GDR border system

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The sectors of occupation in 1949. East Germany is in red.
The inner German border (German: Innerdeutsche Grenze or Deutsch-Deutsche Grenze, informal Zonengrenze) was an extensive system of fortifications that ran the entire 1381 km (858 mile) length of the border between East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) and West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG).

From 1952 to 1990, during the Cold War, the border system was used by the East German government to prevent its citizens from defecting to the West. It was formed by a series of 3-4 metre (12-15 foot) high metal fences, walls, armed guards, guard dogs, barbed wire, electric alarms, trenches, watchtowers, automatic guns and minefields. The Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Berlin, was the most famous part of the system but formed less than a tenth of the whole.

The border was the most militarised in Europe and one of the most militarised anywhere in the world. It was a very literal manifestation of Winston Churchill's famous 1946 metaphor of an "iron curtain [that] has descended across the Continent." However, the border was more than just a line of defences; its fortifications faced inwards, towards East Germany, rather than outwards towards the supposed threat from West Germany. It was directed primarily at preventing the GDR's civilians from escaping to the West. It was also more than just a state border; it marked Europe's division into two rival camps, politically (capitalist liberal democracy versus communist state), economically (the European Economic Community versus Comecon) and militarily (NATO versus the Warsaw Pact). As such, the inner German border acquired huge significance as a defining symbol of the Cold War.
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Preserved stretch of the border fence and a watchtower at Checkpoint Alpha, Helmstedt. Note the boundary post on the right, denoting the actual border some distance to the west of the border fence.

Origins of the border

The Allied powers who defeated Nazi Germany in World War II divided the country west of the Oder-Neisse line into four occupation zones for administrative purposes during the period 1945-1949 (see Allied Occupation Zones in Germany for more details). The demarcation line between the three Western occupation zones and the Soviet Zone was laid down in the Protocol regarding the occupation zones in Germany and the Administration of Greater Berlin, agreed by the European Advisory Commission established at the Tehran Conference in 1943. The line roughly matched the old borders between the German states and provinces of Hanover and Prussia, Hesse and Anhalt, Hesse and Thuringia, and Bavaria, with some adjustments for practical reasons. [1]

Until 1945, the state borders had been purely administrative boundaries with no formalities in crossing from one German state to another. This changed with the establishment of the occupation, although Germans were still permitted to travel from one zone to another and the borders were, in any case, not always clearly defined on the ground. The original Allied plan to govern Germany as a single unit through the Allied Control Council broke down in 1946-1947 due to growing Cold War tensions between the West and the Soviet Union, and was never fully implemented.

As a result, the Western and Soviet zones developed along diverging lines. The three western zones merged to form the Federal Republic of Germany when that state was declared in May 1949, and the Soviet zone emerged as the German Democratic Republic in October 1949.

History of the GDR-FRG border

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Warning sign on the former border: Border restriction area ! Trespassing and driving prohibited !
From its establishment as a state in 1949 through to the fall of East German communism in 1989, West Germany automatically granted citizenship to East Germans who moved to the West, which encouraged a flood of migration from the poorer East. Between 1949 and 1961 approximately 2.5 million people crossed from the GDR to the FRG, most via the still open border with West Berlin,[2] with a further 5,000 crossing the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989,[3] and approximately 200,000 crossing in the other direction. The drain of East Germany's population into West Germany was hugely damaging for the East German economy and society; one Western economist calculated that by 1957, the westward migration had cost East Germany over 22.5 billion marks in lost educational investment.[4]

Until 1952 the border existed only on paper, with free movement between the Western and Soviet occupation zones. The fortification of the border was presaged by Soviet concerns about Western "infiltration" and East German alarm at the continuing exodus of skilled workers to the West. On 1 April 1952, East German leaders met the Soviet leader Stalin in Moscow; during the discussions Stalin's foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed that the East Germans should "introduce a system of passes for visits of West Berlin residents to the territory of East Berlin [so as to stop] free movement of Western agents" in the GDR. Stalin agreed, calling the situation "intolerable". He advised the East Germans to build up their border defences, telling them that "The demarcation line between East and West Germany should be considered a border – and not just any border, but a dangerous one ... The Germans will guard the first line of defence, and we will put Russian troops on the second line." [5]

A few weeks later, on 26 May 1952, the GDR began fortifying the inner German border to choke off the flow of people. A barbed-wire fence 1.2 m (4 ft) high was constructed along the length of the border. As in Berlin, it was not built directly on the border line itself, but was situated a short distance inside East German territory.

