Border Forests: Legacies of the Iron Curtain

Border Forests: Legacies of the Iron Curtain

Germany’s Grünes Band (or Green Belt) is a landscape puzzle made up of both natural and cultural pieces. Photo by Heinz-Josepf Lücking/Creative Commons.

It was the woods that brought me to Vermont. More precisely, it was the footpath through its woods – the Long Trail. Its moniker “A Footpath in the Wilderness” was part of the allure, though only 49 miles of the 273-mile-long trail goes through designated wilderness areas. And even those sections reveal legacies of human use: stone walls and cellar holes are only the most obvious signs; charcoal layers in the soil, lilac and apple trees deep in the woods, understories of European buckthorn and Asian honeysuckle varieties are other pieces of the cultural landscape puzzle.

Lately, I’ve been exploring another trail in a different landscape, one with a much starker history of human use – and disuse. This trail traces a remnant of the Cold War: the former border between East Germany and West Germany. While the Berlin Wall divided the city and rendered West Berlin an island in communist East Germany, another, much longer, border divided the rest of the country for 40 years. Like the Berlin Wall, the 870-mile-long border between the two Germanys was among the most heavily fortified in the world: a high-security strip of land cleared of all vegetation and studded with land mines, watch towers, and booby-trapped fences. It truly was a Todesstreifen – a death strip.

The full meaning of this expression hit me on a visit in 2009, when I was walking through a stand of Scots pines near the former border with Jürgen Starck, a naturalist from the federal state of Brandenburg. Starck pointed out a simple wooden marker with a name and date carved into it: Bernhard Simon, October 28, 1963. And a smaller sign underneath: Er wollte von Deutschland nach Deutschland – He wanted to go from Germany to Germany. Starck explained that Bernhard, aged 18, had stepped on a land mine as he was trying to escape together with his brother, and had been injured so severely that he died shortly after his brother managed to drag him onto West German soil.

Bernhard was one of nearly 400 people who died while attempting to cross the border – not counting those who died trying to escape via the Baltic Sea or the Berlin Wall, which would bring the total closer to 900.

Border Forests: Legacies of the Iron Curtain Image

One of many markers that memorialize those killed while attempting to cross the border. Photo by Kerstin Lange.

Memorial markers for people who were killed by landmines or shot by snipers; the crumbling remains of watch towers; concrete tracks laid to facilitate the movement of patrol vehicles: these are now cultural pieces of the German landscape. Today, the former death strip has been transformed into Germany’s longest, skinniest nature preserve – the Grünes Band (Green Belt). Ironically, during the 40 years that people were kept out of the border strip, this inhospitable place became a refuge for plant and animal species that were losing habitat to development and agriculture on both sides of the border: some 1,200 rare or threatened species have been documented in the former border area so far. Among them are animals such as the black stork, black woodpecker, tree falcon, bluebird, and European wild cat; and plant species like moor clover, sand sedge, and Arnica. On its 870-mile course from the Baltic Sea to the mountains of Bohemia in the Czech Republic, the Grünes Band traverses forests, wetlands, lakes, floodplains, grasslands, sand dunes, heathlands, and mountain meadows – a cross-section of nearly all of Germany’s natural heritage. According to the Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation Germany (the organization that coordinates the various entities involved in managing the Grünes Band), a total of 146 habitat types have been identified.

It is the forests of the Green Belt that I have found most interesting – the fate of the swaths that were clearcut for the border, but also the adjacent landscapes. So I have been exploring the Harz National Park, north-central Germany’s largest forest national park, which straddles a 70-mile stretch of the former border and serves as one of the core ecological reserves of the Green Belt. With their rugged topography and thick forests, the Harz Mountains have long captured the German imagination, aided by cultural luminaries such as the famous poet Goethe. The mountains also symbolize the German division: during the Cold War, their highest peak, the Brocken (most of which was on East German territory), was studded with Soviet listening devices.

