Der Internal Grenze

A ride to the now defunct Internal Border.

Every location has an intrinsic value and the landscape can be dramatic or even supine and a ‘back-water’ can have a story to tell, if often a little more prosaic than some. Additionally man’s intervention in the landscape can be dramatic (or traumatic) and with the passage of time structures, once dominant, remain, but which are now docile with rusted iron often protruding from brick and concrete as if mimicking nature.

I am near to the Lower Saxony and Thuringia border at Vogelsang, a spot that some might rightly call a back-water, but this place was once huddled up to what is still a man-made scar across the landscape that was the German Internal Grenze. This was a border which was matched historically by the Siegfried Line, Maginot Line and Atlantic Walls of recent history.

But these fortifications were constructed to keep people out whilst the internal Grenze like others such as the Korean DMZ and the Cyprus Peace Line (can we include the Northern Ireland Peace Wall?) were built to divide a country, isolate or even entomb people. This is the sort of mind-set that also saw the wall constructed around the Warsaw Ghetto during World War Two, and around Berlin in 1961 including other such walls. (We might add the West Bank Wall, which also juts out beyond established Israel territory into occupied Palestine and then there is the much touted Trump Wall with Mexico.)

The Internal Grenze began developing as an armed line from 1952 and was cut regardless of terrain or social fabric from the Baltic to the Czechoslovakian border (1,393 kilometres), where it morphed into the Iron Curtain (armed border) that split Europe.

In 1945 with the Nazi tyranny and armies set for collapse, the allies i.e. the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union discussed what peace would mean for Europe at the Yalta Conference.  The subsequent occupation of Germany would see it split into four zones; in the North administered by the British, in the South by the USA, in the West along the Rhine by the French and in the East by the Soviet Union. Berlin, once the capital of Germany, was similarly divided, although land locked, deep within the Soviet zone.

Attitudes to what to do with Germany were not the same; the Western Allies remembering the punitive sanctions placed upon Germany after World War One and which contributed to bring about the downfall of the  fledgling Weimar democracy (a bold experiment after centuries of autocratic rule) and was a pathway to the rise of the Nazi’s and WW2. In Germany, the two World wars are seen almost as one. The West pursued a post WW2 policy of rebuilding Germany economically and to establish democratic ideals (capitalist orientated of course), whilst in the East much of Germany’s surviving industrial infrastructure was removed, and it took the Soviet Union quite a while to figure out what to do with East Germany.

As it was the Kremlin formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 (NATO was formed in 1949 and Germany joined in 1955) and by then the Soviets/Stalin had begun to treat East Germany as a fellow communist state.

Freedom of movement
We could argue for a long time about the rights and wrongs of the competing systems of government propagated by the USA dominated West and the Communist Soviet Union in the East, but what is clear is that the German Internal Grenze was not built as a military defence akin to the Maginot or Siegfried Lines as it had little real military value, but rather it was the intention of the Soviet Union (and the DDR) to stop the flow of people leaving East Germany and the Eastern Block.

The numbers of people abandoning East Germany made it clear that many were voting with their feet drawn by a greater development of wealth and a perceived greater liberalism in the West.  Both the West and the Soviets shared a view that there was a potential for war between the blocks if the exodus destabilised East Germany and the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

For some within the Kremlin such was the concern they would have accepted a peace treaty which might have seen Germany united even if run along Western lines in return for it being non-aligned (out of NATO). As it was the hard-line Stalinists of the East Germany SED ruling party led at first by Walter Ulbricht and then in 1971 by Erich Honecker (an action enforced by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to reaffirm doctrine) had no intention of loosening their hold and they suffocated change or moderation having often pushed against the anti-Stalinism of Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In the end as was the case with Berlin the Soviets chose to support the East German leadership. What they did not cut were the land and air routes to Berlin or move to take control of the Western Zones in Berlin, and this seemed to satisfy the USA. The cutting off of land routes in 1948/49 and the subsequent successful Berlin Airlift was seen as a loss for the Soviet Union and a victory for the USA.

