|Heading to Berlin or the former GDR? Looking for traces of the Cold War open for a visit?|
A Travel Guide to COLD WAR SITES in EAST GERMANY
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The Berlin Wall is widely known as one of the most emblematic symbols of the Cold War – a materialization of the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Wall – at least in its preliminary stage – was erected almost overnight in August 1961 by the Government of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’, or ‘DDR’ in German), and later developed into a complex and virtually impenetrable dividing barrier with fortifications, multiple fences, barbed wire, watchtowers, watchdogs, mines, truck stopping bars and other devices, isolating the part of Berlin attributed to the US, Britain and France from the Soviet occupation zone.
This monster, which caused many people to lose their lives, or forced them to risk everything – and leave everything behind – in the pursue of freedom, remained in place and was steadily updated until its triumphal demolition in November 1989.
What is less known is that the reason for building the Wall was the urge of the GDR to stop emigration towards West Germany (‘FRG’, Federal Republic of Germany, or ‘BRD’ in German) and the free world. Actually, the Wall was built following a massive emigration wave from the harsh living conditions of the GDR, taking place during the Fifties and mounting until the Wall was built. Literally millions of people fled the regions occupied by the Soviets from the end of WWII in 1945 until 1961.
Consequently, blocking the border only in the city of Berlin would have been nonsense. As a matter of fact, at the same time as the construction of the Wall begun, the government of the GDR started one of the most gigantic ‘border-armoring’ operations in history, by ordering fortification of the whole border line between East and West Germany. The Berlin Wall was actually only the tip of the iceberg, as all the more than 800 miles long border line between East and West Germany, extending from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria and the Czech border, was blocked with the same level of restraining techniques deployed in Berlin, to the explicit aim of preventing people from crossing the fence and going East to West. For the Communist government, East Germany had to be reconfigured basically as a nationwide prison.
This incredible operation, which engaged thousands border troops and tons of equipment, plus required continuous updates of the patrolling technologies, was reportedly so expensive that it contributed effectively to the collapse of the economy of the GDR. It crystallized the so-called ‘Inner Border’ between the two German republics, which had existed since 1945, but had never been so deadly. After the introduction of this strict border patrolling policy the number of people killed or wounded, and of those arrested because trying to cross the border, increased steadily until the re-opening of the border, following rapidly after the demolition of the Wall in Berlin in 1989.
Berlin is today an enjoyable city, full of interesting places to visit and things to do, and its urban configuration, so strikingly bound to the Wall and its history – unlike all other capital cities in Europe, Berlin is lacking a true ‘city center’ – with the passing of time is becoming more uniform. Differences between the two sides, once obvious, now tend to vanish, at least in the most seen parts of the city, with new buildings, fashionable shops and malls, stately hotels and governmental buildings rising where once the Wall had created barren flat areas, not restored for long from the ruins of WWII. Obviously, nothing bad in this process, which also makes Berlin one of the most lively places in Europe in terms of architecture.
The grim atmosphere of the Cold War years can still be breathed in many places in town especially in the former East Berlin, but even close to the few memorials of the Wall scattered over the urban territory it’s hard to imagine how it really felt like being there when the border could not be crossed. If you want more evocative places, you should look somewhere else.
In this sense, the preserved border checkpoints and portions of the fortified Inner Border are much more evocative, and constitute a very vivid, albeit little known, fragment of memory, inviting you to think about the monstrous effects of ideology and dictatorship. All along the former border, especially in the southern regions of the former GDR, you can still spot large areas spoiled of trees, where once the border fences run. Scattered watchtowers are not an unusual sight in these areas, even though many have been demolished immediately after dismantling the border. In some focal places, often corresponding to former checkpoints where important roads crossed the border, the fences have been totally preserved or just slightly altered, for keeping historical memory.
The following photographs were taken during an exploration of some of these sites in summer 2015, winter 2016 and summer 2021. The exposition follows a southern-northern direction along the former Inner Border.