In addition, a series of zones was established to control access to the East German side of the boundary. In the first zone, the 10m (30 ft) wide Controlled Zone, GDR border troops were authorized to use firearms against attempted crossers. A 500m (1500 ft) wide Security Zone followed, which only specially authorized GDR subjects were allowed to enter and only during daylight. Last came a 5 km (3.1 mile) wide Restricted Zone or Sperrzone, where the residents — or at least those who had not been evicted — possessed a special stamp on their identity card to enable them to enter and leave the zone. They were only allowed to travel "inland"; they were not permitted to visit neighboring villages in the zone.<ref name="buchholz" /> Continuing south, the border between Bavaria and Czechoslovakia was similarly fortified on the Czech side.

The border between East and West Berlin was also significantly tightened, although it was not closed at this stage. By the end of September 1952, about 200 of the 277 streets which ran from the Western sectors to the East were closed to traffic and the remainder were subjected to constant police observation. Railway traffic was routed around the Western sectors and all workers and employee of nationalised factories had to pledge not to visit West Berlin; if they did so, they would be fired. Even with these restrictions, however, the border in Berlin remained considerably more accessible than the main inner German border, and consequently Berlin became the main route by which East Germans left for the West.[6]

The GDR's borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia were unfortified and nominally open, these countries being "fraternal socialist allies" and fellow Warsaw Pact members. In practice, however, residents leaving the GDR and Eastern bloc residents visiting it often faced tough controls due to the East German government's sensitivities about the movement of people across its borders. After the beginning of the Solidarity labor union in Poland, for example, movement across the East German-Polish frontier became considerably more difficult.

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A post marking the former border at Mödlareuth, Germany
During the 1960s and 1970s, the border was extensively upgraded in an effort to end continued attempts to escape across it; as late as 1957, over 260,000 people a year were still managing to cross illegally into West Germany.[7] The barbed wire fence was raised to 1.5m (5 ft) in 1961 and anti-personnel land mines were laid along the border for the first time. Border security was upgraded as well, with National People's Army (NVA) troops replacing police units along the border.

The Berlin Wall was also constructed in 1961, closing the last loophole in the GDR's border system by cutting off the three Western sectors of Berlin from East Berlin and the GDR. The border around West Berlin had remained open since 1952 despite the closure and fortification of the main inner German border. However, thousands of East Germans continued to cross to the west via Berlin, prompting the GDR government to stem the flow with the construction of the Wall. It was physically separate from the main line of the border fortifications and was also considerably larger and more complex than the simpler defences operating in much of the the main border system.

In 1966, the barbed wire along the border was replaced by a wall of metal plates 2.4m (8 ft) high. Plastic anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines — undetectable by metal detectors — were laid. The fence was raised to between 3-4m (9-12 ft) from 1970 onwards and automatic spring guns were installed to booby-trap the fence. Anti-vehicle ditches were built along the border to prevent escapees from ramming their way through the fence. <ref name="buchholz" />

By 1980 the border was lined with 1,277km (794 miles) of metal fencing, 232km (144 miles) of minefields and 832km (517 miles) of anti-vehicle trenches. In 1984, the defences were further upgraded with the building of a 3 m (10 ft) high electric fence surmounted with razor edges, set about 450 m (500 yards) behind the main line of fencing.[8] The border was guarded by about 48,000 NVA border troops and Volkspolizei members; on the West German side, it was monitored by about 22,300 border police and customs officers.<ref name="buchholz" /> It was run as a solely German concern, with the occupying powers (the Western Allies and the Soviet Union) maintaining military forces some way back from the line.

The border remained in full operation until its opening on 9 November 1989 under the GDR Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz. This sparked a chain of events which led to the reunification of the two German states on 3 October 1990. The border defences were largely abandoned within a few months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with some of the most intrusive sections (such as that at Mödlareuth) being demolished well before the formal reunification. The border now no longer exists, but even today Germans still talk about the "wall in people's heads" referring to conflicts between East and West Germans.

