During the past twenty-five years, the former Iron Curtain borderlands of Europe have witnessed an extensive series of land use changes and redesignations following the reunification of Germany and the opening of Cold War borders. In 2005, the European Union Parliament formalized a 6800-km trans-European bicycle route, the Iron Curtain Trail (ICT), in an effort to create “a symbol of a shared, pan-European experience in a reunified Europe,” and as a means by which cycle-tourists can “experience history” (Cramer, n/d). [Figure 1: Route of the Iron Curtain Trail] This combination of an extended bicycle route through a formerly heavily militarized borderland-turned-greenbelt proved irresistible to me, so in September 2013 I saddled up for a 10-day, 1200-kilometer bicycle ride from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Point Alpha, Germany, to examine firsthand the transitions occurring along the Iron Curtain Trail.
The changes of the past two decades along the Iron Curtain are typically cast as a transformation of this linear swath of Europe from violent, militarized borderlands to spaces of conservation and unification. In effect, this projects the Iron Curtain as a Geography of Redemption, where the Iron Curtain’s death strip was eliminated and replaced by the newly anointed “Green Belt of Europe” (European Green Belt, 2014; see also Terry et al., 2006; Schwägerl, 2011). Travel pieces highlight this transition in glowing terms: “today the [ICT] route cuts across pristine farmland, beautiful villages and nature reserves filled with wildlife…And although most traces of the cold war era have vanished, military roads and observation towers still dot the idyllic countryside…” (Hammer, NY Times, 2009)
The language used in this example is noteworthy, with its emphasis on the pristine and idyllic countryside. Although traces of the Cold War era are presented as having “vanished,” they in fact are everywhere present, most broadly in the openness of the land and its striking lack of population. So, even as the explicit impetus for creating an Iron Curtain Trail is in part one of commemoration, there are clearly risks of historical erasure and a loss of meaning in the midst of what in most respects are inspiring landscape-scale changes.
The casting of the Iron Curtain borderlands as a redemptive landscape is easy to find: signs in Germany highlight “Das Grünes Band” and the former militarized swath is now prized as a string of ecologically valuable protected areas. But as noted above, the rise of conservation lands here is not a simple case of removing the fortifications, fencing, trip wires, and watch towers of the various borders, but rather is predicated upon a host of earlier conditions and events that deserve commemoration. Among these I will highlight just a handful:
First, the Sudetenland evictions from 1945-1948 that saw the expulsion of 2.8 million German Moravians from the borderlands of today’s Czech Republic, dropping a 90 percent majority of German speakers in this area down to less than 5 percent of the population. Property claims were abruptly vacated, and were subsequently claimed by the state – facilitating later designations as national parks and state-protected areas (Bičík and Štěpánek 1994; Bičík et al. 2001).
Next, the “Zone A” and “Zone B” exclusions put in place as the Iron Curtain borderlands hardened. Zone A prohibited human activity (or habitation) from the border fence inland 200 meters to 5000 meters; Zone B allowed for some use, but no habitation for up to another 5 km. These areas have not rebounded in population, which in most areas crested in the 1930s (Bičík and Štěpánek, 1994).
Third, non-governmental organizations such as BUND (Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland) quickly jumped in to fill a policy vacuum as the security apparatus of the East German state faltered. In 1989, within a month of the Berlin Wall coming down, BUND organized a meeting of 400 conservationists from East and West Germany to discuss conservation plans, and passed a resolution asking for conservation efforts to become a national (German) priority (Geidezis and Kreuz 2012).
Fourth, at the East German Council of Ministers’ final meeting, in 1990, they agreed to set aside the Thuringian Rhone as a biosphere reserve – this was later included in the Unification Treaty for Germany. UNESCO formalized 185,000 hectares as a Biosphere Reserve in 1991 (Our Way Into the Future n/d).
