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Reliving the horror of the East German border on a fascinating guided tour

The division of Germany came to an end in 1990 after more than four decades. Years later, the horror of its deadly and scandalous border can still be felt. On 25 August 2007 I went on a guided tour taking in three sites: the museum in Helmstedt, a preserved section of the border at Hötensleben, and the former checkpoint on the A2 autobahn near Marienborn.

I believe that the shocking reality of what happened in East Germany and eastern Europe has been downplayed and forgotten by many.

But if you want to experience the grim reality of the border that helped to prop up the Soviet dominated East German state, you have to come and see it for yourself, or at least, what remains of it.

On this remarkable guided tour you can walk on the death strip, climb two of the observation towers and explore the huts and administrative blocks once used by the GDR border guards. A knowledgeable volunteer guide provides fascinating insights.

The East German state proclaimed the Berlin Wall and the inner German border as an 'Anti-Fascist protection rampart' (antifaschistischer Schutzwall), but after a visit to these sites, you are left in no doubt at whom the deadly measures were directed against: the people on the eastern side. The border was designed mainly to prevent GDR citizens from escaping, as well as to hermetically seal the east from the west.

Here are some of the highlights of the tour, with a selection of stories and important points:

Preserved section of the border at Hötensleben

At Hötensleben a section of the wall and border fences and watchtowers have been preserved. The border ran close to the village of Hötensleben, which was particularly tragically affected by it.

The outer wall, death strip, vehicle traps, column path, inner wall with barbed wire, and a hilltop watchtower have all been preserved. This section was only a small part of a continuous border which ran for hundreds of kilometres from the Baltic Sea to the Czechoslovakia in the south. There were only a handful of border crossings.

Due to the topography, and thanks to platforms put up on the western side, it was possible to see over the defences. People on the eastern side were forbidden from communicating in any way with those on the western side, even though many had close relatives there.

inner wall and fence, former GDR border at Hötenslsben

Here is a typical story: A woman in Hötensleben had just given birth wanted to show the baby to her sister who lived on the western side. She arranged for the sister to come to the border and look across the death strip where her sister would stand at the window their house, and hold the baby up for her sister to see. This was carried out but unfortunately the authorities found out about it and she suffered consequences (further detail to be provided).

On the western side at Christmas, Christmas trees were put up on the platforms, and carols were sung to let the people in the east know that they weren't forgotten. For the people on the eastern side, waving was forbidden, but occasionally, ten women would simultaneously clean the windows of their houses.

view from Observation Tower, preserved section of the GDR border at Hötenslsben

Dogs were used to trap would-be refugees trying to flee to freedom in the west. They were not fed much to keep them lean, and had little human contact. Those dogs that didn't fulful their purpose, for instance by falling asleep on duty or not showing the required agression, were deemed to be 'weak-spirited' and shot dead.

The border was manned mostly by young East Germans doing their national service, under the command of a senior officer. Border duty was an ordeal for most of them. You can see the inscriptions on the inside of the watchtower as they counted down the days: 87 + h, 86 - 87 plus heute - 87 days plus today, and so on.

graffiti on observation tower interior written by GDR border guards

In their 'Border 2000' project, the East German regime had plans for an invisible border. The ugly and embarassing walls, fences and watchtowers would be removed and the border would be controlled by invisible laser technology, a kind of 'force field'. Unfortunately for them, history moved on, and the East German state, along with its deadly defences, came to an end in 1990.

Marienborn border checkpoint on the A2 autobahn

At the former GDR border complex on the A2 autobahn near Marienborn, you can walk around the cabins and administrative blocks once once used by the East German border guards and other staff. Here are some more points:

Marienborn was the busiest crossing point as it was the one used to transit East Germany to West Berlin. (In the 80s, I passed through this checkpoint on many occasions on my way to and from West Berlin.)

After driving east along the motorway into East German territory, cars would be directed off the autobahn to a vast border complex where they would have to queue up, often for an hour or more to wait to be processed. Whenever the GDR regime wished to protest about something, manning levels would be reduced, the queues would escalate, and people would have to wait for hours or more.

For those entering East Germany, e.g. West Germans visiting relatives, checks were particularly stringent. After the 1971 transit agreement, formalities for those in transit between West Germany and West Berlin were eased. Over the seventies and eighties, the West German government paid billions of marks to the East German regime for use of the transit roads.

There were many attempts to take people out of East Germany hidden in cars. Some were converted to allow people to hide, for instance a much smaller petrol tank was put in. The border guards used a metal rod to test for the size of the tank and if they noticed anything suspicious, the car would be taken apart.

Those unfortunate people caught trying to commit 'Republikflucht' - fleeing East Germany - would normally be sent to prison for three years, an experience which would break the spirit many of them.

Occasionally, body searches were carried out on people entering the GDR. An inspection room has been preserved, with items of womens' clothing draped over a chair. It gives an insight into the shocking methods used by the East German state on both its own and foreign nationals.

If a car was stopped and taken apart by customs, the people - women and children - would have to stand outside, possibly for hours and in sub-zero temperatures, while the border guards completed their work.

A gamma ray detector was used to spot people hiding inside lorries. After 1990 it was discovered that the device emitted radiation that was potentially dangerous to those repeatedly exposed to it, e.g. truck drivers and the staff who manned it.

The Marienborn checkpoint was closed in 1990 when Germany was reunited. Much of the complex was retained, and later opened as a memorial to divided Germany.

Visitors can experience all this and more on the three-site tour organised by 'Projekt Grenzenlos' - 'Project Without Borders'. The tour takes place on the third Saturday of every month and costs 10 euro. A coach takes visitors between the museum in Helmstedt, the border remains at Hötensleben, and the motorway border complex at Marienborn.

Our guide Frau Ute Goslar spoke with authority and conviction with a dash of humour. The tour I went on was in German but guides also speak English and other languages.

Please note: I wasn't able to visit the museum, but will be covering that in a subsequent update to this article.

For more information visit www.grenzdenkmaeler.de/ (German only at present).

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-08-27

Aidan O'RourkeAidan O'Rourke has been active in photography and online media since 1995. He has documented the development of the local area in his Eyewitness website (1997-2005) and as a contributor to books, publications and the Manchester Evening News. He runs his Eyewitness photography walks in Manchester, Liverpool and other locations. He offers one-to-one tuition in Photography and Languages. He is a high-level speaker of German and can offer photography walks and tours through the medium of German. Visit www.aidan.co.uk

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