The impact of the border

Economic and social impact

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Preserved section of the "Little Berlin Wall" at Mödlareuth
The creation of the GDR's border system caused great social and economic disruption across thousands of square kilometres of northern and central Germany. Some 11,000 people on the GDR side living near the border were moved away, losing their homes, farms and businesses. Entire towns and villages were divided by the border, most famously Mödlareuth in Thuringia, nicknamed "Little Berlin" by the Americans due to the construction of a Berlin Wall-style fortification across the middle of the village. There were several other small-scale counterparts of the Berlin Wall at sections of the border near inhabited areas.

Cross-border transport links were largely severed. Ten main railway lines, 24 secondary lines, 23 autobahns or national roads, 140 regional roads and thousands of smaller roads, paths and waterways were blocked or otherwise interrupted. This caused great disruption to the German transportation network, which was oriented in a largely East-West direction. However, the border was never totally closed along the lines of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The tightest level of closure came in 1966, by which time only six railway lines were left open along with three autobahns, one regional road and two waterways. An easing of relations with West Germany subsequently saw the East Germans agreeing to open up more crossing points in exchange for economic assistance. Telephone and mail communications remained open throughout, although packages and letters sent through the mail were routinely opened and telephone calls were monitored.<ref name="buchholz" />

Despite all the restrictions, substantial numbers of people were still able to cross the border in both directions, albeit under tight restrictions. In 1980 alone about three million West Germans visited the GDR and 1.4 million pensioners from the GDR plus around 40-50,000 non-pensioners visited West Germany. Most of the handful of crossing points were reserved for use by Germans, with foreign civilians restricted to three — Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt, Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden/Drewitz and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. (Special arrangements were in place for Allied military personnel travelling to West Berlin.)

The economic impact of the border's effective closure was severe. Many towns and villages were severed from their markets and economic hinterlands. The border areas became significantly poorer and less economically healthy than localities "inland." The two German states responded to the problem in different ways. West Germany gave substantial subsidies to border communities under the Zonenrandförderung, an initiative begun in 1971 to save the border area from total decline.

East Germany's border towns had a much harder time, partly because their country was poorer to begin with but also because of the much harsher restrictions imposed on the border areas by the GDR government. Industry withered in many districts, with agriculture becoming the largest employer; in the northern district of Nordwestmecklenburg, for instance, over 42% of the working population was employed in agriculture by 1989.[9]

Political impact

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A preserved East German watchtower on the former border near Hof, Bavaria
The West and East German governments regarded the border quite differently for many years. The GDR maintained that the border was a genuine international frontier, albeit one that was unusually well fortified. The GDR's official name for the border was the Staatsgrenze der DDR zur Bundesrepublik Deutschland und West-Berlin ("state border between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin"). The Berlin Wall was officially termed the antifaschistische Schutzwall ("anti-fascist protection rampart") in the GDR, but was widely known simply as die Mauer ("the Wall") on both sides of the border. By contrast, the West Germans pursued a policy of maintaining the unity of the German nation and sought to depict it as an internal frontier between occupation zones, rather than an international one. For this reason, the West Germans also used the term Zonengrenze (zone border) to refer to the border.

It was not formally recognized as an international frontier by West Germany until that country agreed to the Treaty of Moscow, covering international relations with the Soviet Union, on 12 August 1970. The Treaty concerning the Basis of Relations between the two Germanies agreed on 21 December 1972 specifically addressed the border: "[The Parties] reaffirm the inviolability now and in the future of the border existing between them and undertake fully to respect their territorial integrity." Even so, the border was still viewed as being less than fully international in some contexts; from 1973, trade across the border was regarded as internal trade for the purposes of European Community law.[10]

The East German regime sought to justify the fortification of the border and its harsh treatment of would-be fugitives through the use of loaded terms to delegitimize escapees. Escape over the border was not called flucht ("flight") but Republikflucht, by analogy with the existing military term Fahnenflucht ("desertion"). A successful escapee was not a Flüchtling ("fugitive") but a Republikflüchtiger ("Republic-deserter"). Such ideologically colored language enabled the regime to portray border crossers as little better than traitors.[11] An East German propaganda booklet published in 1955 spelled out the official line to party propagandists:

Both from the moral standpoint as well as in terms of the interests of the whole German nation, leaving the GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity. Those who let themselves be recruited objectively serve West German Reaction and militarism, whether they know it or not. Is it not despicable when for the sake of a few alluring job offers or other false promises about a "guaranteed future" one leaves a country in which the seed for a new and more beautiful life is sprouting, and is already showing the first fruits, for the place that favors a new war and destruction? Is it not an act of political depravity when citizens, whether young people, workers, or members of the intelligentsia, leave and betray what our people have created through common labor in our republic to offer themselves to the American or British secret services or work for the West German factory owners, Junkers, or militarists? Does not leaving the land of progress for the morass of an historically outdated social order demonstrate political backwardness and blindness? ... [W]orkers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists.[12]

Escape attempts

East Germans' desire to escape the confines of their state led to a number of daring crossings of the border, at great personal risk to the escapees. Crossing the border without permission had been outlawed by the GDR authorities in 1952. The penalties were substantially increased under the GDR's Passgesetz (Passport Law) of 11 December 1957, which provided for three years' imprisonment for anyone making an unauthorized journey outside the borders of East Germany.<ref name="truman" /> The penalties were later increased further, to up to eight years, although in practice the crime of "deserting the Republic" (Republikflucht) was usually punished with two years' imprisonment.<ref name="piotrowicz" /> By August 1975, around 4,500 people were being held in GDR prisons for offences of Republikflucht.[13]

One of the more famous escape crossings was in September 1979 by hot air balloon. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families of Poessneck, in the GDR, built their own balloon, burner and basket, and converted a barometer into an altimeter. Although the Strelzyks were left alone to make the attempt, the first attempt, in June 1979, failed, and the two families, knowing the secret police would find both, made the second attempt together and succeeded. In 1981 Walt Disney Pictures made their story into a movie, Night Crossing. After living in several places in West Germany and Switzerland, the Strelzyks relocated back to Poessneck in 1999, after reunification.

Border deaths

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Memorial to Helmut Kleinert, shot dead on 1 August 1963 while trying to cross the inner German border in the Harz mountains
Several hundred people, mostly civilians, were killed while attempting to escape from the GDR. The exact number of victims is difficult to calculate. The Berlin Public Prosecution Department believes that about 270 'proven' deaths on the border were due to acts of violence by GDR border security guards, including deaths caused by mines and automatic firing devices. The Central Assessment Group for Governmental and Federational Crimes (German ZERV), however, has registered 421 suspected cases of killings by armed GDR border guards.

On 12 August 2003, the "13 August Association" published the number of victims of the GDR border guards as 1,008, but with a fairly wide-ranging definition of the term "victim". This figure includes, for example, victims who drowned in the Baltic Sea or died as a result of accidents; suicides after attempted escapes; even border soldiers shot by escapees and Germans killed escaping over other borders (to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc.).

Some famous East German victims include Peter Fechter, Chris Gueffroy and Günter Litfin.

From 1958 to 1989, the border guards were ordered to fire on would-be escapers under the so-called Schießbefehl ("command to shoot"); the NVA troops posted to the border from 1961 had similar instructions. In March 1982, the East German Parliament, the Volkskammer, passed a new border law (Grenzgesetz) that authorized the shooting of fugitives on the border.[14] Chris Gueffroy was the last person to die on the border when he was shot on 9 February 1989 in Berlin, only a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although the Grenzgesetz required that the lives of persons be respected, the orders given to border guards included the instruction to "detect, arrest or destroy violators of the border" and stated that "violations of the border must not be allowed under any circumstances. Violators of the border must be arrested or destroyed." In the event, no border guards were punished following incidents in which escapees were shot; on the contrary, the guards were commended and rewarded for their actions.<ref name="piotrowicz" /> The responsibility for border controls ultimately lay with the National Defence Council, headed by the General Secretary of the ruling SED party.[15]

Deaths of GDR border guards

Between 1949 and 1990, a total of 28 GDR border guards and soldiers were also killed. Nearly all of them died on the inner German border, while one died on the border with Czechoslovakia. Eight of these casualties died at the Berlin Wall. Most of the GDR border guards killed belonged to the Volkspolizei (People's Police Force) and the GDR border guards.

