Along the former German-German border

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Along the former German-German border

Along the former German-German border
Seam point

Today only the old slab path on which the border army patrolled bears witness to the former division of Germany. Klaus H. Daams and Ralph Schanze went in search of him, following his trail as closely as possible on the smallest of streets, sometimes even immediately afterwards.

Ralf Schanze


Rattadonk, rattadonk, rattadonk – Germany’s loneliest street is in miserable condition. Every joint between the concrete slabs sends their greetings through the bench. Grass grows out of the holes in the concrete slabs, thin branches hit the helmet visor, and every now and then a lush bush scratches my shins. In the past, nobody was allowed to drive on this road, now nobody wants to. The landscape is extremely attractive, with no oncoming traffic and no traffic lights. But it was not built to roll idly on. It was built to monitor, to spy – and to kill if necessary. It is the flagstone path of the former German-German border. We want to follow this piece of history with our motorbikes, look for the paths that still lead to it, make it the red thread of a journey from Vogtland to Mecklenburg. Until 1989 only the East German border guards roared back and forth with olive-green MZs and off-road vehicles to monitor the border installations. First there was a lattice fence, then the death strip and finally the three-meter-wide concrete path. Fence and mines have meanwhile been removed, but digging out the concrete slabs would have been too time-consuming and expensive. Even today, the path meanders through nine federal states, crosses forests and meadows and once even a village. But almost ten years later, it is not that easy to find the Plattenweg as we had imagined. Who has a car card with the old border line? I finally found what I was looking for in a dusty cellar box; the old map first guided us to the vicinity of Hof. Here at the border triangle, between Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia and the border with the Czech Republic, the former German-German dividing line begins. In the cool forest clearing to which we march, there is little evidence of the old border. Even a young family that appears has probably introduced itself more under this striking landmark. Nevertheless, a souvenir picture is taken in front of the simple sign that reads “Attention Border”. The once quiet spot is now a popular destination. Not much is left of the former border. The old borderline has been deleted not only from the maps, but also from the landscape. A piece of it has been preserved in Modlareuth. Together with Berlin, the place was the only settlement that was cut directly by the border. There was a wall here too, 700 meters long. It divided houses, barns, streets – and families. As in Berlin, the residents of East Modlareuth were forbidden to wave to their relatives and friends in the west, and westerners had to take kilometers of detours and endless formalities to visit their old neighbors. Today only the border between Thuringia and Bavaria meanders along a stream through the village. However, this led to Modlareuth now having two mayors, two license plates, two area codes and two postmen. In front of the local open air museum, which shows part of the old barriers and in which a group of young border guards is apparently taking object lessons, we get to know the Utzat couple from Essen and Sommer from Thuringia. Long before the border fell, they met at a party and kept in touch. One wrote and visited. Rarely, but regularly. So a friendship slowly grew over the barbed wire. Now the four sprightly senior citizens are standing in front of the old border fortifications in Modlareuth, which never saw the summer in GDR times. The sight still stunned her. “Like one big prison,” mumbles Oskar Sommer, shaking his head. We get the Suzuki and Honda ready to go and curve over the barren mountain ranges and green valleys of the Thuringian Forest. We keep close to the old border on small alleys with treacherous patches of tar. Again and again we make detours to find out a few more meters on the old military route. Sometimes the concrete slabs just end in green nothing and we have to go back. On the horizon, however, the next aisle in the forest can usually be seen again. The scars of the old “anti-capitalist locking bar” have not yet healed everywhere on Mother Nature. Not even on Bruno Probst. The old man with the greasy, worn cap and the gray stubble of beard used to run a large farm near the border. Since large areas between the barriers were used for agriculture, Probst often drove around with his tractor between the mines and barbed wire fences. Of course he had to announce that beforehand. But once this message apparently did not reach the soldiers on watch, he recalls. As soon as he was in the restricted area with his tractor, the border guards shot him. Targeted and without warning. “Luckily they didn’t hit,” says Probst, relieved to push his cap back. North of Franconian Switzerland we reach the old border crossing on the B4 between Coburg and Eisfeld. On one side of the street, a modern petrol station with a supermarket has been opened in the parking lot in front of the old border station. On the other side, the remains of the former crew quarters are rotten. So all traces have not yet been erased. Many of the old watchtowers are still standing and accompany us on our journey. Emaciated skeletons made of concrete and steel, the walls full of graffiti that reflect the hatred of the old system and the frustration of the new era. North of Meelrichtstadt, near the former Eussenhausen / Meiningen crossing on the B19, we come across Country road on a memorial stone for the extinct village of Schmerbach. The village was razed to the ground by the SED in 1973 in a night-and-fog operation because the houses were too close to the border and the residents could not be perfectly monitored. When we ask an old lady in neighboring Helmershausen for directions, we learn more about this dark chapter in the history of the border. The woman with the blue apron and broken