The following map shows the location of the sites described below. For some sites you can zoom in close to the pinpointed positions on the map to see more detailed labels. Directions to reach all the sites listed are provided section by section. The list is not complete, but refers to the sites I have personally visited. Border sites in Berlin are not included.
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- Schwarzes Moor
- Point Alpha
Mödlareuth is actually the name of a small village placed along the former Inner Border between Bavaria and Thuringia. The site is not difficult to reach by car, a 4 miles detour from highway N.9, going from Munich to Berlin. Just proceed to the village of Modlareuth, which is dominated by the ‘Deutsch-Deutsches Museum Mödlareuth’ (website here). This encompasses an open-air exhibition of the former border area, plus an indoor exhibition with patrolling vehicles, artifacts, videos and temporary exhibitions. Large free parking on site.
For photographing purposes, I would suggest approaching from the south, from the village of Parchim via H02. Mödlareuth is located in a natural basin surrounded by low hills, and the H02 proceeds downhill to the site, allowing for a perfect view of the former border area.
Most of the Inner Border once run in rural areas. In that case, ‘only’ double fences, dogs, watchtowers, truck-stopping grooves and mines were ok. In the less common cases when the border crossed or passed close to villages, something similar to what had happened in Berlin was replicated on a smaller scale, and a further fortification layer in the form of a tall concrete wall, was put in place.
This happened also in Mödlareuth, where the small village was split in two parts by a wall, gaining to this town the nickname of ‘Little Berlin’. The place was rather famous in the West before 1989, and it was visited also by vice-president Bush in the years of the Reagan administration.
As here one of the relatively few local roads not cut by the Inner Border was left, the village was also place for a border checkpoint for cars.
The open air exhibition showcases what remains of the wall – the most of it was demolished restoring the original, pre-war geography of the town -, as well as a full section of the border protection system and checkpoint. Looking from the West, you had first the real geographical border, coinciding with a creek as it was typical. Beyond it, poles with warning signs and distinctive concrete posts painted in black, red and yellow stripes (the colors of the German flag) with a metal placard bearing the emblem of the GDR. These signs had existed since the inception of the inner border to mark it, and date from older times than the other border devices. Then followed the wall. Behind it, a corridor for walking/motorized patrols and a fence. Then you had a groove in the ground, reinforced with concrete, capable of stopping a truck or a car pointing westwards from the GDR. An area of flattened sand followed next, to mark the footsteps of people approaching the border area. In different times, mines were placed in a much alike sand strip. Then followed a final fence.
Except for the wall, the above description applies with slight variants to all the length of the Inner Border.
The net used for the fences was very stiff and conceived to avoid fingers passing through, this way making climbing very difficult.
A peculiar aspect of the wall in Modlareuth is a small door in it. That was a service door for border patrols, used to access the area between the border line in the middle of the creek and the wall itself, for servicing or arresting Westerners. This happened more than once, not only here – as a matter of fact, walking past the border from the West was as easy as walking past the little creek where the border line passed. This was in all respects entering the GDR, even though the fortification line was about 30 feet further into the East. When this happened you could expect to be rapidly arrested and kept for interrogation before eventually being released in most cases. Servicing, like cutting trees and so on, in the strip between the wall and the real border was reportedly a task for very enthusiastic Communist troops, as escaping to the West from there was again as easy as a leaping past a narrow creek…
The road crossing the border in Mödlareuth is not active any more and is part of the open air exhibition. Actually the former customs house hosts the ticket office. Along the former road it is possible to observe an example of car stopping devices and original ‘stop’ and ‘no-trespassing’ signs.
The area was dominated by watchtowers. There are two in Mödlareuth, one original and inaccessible, the other probably cut in height. Both are of a relatively recent model, with a distinctive round section.
Going to the two main buildings of the museum it is possible to find other interesting items, including models of the site, and pieces of hardware like a sample of the standard border wall, and a vehicle stopping device able to cut the road in a matter of a second at a short notice.
