Sunday, September 11, 2011

History has many sad stories

Being in Germany gives one quite a bit of time to discover the history of a land that had been around for a long time, especially when compared to the USA. Sadly some of the history is not always pleasant.... but it is still something that I think should be viewed and examined. Mariko and I had the opportunity to go to one of the Inner German Border Museums with other Fulbrighters. The museum was in Eichfeld, and it geographically at the center of Germany.

It is always different hearing about history and walking where history was. There were only 18 Fulbrighters that went to the museum, so we were able to all be in one group (luckily in English). Our tour guide was Canadian, and he spoke French, English and German. He led us through the museum, giving us a background on each exhibit that we saw:

The original border gate that was used
The electrified fence that was used

Uniforms of soldiers stationed at the checkpoint
What the checkpoint looked like
The East German army started off with simple constructions for the wall, and continued to "improve" upon it over time. What once started with just a barbed wire fence ended in an electrified fence (that had explosives fire if the electricity was interrupted),  a deep ditch that was almost impossible to get out of, land mines (both spring loaded and simple metal ones), barely fed guard dogs, sand that showed the smallest tracks of anything moving over it (including insects) and patrolling soldiers (who were known to shoot people even when they made it over to the West).

After the tour inside the museum we had a light lunch and then walked about 10km to the closest watch tower. Along the way we passed the emergency gate that was used to stop people from trying to drive through the checkpoint, it was called Big Bertha. It had dynamite housed behind it, and they would light the dynamite to fire it across the road... and it only took 3 secs for the whole thing to close. It was so heavy that not even a tank could go through it.

The walk up to the watch tower was very beautiful, but very sad to know that over 1000 people died in this small area trying to escape from East Germany. At the top of the hill you could see for quite a long ways. And for 5 miles within the border, all towns had been forced to evacuate by the government. Only soldiers, those completely loyal to the party and farmers that worked the nearby land were allowed to live in that area (and the farmers were forced to farm with guns to their head to reduce the risk of fleeing).

We got to see a small section of fencing that was still standing. The ditch beside it was slowly filling in over time, so not as impressive as it once was, but still daunting. It is always more real to be able to visualize what people had to go through to try and escape, which is why the museum is trying to build a section of the fencing and walkways back up to what they looked like originally. Only so that people can truly understand the daunting task that those escaping were faced with.

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