glasses is called Else Baumbach and has lived here since she was a child. When we ask her about Schmerbach, her happy face turns serious. “I’ll show you something,” she says and disappears into her brick house with the rickety shutters. Shortly afterwards she returns with a photo album. Old black and white pictures show Else Baumbach as a pretty young woman working in the fields. Some houses can be seen in the background of a photo. “That was Schmerbach,” she says, pointing to the houses. She can well remember the night when the soldiers came and forcibly drove the last residents out of their homes. She remembers guiltily that they later repaired their own houses with the demolition rubble from Schmerbach. The motorbikes drive us on over the hills of the Rhon. Just as the landscapes change, so do the dialects of the residents and the regional specialties on the menus of the rustic inns where we stop for dinner. And although the former border area has now moved to the center of Germany, the slow pace has not changed in most of the villages. In a zig-zag course we change the former borders. Sometimes a few kilometers over here, sometimes a few curves over there. And every now and then short stretches on the old slab path. During the trip I try to imagine what kind of job it must have been that the border guards did here. To look every day in a presumably never-ending boredom for people who wanted to escape to freedom. How sure are many of the young border guards themselves. Would my comrades really shoot …? A barked “Get out of here” brings me back to reality. A hiker threatens with a raised walking stick, although there is nowhere to be seen a no driving sign. The few hikers we meet are, however, mostly friendly and in the mood for a chat. Like Helmut Zentgraf and Hermann Neumann. Pensioners who look like the incarnation of a German hiker with their hiking sticks, shorts and sun hats and sit down with us on the grass under one of the old watchtowers and tell us about the times before and after the opening of the border. “After the initial euphoria, there is now a lot of envy and resentment,” says Hermann Neumann, who himself lives in the border area. There are better jobs here, better roads or wages there – it is not easy to get together and the invitations to rifle and fire brigade festivals, which used to be sent regularly, have become rarer. We work our way up north on small roads. Near Eisenach we meet the two 15-year-old boys Daniel and Sebastian on the former border river Werra. They were only seven years old when the border opened. On a cold November evening in 1989, they drove for the first time in their parents’ Trabbi over the old wooden bridge to the other side of the bank. “It was like a big party. Everyone drank mulled wine and was happy, ”says Daniel. A classmate in a bomber jacket and a bald head comes by on his bike. A right one, as Sebastian expertly explains. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with them, finds their slogans and their brawls with foreign classmates rather “caustic”. The Harz Mountains will soon send the first harbingers. The temperatures are dropping, the road leads through shady fir forests. At the “Torfhaus” motorcycle meeting point on the B 4, we take a short coffee break to get the cold out of our clammy fingers. On the east side of the mountains the streets are narrow, often not wider than a small car positioned sideways. Occasionally there is even a Trabbi on the road, but they have become rare. Apparently even “The Power of Two Candles” can’t prevent that, as a sticker on the rear window of an old plastic bomber confidently proclaims. We step on the gas, because it’s just too cold for extensive exploration of the record path. The next time we stop, the Harz mountains are already behind us. Somewhat disrespectfully, the local youth fire brigade is holding its weekend exercise at the Hofersleben border monument, especially in the former death strip. Around a dozen little guys who, with a determined expression, let the sharp water fountains from four fire hoses splash onto a fragile remnant of the old border wall. Such an informal approach to the borderline past is not granted to every adult. At least not in Ruterberg on the Elbe. In the late afternoon we reach the small town on narrow sandy paths. It is quiet and deserted, and on some of the thatched houses there are signs: “For sale”. For 40 years, the village of 300 souls experienced a harassment chicane that was unparalleled. Because of its proximity to the Elbe escape route, which can hardly be “secured”, Ruterberg was not only surrounded by fence lines to the west, but also to the east. After leaving their village, the residents themselves were only allowed to enter with special entry documents and by 10 p.m. at the latest in the evening. In addition, the right of residence had to be reapplied for every three months. In order to at least achieve the opening to the east, the Ruterbergers had declared themselves to be a “village republic” shortly before the fall of the Wall. A political act of liberation, which even in 1988 was still a dangerous maneuver. The GDR management team promptly sent five trucks with soldiers to Ruterberg in order to use violence to bring the renegade village community to its senses if necessary. November 9, 1989 finally came to the rescue of the courageous residents, but apparently even the turning point could no longer create a desirable living space here. Up here in the Elbe region, it is hardly possible to track down the Plattenweg. But the houses of Travemunde already appear on the horizon and announce the end of our journey, salty sea air soon blows into our sights. And then we stand in the Baltic sand. Lovers stroll by the water, two dogs frolic in the sand and out in the bay a couple of sailing ships ply their lanes. A peaceful picture. Even during the GDR era, only a red and white dividing bar reminded us that the border ran over the beach. Then there was only the sea. Without watchtowers, without fences, without mines, without self-firing systems. As we stomp back through the dunes, I discover one last memorial stone. It just says, simply and without frills, “Never divided again”.


