being reheated at a number of locations all along the frontier.

Schnackenburg

The cauterisation of normal channels of communication slowed the pulse of places in West Germany close to the frontier. Schnackenburg found itself at the tip of a finger of land protruding into East Germany. Overnight, a busy village at one of the crossing points of the Elbe river became a backwater.

For 40 years, this absurdly pretty assembly of neat redbrick houses has perched on a landscape straight out of a Constable painting. The ferry link across the Elbe has been restored. Schnackenburg now lures tourists into stopping off with the Grenzlandmuseum, a lumbering barn of a house. The loft beneath the terracotta tiles contains a kitsch manifestation of East German frontier officials, a kind of "Ken and Barbie-defect-to-the GDR" tableau.

Point Alpha

The Fulda Gap was the location at which a Warsaw Pact invasion was anticipated. With Frankfurt only 50 miles away, the base at Point Alpha was the closest point to West Germany's industrial heartland. It lies on one of the most beautiful stretches of the former frontier, where no-man's land snakes over rolling hills and drifts across valleys. This was part of the American zone: the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment had the task of defending democracy.

Countless tons of concrete and acres of barbed wire were used to prevent escape from the high-security prison that was East Germany. A restriction zone was established three miles inside the eastern frontier. Trees were cleared, and progressively more brutish obstructions imposed upon the landscape: dog patrols, electrified fences, and heavily armed soldiers surveying the ensemble from watchtowers.

The legal frontier was actually a few yards further to the west, beyond the final barrier, marked by a series of posts.

As recently as June 1989, the border police from the West were issuing warnings, pointing out "the mistaken assumption that the area between the border demarcation line and the border fortification is a No-Man's Land... those persons who violate GDR territory - either accidentally or intentionally - run a very serious risk."

The Border Museum Rhön, which was recently created at Point Alpha, explains the intricacies of oppression. The newly liberated East Germans led the campaign to create a memorial at the site. Servicemen from both sides have returned to inspect the site, and to wander around the ghostly fortifications that were off-limits to them.

In the visitors' book, Leland L Cogdill Jr observes: "It was 722 days of hard work, defending the frontier of freedom." Meanwhile Geoff Walden has a more crisp analysis, writing: "We won the Cold War."

Sonneberg

The border swerves around from Point Alpha to head east. The most significant cities form a matching pair on either side of the old frontier: Coburg and Sonneberg. Prosperous Coburg, which fell in the western side, was the home of Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria and sired the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha line for the British crown. The contrast with the sterility of Sonneberg is intense. Here, the shape of the frontier resembles a fist punching into the belly of Bavaria. One knuckle comprised the city of Sonneberg and surrounding villages, which became depopulated as the Cold War went on.

Residents were removed to East Germany's industrial heartland. Stefan Rüger, who runs his family's small hotel in the city, recalls the Grenzoffnung in November 1989 - when the barrier came down. Stefan's first reaction was not to head West, but to see what he had been missing in his own region: "We went around all the villages to see what they were like."

Mödlareuth

A brass band straight out of Bavaria was warming up in this small village when I arrived. But only half the oompahs were Bavarian - the rest resounded from the Thüringen contingent of the municipal band. A narrow stream has long divided the lande of Bavaria from Thüringen.

What was a mere bureaucratic inconvenience became a community-shredding impasse after the war. Mödlareuth became known as "Little Berlin".

The name of the German-German Museum - which features archaic Cold War military hardware, and now covers much of the village - is intended to emphasise the nonsensical geopolitics that placed this quiet corner of central Europe on the ideological cusp between Moscow and Washington.

Of all the relics along the line, it is the most moving, for the sheer inhumanity wrought by 40 years of madness. Just a decade later, the band is back in tune.

Getting there: to cover the frontier, the easiest way is to fly into Hamburg and out of Nürnberg, but this is more expensive than a no-frills return flight to Berlin. Virgin Express (0800 891199) begins flights on Wednesday from London Stansted to Berlin Schönefeld for £76.50 or more, and KLM's Buzz (0870 240 7070) starts flying from Stansted to Berlin Tegel on 4 January - fares from £60.

Attractions: The Grenzlandmuseum (00 49 58 40 210) is in the Fischerhaus at Schnackenburg. Open 10am-4pm, Mon to Fri, 11am-5pm, Sat and Sun, entry DM5. Border Museum Rhön, near Rasdorf (00 49 66 51 91 90 30), 10am-4pm daily (longer in summer), entry DM3. Pension Ruger, Gleisdamm Strasse 2, Sonneberg (00 49 36 75 70 26 84). German-German Museum, Mödlareuth (00 49 92 95 13 34), 10am-6pm daily, entry DM3.

Further reading: Along the Wall and Watchtowers by Oliver August, just out (HarperCollins, £17.99).

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'