A large depot hosts many vehicles – armored vehicles, 4×4, trucks, and even a helicopter – once part of the border patrols of the GDR, and also of the FRG. Forces of the latter did monitor the border, but as the problem was mainly with the GDR in trying to keep its citizens back, the FRG forces were as substantial as it is usual for a border between states.
There are also original road signs and warning signs, including some in English for US troops.
Finally, the museum offers a well-made 15 minutes documentary, played in English on request, with the history of the Inner Border and of the wall in Mödlareuth, with video recordings from the past which really add to the perception of how the place used to work, and show what it meant for the local population – families split overnight and for decades, as it was the case in Berlin.
When I visited in 2015 the temporary exhibition was unfortunately only in German.
There are information panels scattered all around the village providing an opportunity to better compare today’s village with how it was before 1989.
Leaving to the north-west towards Thuringia along K310, it is possible to spot a part of the most external border fence which has been preserved out of the village. You can walk freely along it. Still in Modlareuth, in the parking of the exhibition a Soviet tank still occupies one of the parking lots.
I would recommend this place for a visit, it is convenient to reach and extremely interesting for the general public as well as for the most committed specialist. Visiting may take from half an hour to 1 hour 30 minutes, depending on your pace and level of interest. The countryside nearby is lovely and relaxing. The site is fully accessible and well prepared, with many explanatory information. It may be a bit crowded, as people mostly from Germany are visiting it in flocks… yet visiting is very evocative and rewarding.
The Eisfeld site can be reached easily from highway N.73, less than .5 miles from exit Eisfeld-Süd. Actually, the highway didn’t exist at the time of the GDR, and the corresponding traffic ran on what is today Coburger Strasse. The very location of the former border checkpoint is today taken by a gas station, serving the highway traffic.
On site, you can still find the ‘Gedenkstätte Innerdeutsche Grenze Eisfeld-Rottenbach’, hosted in the original control tower for the border checkpoint. The tower can be visited as an automated museum, meaning that entrance is possible by putting a few coins in an automatic system to unlock the door. Despite being automated, the museum has hours of operations.
The Eisfeld site is similar to the one in Eussenhausen (see later), being the location of a former border crossing point. Actually, this checkpoint was built in a relatively later stage in the life of the inner border in 1973, to decrease congestion on major crossing points then in existence.
The highway today running nearby was not there in the Cold War years, hence the relatively smaller road running today into the service area and gas station now taking the place of the former checkpoint, used to be a major road linking the FRG and GDR near Eisfeld.
Of course, having been turned into a service station, the original function of the place is somewhat deceived. However, the control tower greeting you when approaching from the south betrays the original identity of this facility.
The control tower was there to oversee and keep a constant watch on border control and customs operations, taking place on the several vehicle lanes beneath. Today, it is home to a very interesting exhibition on the topic.
Most of the exhibition is centered on pictures from the time of construction, operation and final dismantlement. These are very evocative of the bygone era of the Iron Curtain.
On the top floor, a scale model of the former border crossing facility can be found. This is extremely interesting to understand the general arrangement of the site, and how traffic flows used to be managed on site. The normal access road from the FRG was interrupted by a preliminary checkpoint, giving access to the control area. Vehicles were split in multiple parallel queues for the official check. The lanes then rejoined and access to the GDR was via a normally-sized road. Basically the same happened in the opposite direction.
Stopping gear for emergency – conceived especially to stop fleeing vehicles – was located in several points, as well as fences all around the area, with watchtowers and more usual stopping systems for men and vehicles. Garrisons and booths were abundant too.
Most of this has gone today, except maybe some of the buildings of the service station, recycled from a different function.
The control tower is the most conspicuous remain, together with some pieces of the Berlin wall, clearly not from here, but located here for remembrance. Visiting the small museum – unfortunately with descriptions in German only – may take about 45 minutes. Website here.
The memorial can be found on the local road connecting Gompertshausen (Thuringia) to Alsleben (Bavaria). Parking opportunities on site.