The tour along the old Grenzweg is not just an exciting piece of history. The route also leads over the smallest of roads and through a diverse landscape that shows many facets of Germany from the Thuringian Forest to the Baltic Sea.

Arrival: For the south-north route, the journey leads from the different directions to via the A9 to Hof. From here it is only on country roads. Overnight: Small guesthouses, private accommodation and rustic inns can be found along the entire route without any problems. Our tips: Hotel Gut Haidt, Plauener Strabe 123, 95028 Hof, Tel. 09281 / 731-0, Double room 180 marks.Gasthof Zum Schwan, Marktstrabe 7, 97645 Ostheim, phone 09777/91080, double room 130 marks.Hotel Waldblick, Monchsberger Str. 13a, 96515 Sonneberg, phone 03675/744749, double room 110 marks.Sonntag’s Hotel Garni, Am Holzberg 28, 38350 Helmstedt, phone 05351/41027, double room 135 marks, Hotel Eichsfelder Hof, Wilhelmstr. 56, 37308 Heiligenstadt, phone 03606/66030, double room 140 marks. Hotel Alter Markt, Am Markt 9, 29451 Dannenberg, phone 05861/7880, double room 140 marks. Travel time: The route is practically possible at any time of the year, except in winter. After long rain showers, however, some of the off-road passages on the Plattenweg are likely to quickly become uncomfortable slides. Literature: Of course, there is no classic travel guide for this route, so you have to rely on information from the local tourist offices. A very useful and interesting book that is also very exciting and contains numerous tips and addresses, however, is the volume “Streets in the loneliness – Mitten durch Deutschland” by Dieter Kreutzkamp and Rupert Heigl, published in Frederking & Thaler Verlag, ISBN 3-89405-354-2, 192 pages, 40 marks. The two authors traveled the old border line on foot, by kayak, by bike and sometimes also by motorcycle. Worth seeing: * German-German open air museum in Modlareuth. Opening times: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. * Hotensleben border monument. * Zone border museum Helmstedt, opening times: Tuesday to Sunday. 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wed 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Thursday 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. * Grenzlandmuseum in Schnackenberg an der Elbe, (directly at the harbor), opening times: May to September: Sat. 1 pm-5pm, Sun. 10 am-5pm, October to April: Sun. 10 am-5pm.

Tips for the Plattenweg

Tips on the slab path The slab path consists of two lanes with perforated concrete blocks. In southern Germany in particular, long stretches of road are well preserved and easy to drive on. Since grass grows out of the holes in the concrete slabs and sometimes the slabs are missing completely, an off-road machine is a big plus. However, the concrete slabs often end up in the “green nothing”. Then it’s time to turn around and go back the whole way. It goes without saying that you should give due consideration to nature and hikers. In no case should you just drive through the terrain. The former mines were removed when the border fortifications were razed, but there is no guarantee that one of the other time bombs will not still be ticking. If you can get hold of an old map, you will quickly find the former border crossings again. Today there are almost always memorials at these points that are sometimes more, sometimes less informative. The Grenzland Museum in Eichsfeld is particularly recommended. A remarkable exhibition on the division of Germany was housed here in the old border buildings. The museum is located on the B 247 between Duderstadt and Worbis in Teistungen. More information is available from the Teistungen municipal administration, Hauptstrasse 17, 37339 Teistungen, phone 036071/97112. Opening times in summer: Tue-Fri. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sun. 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., from April to October only Sat. 1 p.m. to 5 p.m..

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