To help me understand what I was seeing, on a visit last October I met up with Dr. Friedhart Knolle, a geologist by training, all-around naturalist by passion, and press officer for the Harz National Park. Knolle grew up in Goslar, a town about 10 miles west of the former border. In the car en route to our first stop, he described himself as a “child of the border, a child of the division [of Germany].” His father, an avid naturalist, had known the Harz region without the border from the time before World War II and still had friends and colleagues in the East. When 24-hour visas were made available to West Germans in the early 1970s (as a source of hard currency for East Germany), he took his son along and introduced him to people and places across the border.

Apparently their visits to some sites, especially mines and caves, aroused the suspicion of the Stasi (the East German Secret Police). Knolle told me that after the reunification of Germany, he had been able to unearth the voluminous file the Stasi had compiled about his activities on these visits.

For our first stop that day, Knolle took me to a former border crossing on the northeastern side of the Park. Where he remembers the barren no-man’s land of the border from 26 years ago, we could now see a thriving young forest of mixed hardwoods, exactly the same age as the reunited Germany. Pioneer forests like this have grown up in about 10 percent of the Green Belt’s area, which is now about 25 percent forested.

Knolle pointed out that in areas that were forested before the division, the installation of the border had overwhelmingly destructive effects. By contrast, in agricultural areas, where the border strip served as a refuge for rare and threatened species that were being crowded out by agriculture and development elsewhere in the country.

The fragmented patches of forest found throughout the Green Belt today continue to play the same role, contributing to the protection of rare plants and biodiversity. This is especially true of the higher reaches of the Harz Mountains, where upland meadows harbor some rare plant species that require more light than dense forest cover would allow for.

Border Forests: Legacies of the Iron Curtain Image

The Grünes Band was protected over the decades from encroachment by agriculture and development. Today, it represents Germany’s longest, skinniest nature preserve. Photo by Klaus Leidorf.

Overall, open and edge habitat types are given special weight in the management guidelines for the Green Belt. This is a direct reflection of the predominantly open nature of the former border strip, which served as a refuge for so many plant and animal species typically found in open habitats. In some places, this means that forest patches dominated by spruce and fir are to be “redeveloped” to more natural open plant communities like heath, or, if this is not possible, to site-typical mixed forest types.

There are many different shades of “green” within the Green Belt, and its landscape puzzle is a bewildering mix of natural and cultural pieces. It is certainly no footpath in the wilderness in the sense of old-growth forests showing few signs of human presence. To be sure, the Harz National Park is managed for the protection of natural processes, thus for wilderness. But only a small part of the Green Belt is in the National Park, and the Harz Region had already seen centuries of profound human use long before the border. Its native forests had largely been destroyed by silver, copper, lead, and zinc mining from the Bronze Age until the last century.

From the early eighteenth century on, they had been replanted, though not necessarily with the “historically correct” species mix. It is only with the establishment of the National Park in the 1990s that ecological processes have been given priority. I like to think of the stretch of the Green Belt that traverses the Harz National Park as a footpath in a potential wilderness.

And of course, wilderness is not really the point of the Grünes Band. It is conceived as a Biotopverbund – a network of ecological corridors and core areas, managed and preserved with the goal of protecting native species, plant associations, and habitats at sustainable levels. Just as significantly, the Grünes Band is a landscape of remembrance. Remaining structures of the border installations such as border markers, watch towers, and the parallel concrete tracks for patrol vehicles are protected. Germany’s national strategy on biodiversity explicitly states the ecological and historical importance of the Grünes Band, and its protection is anchored in the Federal Law on the Protection of Nature.

Border Forests: Legacies of the Iron Curtain Image

Not your typical path in the woods: a concrete track for patrol vehicles. Photo by Kerstin Lange.

If there is not a square inch of German soil that has not been affected in some way by human use, the picture in the Northeast is only different by degrees, not by a fundamental distinction. Within the crazy quilt of Germany’s cultural landscapes, though, the history of the twentieth century adds a special chapter of legacies in the land. What better way to learn, in Germany or in New England, about history than by studying the woods?

This article was supported by Northern Woodlands magazine’s Research and Reporting Fund, established by generous donors.


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