Separate but not Equal: The German tale of a land divided

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be on the front lines of the greatest battle that never was?  On Friday morning of my trip to Germany we visited Point Alpha- the strategic lynchpin between the two greatest superpowers on the planet during the period of time commonly known as the Cold War.  Though peaceful and relatively forgotten today, this was one of the heaviest guarded places on the planet only 25 years ago, and no amount of time can completely wipe away the scars of the past.

Point Alpha Memorial

On Friday morning we visited the Point Alpha Foundation.  Point Alpha was an observation post used by the U.S. and west German forces during the Cold War. Though it is in a very isolated part of Germany, it was strategically important because it overlooked the Fulda Gap, an area of lowlands that would have been a likely target of the Warsaw Pact forces had they invaded western Germany.  Today it remains as a memorial to the four decades of its existence and the tragedy of the Cold War.  We took a guided tour with Sebastian Rosner, Head of Studies, who walked us through the museum and the pain it brought to the German people.

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Point Alpha Memorial

The relationship between the Americans and the Soviets quickly deteriorated after WWII when there were major disagreements between the two remaining super powers on how the world should run in the future.  To protect their own interests, both America and the USSR supported countries ideologically and geographically within their sphere of influence. Soon, there were threats from both sides and the countries began preparing for what seemed inevitable- a final war.  Many citizens attempted to flee to the West, unhappy with the Communist lifestyle and its limited opportunities, so to combat this, Eastern nations began to construct barriers to prevent anyone from escaping.  As tensions mounted, the Soviets built bigger walls, physically and metaphorically, between their countries and the perceived Western aggressors.  In Berlin the famous wall was constructed which would separate families, friends, and neighbors for the next half century.  But this was far from the only place where the people were trapped- as soon a border went up throughout all of Europe to divide the East and West.

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This marker indicated the official border between East and West Germany during the Cold War

Borders during the Cold War were fortified throughout the entire expanse of Europe.  Typically they were five hundred yards wide with the inner border covered in many traps for people attempting to cross the borders including killer dogs, land mines, automatically triggered weapons, explosive devices, watch towers and guards monitoring the area.

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The final borders had double fences, attack dogs, landmines, explosive devices, and guards watching to prevent people from escaping

Along our hike, we were even able to climb inside of an East German Watch Tower and see how the border patrol would have operated at the time.  The people on the border towns had to be loyal to the Communist Party to even live there, and often there were examples of violence for the citizens attempting to flee the Soviet stronghold.

The most heartbreaking story was of a brother and sister who were separated early in life.  In 1960 her brother took a photograph as she had gotten married and she and her husband looked through the fence to share their news to him.

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Sister and her husband – shot taken from brother through the border fence barrier

It wasn’t until 1989 when the next photo was taken of the sister and her daughter climbing through the barricade to reunite as a family again, able to catch up from a lifetime of separation.

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Sister entering border crossing with daughter to reunite with brother

In between the sad lessons we learned from the Point Alpha Memorial, we were able to share some laughs during lunch.

Lunchtime at Point Alpha was a terrific meal of pork steaks, various salads and peach yogurt at a dining area inside the grounds of the former American base.  The bees here, as in the rest of Germany, were relentless at trying to get to our food.  For whatever reason a lot of them were attracted to our sweet drinks and one of them even crawled in and drowned inside Eric’s bottle.  I wish I could say I felt bad for him, but it was pretty hilarious that the pickiest eater on our trip was denied a soda at the hands of a bee.  We soon learned that in Germany apparently the word for coaster means “bottle cap” as we used them to help protect the drinks from invasive species for the rest of the meal.

When we finished lunch, our group then hiked along the East-West border, a two and a half hour traverse from Point Alpha down into Geisa where our hotel was located.  The journey was amazing, so much land had been left untouched for nearly half a century and everything we saw along the path showed the power of nature to cover up the sadness of the past.  Large impressions remained in the earth where the wall once stood, but with the stone torn down and removed, nature was able to take its course and return to its former glory. Throughout the walk we saw green trees, fields of grass, massive farms and tiny towns that dotted the German countryside.  I remarked to Christine that surely this must have been what the character Maria meant when she sang “The Hills Are Alive” in the Sound of Music.  Germany is a land reborn, as every day life blooms anew and hearts learn to heal from the past just as Mother Earth has licked wounds of her own.

At Point Alpha we were able to see firsthand examples of the grim life German citizens faced in the Eastern Bloc.  We also experienced amazing testimonials to the power of the human spirit through the brave acts of courage committed by the Germans in their attempts to break through the borders and find the life they wanted to lead, rather than one dictated to them.  Though many were able to escape, countless more were not, and their struggles still give valuable lessons that we can all learn from.

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The view during our hike

This part of the trip reminded me just how valuable our freedom is today and why it needs to be protected.  Even after the horror of the Nazis, Germany was not a free nation where individuals were able to seek happiness.  Millions risked their lives to find that freedom in the west.  It was also incredible to realize how close the USSR and America were to all-out war with each other.