The memorial Grenzdenkmal Gompertshausen is centered on an early-generation watchtower. The place was unlikely associated to a crossing point, and it is possible that the local road, now passing right besides the tower, was cut in the days of the GDR.
The memorial cannot be toured unless by appointment. However, its location in the middle of a peaceful agricultural area is rather suggestive of the grim atmosphere of the bygone oppressive communist regime.
Close to the tower, a portion of the fence has been preserved, similarly to the access to an interesting underground facility – with a function which is today hard to guess from outside. A ventilation pipe is clearly visible in the premises, likely connected with this facility.
Not far from the tower, in the village of Gompertshausen, an attentive eye can spot a (likely) former garrison of the border guards, now in a state of disrepair.
Unlike some more prominent museums on this page, the ‘Freilandmuseum Behrungen’ open-air exhibition is not associated to a border crossing point. Actually, the public road giving access to the memorial runs parallel to it. Access is very easy driving from the village of Behrungen (Thuringia, former GDR) along Röhmilder Strasse, leaving the town heading east. The memorial can be found to the south of the road roughly 1 mile from the town. A first part of the memorial is a small preserved portion of the fence line, very close to the road. From there you can spot the watchtower. You can approach the latter by car, driving on the original service road, and park right ahead of it.
Visiting the watchtower is rarely possible. However, you can move around the area and cross the border with a short walk on a trail, to get good pictures anyway. The surroundings of the preserved part are in the middle of a natural preserve, making the visit a possible stop when wandering in this very nice area.
The installation in Behrungen is basically a preserved section of the original border in the deep countryside, not corresponding to any crossing point. The focal point in the exhibition is an early-type watchtower, which has been restored and hosts a small exhibition, seldom open unless by appointment. The detection sensors on top of the tower are still there, as well as the communication antennas.
A service road with the original prefabricated concrete slabs can departs from the tower.
As usual in the structure of the border barrier of the GDR, the tower was in the middle of an interdicted strip, between two fence lines – one towards the GDR (north of the tower in this case) and one towards the FRG (to the south of the tower).
Two little portions of the inner fence line have been preserved, and can be seen quite apart from one another along the public road coming from Behrungen.
Besides one of the two fence traits, a smaller concrete shooting turret can be seen. Turrets like this, often covered in camo coat, can be found in a high number all along the line of the former inner border.
A big portion of the outer fence, south of the tower, is also visible in this exhibition. Running along it, a vehicle stopping moat made of concrete slabs is clearly visible still today.
In the vicinity of this fence, a mine was found by chance as recently as 2001. A commemoration stone was put in place, to stress how the monstrosity of the wall left a long-lasting and unwanted inheritance for the local population and visitors as well.
Unlike in the Cold War years, you can now cross this border, heading south into Bavaria. The original striped concrete post and white signals, showing the actual line of the border – south from the monstrous fence – are still there.
Further south, you can find the original ‘Stop’ line put in place by FRG authorities, with prohibition signs and an explanation of the rules in the border area dating from 1989. This rules were very tricky, especially for the fact that getting past the line marked by the posts, without even reaching to the fence, was already a border violation. This was something that could happen for Westerners just by mistake, but would trigger capture, interrogation and possibly fines by the GDR border control police.
The silent and peaceful area of the Behrungen site makes for a thought-provoking stop along the former inner border.
The open-air exhibition of the ‘Grenzmuseum Eussenhausen’ can be reached along the St2445, roughly 1.5 miles north of the small village of Eussenhausen in Bavaria. Crossing the border with Thuringia, the road changes its name into L3019, and the closest village is Henneberg, about 1 mile north of the inner border. The exhibition is arranged on a former apron of the border control area, slightly uphill, but fairly accessible for the general public, and with a large parking ahead. The exhibition is open-air and arguably accessible 24/7 for free.
As of 2021, the large border control area on the GDR side of the border line (i.e. in Thuringia) is basically abandoned and severely damaged. For relic- and ghost-place-hunters or like-minded people, this can also be toured, and makes for an evocative sight. A dedicated parking is not available in the vicinity of this former facility, hence parking close to the official memorial is recommended.