Apart from civilians fleeing the GDR, half of the remaining probable victims were citizens of West Berlin and West Germans or US soldiers, and about half were deserting GDR border guards or Volkspolizei soldiers. One was a deserting Soviet soldier. In the GDR, some of these soldiers killed were venerated as heroes; streets, children's camps, barracks and schools were named after them.

From today's point of view it is difficult to judge whether some of the cases really took place as described or whether some are simply propaganda. It is also unclear how many were cases of self-defence or even "friendly fire". Border clashes were always possible because the border defences were set back from the actual border line, with the gap in between constituting a sort of no man's land. West German or US troops could thus be some distance to the west of the border defences but could still cross the border line without being aware of it.

The border area today

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Footpath along a stretch of former border fortifications in the Brocken mountains
The inner German border lost its remaining significance in 1990, when German reunification was agreed between East and West Germany. The West German Bundeswehr was given the task of removing the border fortifications, which involved dismantling 1,455 km of barriers including 136 km of walls, 818 observation towers and command posts and over 1,000 remaining landmines.[16]

A few stretches of fortifications and isolated individual facilities such as watchtowers have been preserved for posterity. At Mödlareuth, parts of the former "death strip" that bisected the town have been preserved and integrated into an exhibition on the border zone. The Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing, at the point where the autobahn passed from West Germany into East Germany, is now part of a Border Zone Museum (Zonengrenz-Museum) which has been built around a preserved section of the border defences. Other than this, however, travellers are often unable to tell where the "border" ran, because most traffic routes have been connected or rebuilt seamlessly, obliterating all traces of former border facilities.

In recent years, parts of the old border and Wall strips have become hiking trails and nature preserves. Undeveloped for decades, the border area became a refuge for some animal and plant species endangered elsewhere in Europe. While there has been some speculation about landmines still being in place in the once fallow areas along the fences, no evidence and no casualties are known.

In September 2005, the European Parliament called for the former border area to become part of an "Iron Curtain trail" stretching 4,250 miles (6,800 km) from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea along the Cold War border between the Western and Soviet blocs. The German Bund Naturschutz environmental group is campaigning for the area to become a "German Green Belt".

See also


1. ^ Hanns Buchholz, "The Inner-German Border", in Carl Grundy-Warr, Eurasia. Routledge, 1994
2. ^ "Berlin Wall". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved on 2006-03-19.
3. ^ "The Berlin Wall - Facts and Figures". "Official site of the capital of Germany". Retrieved on 2006-03-19.
4. ^ Volker Rolf Berghahn, Modern Germany: Society, Economy and Politics in the Twentieth Century, p. 227. Cambridge University Press, 1987
5. ^ Hope Millard Harrison, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961, footnote p. 240. Princeton University Press, 2003
6. ^ Paul Maddrell, Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945-1961, p. 56. Oxford University Press, 2006
7. ^ "Aftermath 1949-1959", from D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin, Airbridge to Berlin — The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Retrieved January 8, 2007
8. ^ "E. Germany Builds Electric Fence", The Times, 28 March 1984
9. ^ "Regional Development along the Former Inner-German Border after Unification", Rupert Kawka, Institut fur Wirtschaftsforschung Halle, Germany. August 2003.
10. ^ Ryszard W. Piotrowicz, Sam Blay, The Unification of Germany in International and Domestic Law, pp. 68-69, p. 127. Rodopi, 1997
11. ^ Alan L. Nothnagle, Building the East German myth: historical mythology and youth propaganda in the German Democratic Republic, p. 31. University of Michigan Press, 1990.
12. ^ English translation of "Wer die Deutsche Demokratische Republik verläßt, stellt sich auf die Seite der Kriegstreiber" ("He Who Leaves the German Democratic Republic Joins the Warmongers", Notizbuch des Agitators ("Agitator's Notebook"), published by the Socialist Unity Party's Agitation Department, Berlin District, November 1955.
13. ^ Richard Felix Staar, in The Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, p. 31. Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 1977
14. ^ See Grenzgesetz 1982, clause 27
15. ^ Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship: problems and perspectives in the interpretation of the GDR, pp. 193-4. Oxford University Press, 2002
16. ^ Col. Konrad Freytag, "Germany's Security Policy and the Role of Bundeswehr in the Post-Cold War Period", in The Transatlantic Alliance on the Eve of the New Millennium, ed. Snezana Trifunovska. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1996

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