Borderland : The East of the West

Studying the Borderlands of the "Old" Federal Republic of Germany.

Astrid M. Eckert
Show me the way to the Zone: Signs point to the inter-German border in Duderstadt in 1972. Photo: ullstein bild - Mehner
Show me the way to the Zone: Signs point to the inter-German border in Duderstadt in 1972. Photo: ullstein bild - MehnerFoto: ullstein bild - Mehner

On October 3, 1990, the GDR ceased to exist. The Deutschmark was already in circulation, the hammer and compass had been cut out of the flag, maps and atlases were adjusted accordingly. One needed to be a coma patient like Alex Kerner's mother in Goodbye Lenin to miss the winds of change. In Aachen or Emden, however, those winds only blew as a gentle breeze, barely ruffling a hair. Although wide awake and engaged with current events on TV, many West Germans did not realize that their country, too, was changing forever. Today, historians call that country the "old" Federal Republic.

Among the distinguishing features of the old Federal Republic was the so-called Zonenrandgebiet, once comprising the regions along the border to East Germany and now a relict of a bygone era. When GDR authorities first fortified the demarcation line between East and West in 1952, they hastened the creation of borderlands where none had been before. A year later, a committee in Bonn defined what would henceforth officially count as borderland: A forty kilometer-deep strip amounting to roughly 40 percent of West German territory, inhabited by about 12 percent of its population. The state of Schleswig-Holstein was almost swallowed by this definition. These border regions became West Germany's most sensitive geographical space during the Cold War.

The disadvantages in these regions were real. Communities lost their hinterlands, trade routes were cut, roads and bridges led nowhere, farmers were separated from their fields. Local politicians warned that the borderlands were in danger of turning into an empty "steppe," a loaded term that postwar West Germans were likely to associate with Soviet Russia. And indeed, stretches of the borderlands were soon nicknamed "Siberia." Already in the early 1950s, however, it paid off for county and state officials to paint the picture for Bonn in darker hues than necessary. The borderland location quickly became a financial resource during the West German years of reconstruction.

The federal program of Zonenrandförderung pumped millions of Marks into these structurally weak areas to stem infrastructural decline and demographic drain. These efforts were part of West Germany's Cold War showcasing that aimed at highlighting the superiority of its economic and political system. A Hessian official in charge of borderland issues felt in 1955 that these regions had an "all German" duty: "The inhabitants of central Germany must get a view into a well-stocked display window that reveals the achievements of economic prosperity in the Federal Republic. The borderlands must not show any signs of poverty." They were meant to be West Germany's front yard, not its back yard.

But political expediency collided with economic prudence. Long stretches of these borderlands proved beyond help because they had been economically weak even before the imposition of the Iron Curtain. Vice Chancellor Erich Mende did not raise any eyebrows in 1965 when he likened the East of the West to an "underdeveloped" Third World country. Continuing federal aid contributed much to the borderlands' image as a patient on life-support.

Another aspect set these borderlands apart from the rest of the Republic: they could be a dangerous place. The (in)visible presence of East German border guards as well as "incidents," ranging from escape attempts and exploding landmines to the arrest of careless Westerners straying across the demarcation line created a climate of trepidation. Visitors felt this more keenly than locals when they were confronted with the heavily fortified border and felt a pair of binoculars from a watchtower following their every move. Besides, an escalation of the Cold War by conventional means would have inevitably drifted back and forth across the borderlands. In 1964, half-baked plans to use Atomic Demolition Munition leaked to the press: a belt of nukes along the border that would grind borderland cities such as Lübeck, Braunschweig and Coburg to dust. Such plans, magnified by rumors, added to the perception of the borderlands as a militarized zone.

The whiff of danger, and the drama of the Iron Curtain cutting through the landscape, soon became an attraction for sightseers. West German and foreign visitors flocked to the border to see for themselves where West and East collided. The Cold War front line was most gripping where the border seemed the most ruthless and absurd. Highly frequented locations thus included divided villages and houses as well as sites of escapes across the border, or at least of spectacular escape attempts. Visitors were soon able to buy border postcards and souvenirs, climb lookout towers, visit information centers, or book a tour guided by customs officials. Border tourism peaked after the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, but its consumption as a tourist commodity started well before and lasted until its dismantling in 1989. As commemorative tourism, it continues to the present day.

The history of the 1393-kilometer stretch of border, from Lübeck in the north to Hof in the south, has long been overlooked in favor of the more iconographic Berlin Wall. Like no other event or structure, the Berlin Wall bundled Cold War anxieties, making it a powerful international symbol. Slicing through a vibrant metropolis and spatially reorienting its inhabitants, the Wall produced the kind of human drama that captured the attention of publics worldwide. For historians, it is much easier to write a gripping book about the Berlin Wall than about the inter-German border near Eschwege and Gummern.

Yet the borderland location imbued even villages like Gummern with enhanced meaning. Located in the county of Lüchow-Dannenberg, it was the site of an anti-nuclear "summer camp" in 1983. West German opponents of the planned nuclear waste facility in Gorleben walked across the demarcation line and held out for several days. Their chosen spot - out of reach of West German police but on GDR territory - ensured maximum media attention. They challenged West and East German authorities to explain: In view of the fence, where would Dannenbergers escape in case of a nuclear disaster?

Throughout the existence of the Iron Curtain, developments in the borderlands nourished anti-communism and western integration but, in later decades, also supported the rise of anti-nuclear protest and alternative lifestyles. These latter movements and attitudes, often with regional and even local roots, fed into, and amalgamated with, similar developments in other parts of the Republic. The often rural areas along the inter-German border on West Germany's territorial edge not only mirrored but at times also shaped what the old Federal Republic eventually became.

Astrid M. Eckert teaches modern European history at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

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