This border museum is located on a former border crossing point between and the GDR and FRG, likely opened similar to other checkpoints in the 1970s, to reduce the traffic jams created by border controls on major transit arteries. Today, the site is composed of three parts, two of which are officially for visitors, and the latter an abandoned site.
The first and most significant part of the site is made of the (arguably) original road giving access to the large control area. The original external fence of the GDR border area can still be seen along the sides of the road, as well as the original external gate.
It is likely that this area was originally intended for a kind of pre-check of vehicles, heading inside the GDR from the West. Today, the area has been converted into an exhibition of a wide array of stopping mechanisms and control booths once in place in the area of the border checkpoint.
Among the most striking items are one of the closing bars moving on a rail, and pushed by a still visible hydraulic actuator. The mass of the bar allowed to stop heavy traffic, and hydraulic power allowed for a very quick closure. This item was likely transferred here from the eastern side of the checkpoint, since similar stopping gear was intended to prevent GDR citizens fleeing the country.
Concrete shooting points, rather common along the border line also far from the authorized border-crossings, were often camo-painted. Some have been transferred here. A striped border post is also part of the exhibition.
A second part of the exhibition is a memorial built after the reopening of the border, to celebrate freedom. The meaning of the installations here is not always easy to capture. However, original parts of the fence wall rise the historical value of this area.
Finally, the area once used for controls can be found towards the eastern part of the checkpoint. This area is not open for visitors, but is basically open and unguarded, so a check is advised for more curious visitors. Here a tower was put in place to oversee the operations in the control lanes. This can still be seen, albeit severely damaged.
Close by, the large area once occupied by the control lanes can be seen. Original lamps are still there, but the sun shelters and control booths are totally gone. Looking at a historical picture available on the official part of the exhibition (see above), it is also clear that the bulky building on the side of the apron was not there at the time of border operations. Maybe this was built as a hotel – and construction halted before completion – after the reopening of the border.
A surviving building in this area is that of a small mechanics shop, possibly for the vehicles of GDR border protection corps.
The Eußenhausen site is interesting for the easy-to-visit exhibition, but also a glance to the currently (2021) abandoned former control area may be really evoking. This short 360° video captures the unreal silence of this once busy border point.
This site is immersed in a beautiful national preserve area, a popular destination for lovers of hiking or cycling activities. This site used to be a sharp corner of the inner border line. Today, the three German regions of Thuringia, Bavaria and Hessen (the former previously part of the GDR) still meet close to this point. The watchtower and the remains on site can be reached with a short walk on an unpaved, perfectly leveled and easy road from a large parking area, put in place for the visitors of the national preserve.
The parking can be reached by car approaching from Bavaria, where road St2287 meets St2288. The closest sizable village is Frankenheim, geographically just one mile north, but connected to the parking via a somewhat longer curvy road. The tower cannot be visited inside, and this small complex makes for a 24/7 open-air memorial, which can be neared without restrictions.
Smaller than other sites, but nonetheless interesting also for the vantage position on top of a hill and immersed in a beautiful natural preserve area, the Schwarzes Moor site is visible from a distance thanks to a late-generation, slender, square-based watchtower. This has been restored thanks to the intervention of local businesses, and the sight it provides from a distance is quite evocative of how the inner border should have looked like in this hilly countryside back in the years of operation.
A small remnant of the original fence put on the western side is also in place, right ahead of the watchtower. One of the original gates in the fence was apparently located here, arguably used only for maintenance operations. No crossing was possible in this area.
A striped original ‘DDR’ concrete border post, as well as a few white poles with a similar demarcation function, can still be seen, making for an ideal photo subject – provided you dare to walk on a pasture area generously pointed by the results of cow digestion…
Possibly less obvious to a less trained eye, a portion of the vehicle-stopping moat, once aligned with the largely disappeared fence, can still be seen, partially invaded vegetation.
