The Iron Curtain was a political and physical division created after World War Two splitting Europe into East and West. I rode my gravel bike to visit an abandoned bunker part of what was once the German Internal Border erected to enforce this schism close to the city of Göttingen.
Salt the Fields?
After the war, the peace had to be won and as part of that process there were many agreements made between the winning powers despite it being an often-uncomfortable relationship and one such decision was the division of what was left of Germany into zones of occupation – Soviet Russia, British, American, and French. They all struggled to find an immediate long-term plan regarding Germany, although it became easier for the western allies to align their ideas, intentions, and strategies whilst the isolated Soviets took a little longer working out what they should do. For instance, follow the Roman example of the punishment meted out to Carthage by ´salting the fields´ and make Germany barren – the Soviets began their occupation by enforcing the Eastern Zone to pay major war reparations.
What all four occupying forces shared was that their governments had factions within them that were prepared to chance a Third World War and others who were not! Instead, it became apparent that superiority in Germany and Europe might be won by a process of a thousand cuts, thus sparking into life the Cold War. Willy Brandt the mayor of Berlin surmised rightly that there was no heart for further war (despite the military deployments and postures in the Zones of Occupation) and the break-up of Germany into east and west would become entrenched and be the dominant paradigm in the decades to follow. Later as Chancellor he followed this through when he began a policy of working with the East Germans and he gave legitimacy to the DDR´s (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) status despite massive Western criticism because it formalised the fact of life that there was two Germany´s.
A State of Mind
The Soviet Union at one point had offered a unified Germany with free elections etc. and in return Germany would be declared a nonaligned nation as was the case in Austria, although this may have been one of many ploys put forward rather than being a real intention, nonetheless if it had become a reality, it most likely would had led to the end of the emerging regime in the East led by the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). This worried the East German leadership.
Although Nikita Khrushchev was able to out-manoeuvre the leader designate Georgy Malenkov on the death of Joseph Stalin to gain power in the Soviet Union in 1953, he and his backers were less successful in ending the dictators influence even from the grave which meant the ´new order´ always had to look over its shoulder. In the midst of the intrigue and dangers of Soviet politics the SED played upon the tensions between Stalinists, conservatives and Khrushchev supporters to cement their regime led by Walter Ulbricht (1950-1971) to build the Berlin Wall and the internal border (or the anti-fascist barrier).
Although the East German regime was not a Nazi death cult or a Stalinist tyranny, it was nonetheless a dictatorship. It was the authoritarian Stalinist mindset which had been firmly imprinted by the political eco system of Moscow which prevailed upon the nascent DDR until its demise. Khrushchev often roller coaster reign was to be usurped after almost ten years, when Leonid Brezhnev took over in 1964 and installed a conservative non-reformist doctrine in the Soviet Union and across the Eastern bloc which was to last until 1989. This suited the SED very well.
The people of East Germany were not zombies and despite the SED dicatorship there were benefits to be had and is the case in so many countries citizens had to weigh up the rough with the smooth. Working, playing, and building a life in the DDR was dependent on complying to the letter and to the greyest spirit of the SED rulebook, to show support to the party was everything. Most toed the line and conformed, some tested the boundaries whilst never questioning the SED Party and thus they might get away with indiscretions, others believed in the SED and some fell foul to the government´s paranoia no matter their conduct. In total three and a half million people opted to leave before the internal border was completed and a further 600,000 after. Over one thousand people died attempting to leave.
The SED enforced their power by spending a huge amount of time, money and energy spying on each citizen by using friends and even family members to act as informers for the STASI (Staatssicherheitsdienst). Its motto was the ´Shield and Sword of the Party´ not the nation or the people you may note. This stifling control held East Germany back with the internal border or anti-fascist barrier being a direct result of the regime’s Stalinist like paranoia fostered in Moscow regarding internal threats.
Thus, tens of thousands of soldiers/police were deployed to look out over the massive infrastructure built to stop East German people from crossing from east to west and failed attempts could lead to death or long imprisonment. Here at Kirchgandern near Friedland, on the Thuringian and Lower Saxony border, little remains of the DDR border infrastructure other than commemorative information boards, a British zone customs house and nearby is the Dreilländereck where the Soviet, British and American Zones of Occupation met. Nonetheless hidden within the tree line is an DDR observation bunker and we can imagine the long hours of boredom for the guards looking out across the wire and the death strip into the West. Meanwhile fifteen kilometres away and where I now live a brigade of Bundeswehr Panzer Grenadiers waited for any breach from East to West.
The observation bunker at Kirchgandern was one of approximately one thousand ´Earth bunkers´ (Erdbunker) along the border and was normally constructed into a natural bank or depression to obscure or protect it whilst offering a wide view of the border. Built in three parts the top concrete ´tower´ stood proud of the land and could accommodate two soldiers allowing them a field of fire. There were in addition some 684 watch towers of various designs along the 1,381 kilometres of border stretching from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia.
The bunker was hard to find, and I spent quite a time wading through long grass disturbing 100s of butterflies and in clambering into dense woodland headbutting branches.
I think I found the location of the bunker, but it is overgrown and the only entrance I could see was guarded by a beehive and I was in no mind to disturb them. Maybe I will return in the late autumn when there is less undergrowth. This links to a picture of the bunker https://commons.wikimedia.org… and here https://commons.wikimedia.org/… Also, check out this website – https://wegdergeschichte.de/
Writing on the Wall
It all makes me wonder if the East German regime had not been paranoid and self-servingly mean minding with the intend on compelling total loyalty to the SED, whether this fledgling nation may have developed into something not only humane but also fair. I guess the writing was on the wall because non-Stalinist socialists, communists and liberal Germans living in exile in the Soviet Union during the Nazi period were side lined or faced worse. By the time of Stalin´s death in 1953 it was too late for any alternative to the DDR authoritarian regime taking power in the Soviet Zone of Germany.
The Ride – 53km, it included a small amount of asphalt public roads otherwise it was farmers roads and 23 gravel sectors. Plus dense undergrowth and forest.
The ride ventured into three states, Lower Saxony, Hesse and Thuringia.
Links (Grenz related)
Friedland Transit Camp
The Old DDR Border
Letter from Germany 7 – Liberation
All Along the Watchower
Duderstadt and the Grenze
Ride Without Frontiers in Gö – the Dreilländereck
Meeting on the Frontline