Looking out over the East German border from an allied guard tower

Looking out over the East German border from an allied guard tower

Standing in the guard tower and overlooking the hillside, I was grateful for the brave soldiers who were stationed here, who knew full-well that they would be on the front line if the Soviets invaded, and the risk they took by fulfilling their duty every day.  Getting a chance to be away from technology for so long has also encouraged me to again cut back and reconnect with a world we so often neglect.  We couldn’t have asked for a better day for the hike or a more memorable experience.

After checking into our new hotel, a castle at the top of Geisa named Schloss, we had a short time to relax in our rooms.  This was the hotel where I first fumbled about the need for a room key to have power in the room.

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Schloss Castle in Geisa

Otherwise the hotel room was beautiful and by far the biggest of our trip so far- my room looked out the front of the building and over the entire city.  I quickly cleaned up, and then headed downstairs for the last activity of the evening, a lecture by Marion Kleffel, who lived in the German Democratic Republic during the time of the Cold War.

Lecture – Life in East Germany under the GDR

Keeping the citizens under control was a top priority for the Geman Democratic Republic, so they monitored all aspects of society.  This often happened through the services of the Secret Police, otherwise known as the Stasi.   Information was everything to the Stasi spies, so when they found a subject that they were concerned about, they often either went after their family, friends, or acquaintances  for information.  Depending on the seriousness of the crime, a citizen could face serious consequences for their actions if they were found guilty.  This was also how the Stasi built their network of spies, they could threaten a person’s freedom or even family or relatives if they did not agree to spy on others in their community.

In the East German educational system, students were taught that the Western World was the enemy, and all things associated with it were evil.  As a child she believed more of what she was taught, but as she grew older she quietly began to question the rhetoric.  Speaking positively about Western ideology or even watching TV programs or music with those themes could get a student in trouble and their family imprisoned.  One way the teachers helped to spy on families was to ask the younger students what their favorite characters were on TV- if a child answered a character from a Western TV program, the teacher would report their family for illegally accessing the material.  At dances at the time, a maximum of forty percent of American music was allowed due to their status as an enemy of the GDR.  Silly rules like this were common at the time in order to enforce strict control over the people.

After the Berlin wall fell, the Stasi were disbanded and West Germans came upon millions of secret documents the Stasi once kept on their own people.  Today, individuals can apply to find out about any files the Stasi had on them specifically.  When Kleffel applied for her files, she found copies of every letter she sent to relatives and friends.  Some people don’t choose to request files out of fear that they might implicate friends and family members who may have spied for the Stasi or reported on them.  It would be incredibly painful to find out who betrayed you in your life, and I am not certain what I would do in their situation.

Citizens in the GDR were allowed to go on vacations as long as they stayed in the Soviet bloc of countries.  Many families held feasts at the house instead of going away for travel due to their lack of money.

Kleffel and her husband earned around 1,500 a month and were able to afford basic groceries.  Also, those who lived in rural areas were able to get more as they often farmed or kept their own animals.  However there were always foods that weren’t available at the time due to shortages.  Some rare items at the time included many types of meat, such as sausages or steaks, and also exotic fruits such as bananas and oranges.  Electronics also were hard to come by and citizens typically had to wait much longer than someone from the West for the latest technology.  Clothes were also not up to modern fashion and colors were often dull.  With the help of her relatives, Kleffel was able to get second-hand clothes and items and it helped her to adjust to the sacrifices, though she would have to be weary of where she wore them or she could get reported.

When the Berlin Wall first fell, many tried to go to see what had happened and celebrate.  Though she and her husband were excited at the news, they lost their jobs soon after and had to find new career choices.  When the two countries unified into one, Western Germany basically brought all of their ways to East Germany.  While it would be nice to listen to both sides and reach consensus, expediency was necessary in order to quickly and efficiently bring the two nations together.

I found Kleffel’s discussion fascinating because I had never considered the Cold War from the perspective of an East German citizen.  It must have been terrifying to know that the government was constantly surveying your activities and that anyone might be a government spy.  Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine being denied basic foods, the right to speak our mind, or even the right to travel freely and contact family and friends.  Times were difficult in East Germany during this time, but the citizens were able to persevere in spite of the challenges they faced.

During the Cold War in Europe, walls were built to separate people and ideas from each other- but they never fully accomplished this task.  In the end, no amount of brick, violence, or fear could stop the power of the human spirit or the love that families shared.  People risked their lives to protest against the government and escape tyranny because no life was worth living under such suffering.  Today, one of the deadliest borders in the history of the world has been overtaken by nature and returned to the earth.  But no matter how many forget, these people preserve their history so no one dares repeat these mistakes again.

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2 thoughts on “Separate but not Equal: The German tale of a land divided

  1. This is wonderful. I am applying to the TOP fellowship this spring and I came here to sort of “live” the experience through someone else in the hopes to gain what the experience will give me. Yet I find myself continually saving your webpages to PDFs so I can reference them later in my history classes. Great blog. Not sure if you will ever see this but here you go!

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    • Thank you for the kind words! Best of luck on getting into the program- it changed my life. I recently was accepted to the Keizai Koho Fellowship for Japan but had to decline due to life circumstances- hoping to reapply next year and continue life’s adventures!

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