Willy Brandt the Mayor of Berlin and soon to become Chancellor of Germany was aware that the acceptance of a Berlin status quo also meant the long held hope of a unified Germany would have to wait for the passage of time. For the Soviets the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the subsequent fall from grace of Khrushchev (Brezhnev became premier in 1964) led to the realisation that both sides were accepting that the Grenze and a two ‘nation’ Germany was the preferred option after years of threats of a possible nuclear war. Brandt realising the realpolitik of the time began a policy of Ost-Politik where rather than negotiate with either the USA or the Soviets he would talk to the East Germans. (some saw this as a betrayal)

Once part of the Grenze now open to myself and bike

The end
In the 1980’s with the Soviet Union in financial decline and weary of war after intervening in Afghanistan it began to loosen its hold over the Warsaw Pact nations, new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev indicated that there might be no repeat of Soviet intervention as happened in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1967 when each country saw wide political dissent suppressed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks.

Gorbachev’s Glasnost policies saw restrictions on travel and Soviet oversight of Warsaw Pact Governments relaxed in the East and this in turn led to borders being pushed ajar (especially along the Hungarian/Czechslovakian border) and then opened. In Poland huge dissent centred upon the Gdansk shipyard and this was not met with tanks.

The end of the Internal Grenze came in 1989 with the symbolic breaching of the Berlin Wall. Now, as I sit with my bike at this unremarkable although pleasant enough spot I am at a place where once a cruel barrier was situated, and although life went on behind the wire it did separate communities, families and friends. It was also a physical symbol of a geo-political stalemate that held Europe as a hostage to misadventure and possible Nuclear Armageddon.

Approximately over one thousand people died on the border (Inc. Berlin) shot, blown up by mines, suicide or simply left to die in the ‘death strip’ from various injuries sustained as no help could be given. Goodness knows how many died of heart break. Now, the Grenze is in places a  ‘Green Band’ where nature can thrive or is lost, but not untraceable if you look hard.

A special place
For me what makes this ‘ordinary’ spot special is that Germany did not become one nation until 1871 and was united often by force from a multitude of independent states (I am on the border of Thuringia and Saxony in a now Federal Germany), Germany then saw its borders redrawn after World Wars One and Two meaning that cities that were once German speaking (Strasbourg, Metz, Prague and Konigsberg the capital of Prussia – now known as Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the Baltic) are no longer geographically within Germany or neither is German the first language. The country has lost 33% (includes 25% after WW2) of its territory since WW1. Then on the creation of the Internal Grenze it became two Germanys.  Despite this loss of land (in addition the abandonment of militarist assimilation and a Prussian mind set) Germany’s political and trading influence and friendly cooperative relations has never ever been stronger! And this is because of the current open borders with its neighbours.

Hard borders are just stupid, the East German state blew it by adopting a rigid orthodoxy that led to the border and the Berlin Wall. I have been on cycle races in Flanders and the Ardennes where the action has flowed between regions regardless of International borders. Open borders allow life to go on and freedom of movement is maintained even if administrations are different.

Hard borders are not life affirming and today I can venture across the Internal Grenze on my bike when only a short while ago I could not have done so and that makes Vogelsang a special place.

At the Grenze under the Ski Jump
Peace Dividend Fahrradtour – Zieten Barracks – Kerstlingeröderfeld
Berlin – Viktoria Cyclo Cross und der Grenze
Duderstadt and the Grenze
Friedland Transit Camp

Fastbook post:…

Grenze Rides
Grenzstein Trophy
Candy Graveler

The Ride:

Cycle Fahrrad Goettingen home page

Pictures taken at other times (Under the Ski-Lift and Berlin, Viktoria Cross etc.)

The Berlin Wall almost comes up against a kerb having pushed across the road

A train crossing at the edge of West Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate in 1991 with remnants of the now defunct Berlin Wall which had prevented access from the West




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