The European Green Belt: From “Death Strip” to Lifeline

How the former “Iron curtain” became Europe’s longest chain of biotopes.

When on November 09th 1989 Günter Schabowski, the Socialist Party’s Secretary for media affairs, more or less by accident, announced the opening of the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall on a legendary press-conference, the East-German people could hardly believe their ears; and the cheering and joy over this unpredicted event that was considered to be the impossible for decades was limitless. This day became maybe the most important day in younger German – but also European – history. The division of Germany and Europe as a whole in east and west was suddenly over and the Cold War came to a (more or less) peaceful end.

Luftbild von der ehemaligen Grenze zwischen den beiden deutschen Staaten, Mupperg

For around 40 years an “Iron curtain” was dividing Europe from Kiel on the Baltic Sea to Trieste on the Adriatic Sea and even further; and for 40 years the border stripe was entered by nobody but soldiers – such as those of the DDR-Grenztruppen (the GDR’s border protection troops). I myself am too young to remember that time, but I grew up with plenty of anecdotes and stories from my mother’s family that used to live in a small village located directly on the inner-German border. The neighboring village was only around one kilometer away but still in unreachable distance. When my mother talks about her childhood there, she always keeps stressing that she grew up “literally at the edge of the world”.

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The GDR’s government didn’t let anything unattempted to keep the people from leaving the country; so “Republikflucht” (desertion from the republic) was an actual crime that was punished draconically by the GDR-authorities. Over the years the border between east and west was strengthened with barbwire-fences, minefields, watchtowers manned with armed soldiers and self shooting facilities. Several hundreds of people lost their lives trying to escape from the east-German dictatorship.

This impenetrable barrier hence was considered to be the “Todesstreifen” (death strip), in Germany it was over 1.400 km long and between 50 and 200 meters wide and it cut through fields, forests, rivers and lakes wherever the political boundaries demanded it.

But in ’89 suddenly everything was different! The old frontier lost its horror and was dismantled in only a few months. Thus nowadays there are only few places left where one can still see the ruins of the border-facilities or a few hundred meters of old border-installations that were left as open air museums like for example the border memorial-site of Hötensleben in Saxony-Anhalt. What used to be a symbol of oppression and being locked-in for the humans was a unique chance for nature! Thanks to the 40 years lasting absence of human cultivation the flora and fauna in this area could reconquer lost terrain.

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Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was the “Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland” (BUND) – the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation that came up with the plan to put the former frontier-line under protection. Even before the border was opened there were found many species – such as birds, plants and insects – in a richness that is outstanding and a great part of them are to be found on the red list of endangered species. Like a string of pearls the “German Green Belt” is lining up biotope after biotope and connects different ecological spheres with each other like a corridor or some sort of “green highway” doing a great favor to biodiversity and the preservation of endangered species in these protected areas (even though this stripe has its gaps in some places).

But we must not forget that not only Germany was divided, but all of Europe! Thus, starting in 2002, The German grassroots’ initiative became a model for another 24 European countries and the vision of an over 12.500 km long “European Green Belt” started to become reality. From the Barents Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, the European Green Belt project is divided into four sections: The Fenno-Scandinavian Green Belt, the Baltic Green Belt, the Central European Green Belt and the Balkan Green Belt – also including the borderlines of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The project is being implemented by different organizations that contribute to taking care of the respective areas such as BUND managing the German Green Belt or for example the Macedonian Ecological Society in the Balkan-part and establishing a sustainable development facing the loss of diversity of species and destruction of valuable habitates.

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In the past 20 years there has been a great development towards a unique space of biodiversity along the former frontier of the blocs of the Cold War and the former Death-strip became a refuge for many species like the Eurasian Lynx that became an iconic animal for the EGB-project. Also this is an outstanding example of international coordination and nature-protection attempts across national borders. In the past few years there have been attempts to nominate the EGB as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the title “Iron Curtain and Green Belt. Networks and opportunities for cooperation in a European Border Landscape”. Also other efforts have been made to promote the EGB-project like for example the “Balkan Green Belt Photo Contest” organized by Green Balkans – Federation of Nature Conversation NGOs.

Nevertheless the aim to create such a belt through whole Europe is facing different threats, problems and complications such as the construction of new infrastructures, deforestation, intensifying agriculture and mass-tourism. Therefore it is of vital interest to make sure that the progress already achieved is being preserved and even extended to not let this unique and singular space be lost to the “modern human world”.

In 2019 the German Green Belt is already celebrating its 30th anniversary and there is great hope that this project will be of delight for generations to come and that the former “Strip of death” will entirely become a Haven of (wild-)life.

Sascha Schlüter


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