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The Inner German Border: 866 Miles of Fences, Mines and Spring Guns

Korea is today’s best example for a country split up into two parts, a communist and a democratic one. In Germany, this kind of situation ended with the reunification, thirty years ago.

Berlin, October 2nd, 2020 (The Berlin Spectator) — Growing up close to the inner German border was weird and dangerous. This applied in both West and East Germany, but in different ways. The 1,393 kilometers (866) miles of border installations had one main purpose: Like the Berlin Wall (read separate feature Following the Berlin Wall Path: Where the Remainder is a Reminder), they were supposed to keep GDR citizens in their country.

Zoo Animals

The author of these lines was 12 years old when he took part in a cycling trip from Hamburg to the inner German border. Those GDR border guards on the opposite side were rather close. They were holding machine guns, looking at the Western cyclists as if we were zoo animals. But the same applied the other way around.

In Helmstedt, transit route travelers were checked thoroughly. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

While the border zone in West Germany was easily accessible, this was not the case in East Germany. Hardly anyone was allowed into what the GDR had made a forbidden zone. Inhabitants of villages at the border were allowed to be there, but they could not receive any visitors from other parts of the country. Border guards showed up a lot. Their homes were something like a tightened, even stricter version on the GDR.

Spies and Officials

The GDR’s communist regime called this weird border the “anti-fascist protection rampart”. High-ranking officials were allowed to cross it from East to West and back. So were spies, elderly GDR citizens and high-ranking officials. It was different the other way around.

Wreaths were laid down by CDU politicians at the former Helmstedt crossing. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

West Germans could visit their relatives in the GDR, but they needed a permission first. Generally, anyone was allowed to use the four transit routes through the GDR’s territory, to get from West Germany to West Berlin or the other way around. Taking that trip by train was another option.

Weird and Weirder

So, there were big differences, but also aspects citizens from both versions of Germany had in common. All Germans were in danger during the Cold War. The missiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain would have killed most Germans first, had there been a “thermonuclear exchange”. Germany was in the middle of it all.

A small museum at the former border exhibits items like this sign. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Today, Germans below 35 years of age were either not born yet when the inner German border existed, or they do not remember those times because they were small children. To them the idea of those two slices of Germany must be even weirder than to those who do.

Trouble at Border

To Westerners, crossing the GFR’s borders on their way to West Berlin was quite an adventure. Those chronically unfriendly GDR border guards would ask them where they wanted to go. The right answer was “West Berlin”. Travelers who said “Berlin” could get into trouble. “Return to the end of the waiting line and think about your answer”, some would hear.

This was the tower used by ‘Soviet Allied Control’. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Berlin was the capital of the GDR, from the perspective of those East German border guards. West Berlin was the decadent Western island located right in the middle of the GDR.

‘Soviet Allied Control’

On the transit route, West Germans were allowed to take breaks at service stations, but talking to East Germans was forbidden. The notorious State Security was on site. On the road, the ‘People’s Police’ tried all it could to catch West Germans speeding. They even hid their patrol cars under piles of leaves in fall.

The border was ugly, in all ways possible. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Allied soldiers were allowed to enter the GDR, more or less as they pleased, but they were checked by Red Army soldiers. At the border checkpoint between the West German town of Helmstedt and the East German settlement of Marienborn, the Russians had a ‘Soviet Allied Control’ tower. They knew American, British and French soldiers used the freedom of movement they had for spying on the Red Army and the GDR’s National People’s Army.

Museum in Helmstedt

Today, those border checkpoints are hardly visible. But slowing down on the Autobahn at their locations does help. At the former Helmstedt border checkpoint, a small museum shows what it used to look like. Those tiny cabins that contained one chair, a radiator and a red button, used to be populated by GDR border guards who searched forbitten items and refugees hidden in vehicles. They are still intact. So are the big installations in which trucks were checked.

This is where the GDR border guards’ boss was farting into his arm chair. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Going to that little museum bring back those weird times, when the German people was separated. When East Germans loved their country so much they had to be caged in it. When the Cold War could have become a ‘hot’ one at any moment. When attempts to cross the inner German border illegally could result in death.

Not Easy

When people tried to flee the GDR. When some managed to get away, and others were jailed in State Security prisons or shot to death. When visiting the GDR was like time travel, and returning to the Federal Republic as well. When everyone was supposed to be equal in the GDR, but few were far more equal than most others.

When fences, mines and spring guns separated families, friends and lovers, when they prevented dreams from coming true. When the mean regime in East Berlin exploited, incarcerated and spied on its own citizens. When wanting freedom of speech and democracy was dangerous in the East.

Thirty-one years ago, the Berlin Wall and the inner German border finally fell. Thirty years ago on Saturday, Germany was finally reunited. The reunification may not be completed in the sense that there are still differences, for instance what the way of thinking is concerned. Germany is still in the process of growing together. Obviously, it is not easy.

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