And finally, absent East German and Czech governments with socialist planning regimes, agricultural subsidies for the borderlands collapsed and tens of thousands of hectares became fallow. Subsequent land use land cover change analyses show increases in fields and forests along the borderlands post-1990 (e.g. Kupkova et al 2013).
Given the changes taking place along the Iron Curtain borderlands, and the prospective loss of meaning that may accompany the removal of many of the most prominent reminders of four decades of violent separation imposed by the securitized border, we may reasonably ask: Is it possible to support the changes that are occurring while also protecting and conveying the deeper meanings and processes that mark these lands?
From my own limited travels along the Iron Curtain Trail, I point to three strategies now evident that seek to facilitate the greening of the Iron Curtain borderlands while also attending to the important cultural layers of these places: textual renderings, physical remains, and artwork. To close, I consider each of these briefly in turn, offering a series of images to characterize their respective effect.
Signs, guidebooks, tourism and travel articles, brochures, and numerous other written accounts depict the Iron Curtain borderlands both on-site and at some remove. The most vivid, on-site renderings are perhaps the large brown road signs posted at every crossing of the former inner German borderlands. [Figure 2: Road sign marking the former inner German border] These signs serve as a constant reminder that the porous borders (which today simply signify the boundaries between German states such as Bavaria and Thuringia) encountered by road-based travelers, once represented the violent disruption of Germany. The signs identify the specific date and hour at which the separation finally ended at a given road crossing.
Of course, a number of textual renderings also exist off-site, and some of these provide detailed accounts of the history and changes occurring along the borderlands. For cyclists touring the Iron Curtain Trail, a three-part series of guidebooks written by Michael Cramer – the member of the EU Parliament most directly responsible for the ICT’s formal recognition – is by far the most useful and thorough consideration of, as Cramer puts it, the “culture, politics, nature, and history” of the borderlands (Cramer, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013).
A variety of physical remains from the militarized decades of the Iron Curtain still mark the borderlands today. These range from dozens of guard towers that poke from hilltops and fields to scraps of fences, walls, series of border posts, abandoned buildings, and the linear swaths of cleared land (or reforesting land) that easily go unnoticed.
Physical remains of the Iron Curtain vary widely in treatment. Several borderland communities have erected open-air museums to commemorate and interpret the Cold War period in particular; some of these, such as the small village of Mödlareuth, have become tourist attractions in their own right. [Figures 7 and 8: Mödlareuth open air museum] Former guard towers have received diverse treatments, with some marketed as tourist vantage points, others redeveloped into commercial or residential use, and many others left derelict and falling to ruin.
With some of these treatments in mind, it may be worth pointing to concerns Gobster (2007) raises about museumification and restoration, namely that efforts to preserve and interpret particular sites can sometimes serve to limit the range of experience or meaning found in a given setting. A different approach is examined by DeSilvey and Edensor (2012) with respect to ruination and the ways decay can open up spaces for interpretation (see also Edensor, 2005). The range of treatments of physical remains along the Iron Curtain is worth evaluating in light of these critical concerns, particularly considering how differently the border was perceived by residents east and west during the Cold War.
With disparate representations and meanings of the borderlands firmly in mind, one final set of treatments well worth highlighting is the distinctive array of artworks installed – formally and informally – along the former Iron Curtain. Some of these come with signs, names, or other modest forms of interpretation, but many are simply cast onto the landscape, to be encountered rather openly and understood quite individually. In the spirit of this relatively unmediated mix of art, landscape, and borderland visitor, I conclude here by offering a series of images of artwork now found along the Iron Curtain Trail. These likely prompt different forms of meaning and commemoration for each of us, and in some cases narrowing or articulating meaning from these works may prove rather elusive. This strikes me as fully appropriate, considering the changes and new openings we now witness along these long-closed borderlands.
David Havlick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
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Bičík, Ivan, Leoš Jeleček, and Vít Štěpánek. 2001. “Land-Use Changes and their Social Driving Forces in Czechia in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Land Use Policy 18: 65-73.
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