For nearly three decades, the Berlin Wall stood as a physical, social, and economic rift through Germany, causing not just inequality but also great hardship, and forming part of the much larger Iron Curtain that served as the Cold War border between Soviet-influenced countries and those align with NATO.
Today, however, this strip of land (known as the European Green Belt) serves a contrasting purpose: as a symbol of shared natural and social heritage that is conserved and protected with the aim of connecting landscapes, respecting cultural needs, and bringing together communities that still feel the scars of long separation.
If you’re looking for a pilgrimage more Cold War than Catholic, you could try the Iron Curtain Trail.
But if the full 10,000 kilometers from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea daunts, you could tackle in whole or just in parts the 1,400-kilometer segment that runs along the inner German border, the one that separated East Germany from West Germany until 10 o’clock in the morning on December 21, 1989.
Following the dissolution of the border, officials, faced with a long strip of border zone, fenced, emptied of villages, filled with land mines, and dotted with observation towers, that nature had already begun to move back into…
…turned the border zone into a nature reserve, converting the former “death strip” into a “green belt,” leaving in most places in place the concrete path that had been laid for East German border patrol cars. This German Green Belt now hosts 109 different types of habitats, about half of which represent endangered habitats in Germany.
Thie Green Belt is filled with charming wildlife, from slow worms (which are actually legless lizards and very adorable)…
…to enormous grasshoppers…
…to the reclusive gnome…
…and other mysterious inhabitants of German gardens.
On one stretch, an actual shepherd with an actual flock of sheep and goats maintains the border zone as a tidy grassland.
In other areas, they’ve let the former border zone go wild.
In some places, the border route is insanely steep,
or full of never-ending rolling hills.
In some places, the border ran down the middle of a lake,
and it was marked by an unfriendly underwater grate.
Sometimes the border was a river.
In other places a river crossed the border and thus there were more grates in place.
But mostly there were walls and fences.
In later years, the fences had trip-wire activated mines attached to them that no one knew about until they made the fatal mistake of trying to cut through or climb over the fence.
Between those mines, the trip-wire activated machine guns, the mines in the ground in front of the fence,
the border soldiers, and the dogs, a lot of people died trying to get through the Iron Curtain…
…most of them relatively young and some of them, even more sadly, so close to when the wall came down.
The anger in many places along the border is still palpable and as you walk along, you will find a memorial to the Cold War’s dead every few kilometers…
…often offering the gruesome details of the effects of the hails of bullets or the triggering of one of those automatic mines mounted just above face-level on the fence.
In many places, the memorials point out entire villages, some of which were founded in such years as 1352, that are no longer there, razed because they lay within 2 kilometers of the border on the East German side…
…or on the western side but in an awkward cul-de-sac that cut them off from the rest of West Germany, making life impossible.
It’s strange to walk through emptiness that, until relatively recently, held a nearly 1,000-year-old village.
Sometimes the border ran right through someone’s farm, and so, although it had been in the family since the 1600’s, the place had to be abandoned.
In many places, old border crossings have been preserved as open-air museums…
…complete with observation towers…
…that came in various flavors.
In other places, all that’s left are the bits of fencing repurposed into poultry pens.
In Lehesten, they couldn’t move the slate mine, so people were allowed to live in the town even though it fell within 2 kilometer exclusion zone on the eastern side of the border.
Slate shingles are still often used to tile rooves, chimneys, or even entire houses in Germany.
Mined from the 13th century until 1999 and spanning 800 meters in length, 300 meters in width, and 80 meters in depth, the quarry has now been allowed to flood with water, creating a lake strangely blue due to the alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) leached out of the tailings.
The holey concrete of the concrete strips running along the German Green belt can be a pain to walk on (those holes are exactly the length and width of my feet, making it easy to turn an ankle the moment you stop watching where you put your feet)…
…and sometimes the concrete path disappears, leaving you lost in a forest, surrounded by signs warning you that they failed to remove all of the land mines, so please don’t wander off the path…
…but it’s such a lovely wander and full of such thoughts of recent history and rewilding, even just a day trip along some portion of the German Green Belt is more than worth the time.