Two men, one riding a bicycle, the other wearing binoculars, met in a field in the middle of Germany on a recent afternoon. Both 61, they started arguing politely, the way strangers do, about where exactly the border between East and West Germany had been. Soon, it became clear that both had good reason to think they were right. One used to be an East German border guard; the other grew up just west of the border and started bird-watching in the area at 13.
“You might have seen me here with my big binoculars,” said Kai Frobel, the one-time birder, thinking back more than three decades. “There were quite a few of those here then,” laughed Mario Wenzel, the former guard, before predicting that all too soon nobody would remember the reality of a border within Germany.
While the militarised border that split Germany for 38 years has disappeared more readily than the persistent economic and political differences between the two parts, a faint 870 mile-long scar remains. It is green. After a long-running battle between landowners, government authorities and environmentalists, the federal government announced last month that the entire former border zone would be designated a nature reserve.
“It’s a national nature monument — similar to the Statue of Liberty,” said Frobel, an ecologist who has worked for the BUND, a German nature conservancy, since 1985. Once an insurmountable obstacle — especially to the people in the East — crossing the strip has now become a literal walk in the park. Thirty years after the border between East and West Germany ceased to exist by the stroke of a pen on Oct 3, 1990, it remains one of the most important psychological dividers in the country. The jagged line drawn by Soviet and Allied forces after World War II tore apart villages, families and lives, and created competing narratives of liberty and nationhood that the country is still working to overcome.
If Wenzel, the former border guard, had noticed Frobel observing birds back in the 1970s, he would not have been allowed to speak with him; East German guards were prohibited from speaking with anyone from the West. They were also forced to patrol behind a 10-foot fence and in pairs to prevent them from escaping. Only the most trustworthy border soldiers were allowed into the buffer zone, a wild stretch of nature, usually 200 yards wide, that belonged to East Germany and set aside to give the guards time to shoot escapees. Germans called it the death strip.
The young Frobel mostly kept out of that area — where, as a West German, he would have been arrested if he strayed — and relied on his binoculars to spot birds. Through them, he discovered the death strip was teeming with life.
Farmers and foresters on both sides had been forced to leave the zone alone, allowing animals and plant life to flourish. Today, more than 5,200 different species live there, 1,200 of them so rare that they are on a list for extinction. These days, the swaying gold of the wild grasses competes with the green of bushes and trees. On a recent visit, half a dozen yellowhammers busied themselves atop a high bush. A ditch that was part of the border defenses on the eastern side is overgrown with trees, but the concrete sentry path is still visible, although fresh grass is growing out of the cracks.
Frobel raised his binoculars to watch several birds of prey sailing above. “Red Kites,” he pronounced. His childhood bedroom had a direct view of the border. “I firmly believed that this monster was built for eternity and that I would never see anything change,” he recalled. “Reunification was beyond my imagination.”
- Christopher F. Schuetze is reporter with NYT©2020
The New York Times