Thanks to its elevated position, the former wide area of the border, once spoiled of any vegetation and today invaded by younger trees, is still visible from the hilltop where the tower is. The original service road running along the fence line, made of typically-GDR prefabricated concrete slabs, helps to capture the shape of the sinuous line of the border.
A historically relevant stop for those touring this region for the beautiful panoramas and for sporting activities, you will hardly miss this hiking trail head when roaming in the natural preserve.
The place is located between the small towns of Rasdorf, in Hessen, and Geisa, in Thuringia. It is very famous (website here), and official ad signs can be spotted also along highway N.7, going from Munich to Hamburg, near the town of Hunfeld, Hessen. From there it is a 12 miles drive – in a very relaxing, typically German countryside – to the site. Approaching from Rasdorf on the L3170, it is possible to access the site from two sides. If you go straight uphill to the top, you reach the small museum to one end of the site. If you take to the left just .2 miles before reaching the top of the hill, you access the site from the opposite end, where the most peculiar part of the complex – a US Army outpost – is located.
Both items are interesting, and they’re also linked by a walking trail – .25 miles -, running along the former border line. Free parking is available on both ends, so it’s just a matter of what you want to visit first.
This place is extraordinary in the panorama of the relics of the Inner Border, due to the fact that this portion of the border line was guarded directly by US troops instead of FRG border patrols on the western side. This is witnessed by a small outpost of the US Army which has been since then deactivated and opened to the public. The area was considered by western observers as one of the most likely targets for a possible attack/invasion from the East. This was also due to the fact the US quarters in Fulda were relatively close and there is no natural barrier between this section of the border and that city.
The US outpost is a very interesting prototype of similar installations. Much of the original barracks are still standing. The side of the outpost facing the border is also the place for an observation tower with much communication equipment and an observation deck.
The former canteen now hosts a bar. To the back of it you can still see a basketball court. Other buildings include former office/barracks, with a nice exhibition about the history and function of the site, and vehicle depots. There are also some vehicles, including a tank and two helicopters, and tents.
Very close to the tower the American Flag is still waving. The pole is not planted in the ground, in observance to the fact that this is not American land.
Curiously, walking towards the fence from within the fort you can see signs for military personnel, warning about the limits of jurisdiction outside a delimited area, in order to avoid raising diplomatic issues by introducing armored vehicles or similar items in an area too close to the border.
After visiting the outpost you can walk towards the small museum, telling more about the history of the Inner Border. The short trail runs along reconstructed portions of the original fence and border interdiction system. Most notably, on the GDR side there is a watchtower of the most modern type, tall and with a square section. Facing the US tower, there is a shooting bunker from the early age soon after WWII, put in place probably before the total closure of the border. Some signs provide scant descriptions, but the function of all devices there is pretty obvious.
Close to the US outpost on the eastern side of the border it is possible to appreciate very clearly the construction of the vehicle stopping groove.
The portion of the border next to the small museum is preserved as it was before the final blockade – in a first stage, only concrete posts were in place, whereas barbed wire and stop signs were included in the picture. This was before the subsequent modernization, taking place in more stages from the definitive closure with fences, barriers and watchtowers in the early Sixties, until the reopening of the border.
Similarly to Mödlareuth, this place is easily accessible, fully prepared for the general public and interesting also for people with a specific interest in the matter. The US outpost is a peculiar sight of this border site. In terms of resemblance to the original condition of the border fortification system, in my opinion it is less evocative than other places, but it still provides a good idea of how it may have looked like. The area is really nice to walk, so there is something for everybody here. Visiting may take from half an hour if you skip the museum, to more than an hour, depending on your interest.
This was a major checkpoint for crossing the border, as the road passing here was often very busy. You can reach this installation on the road 247 between Gerblingerode in Lower Saxony and Teistungen in Thuringia.
The place hosts a modern museum in the former quarters of the GDR border patrol and in its annexes (website here). Furthermore, there is a loop trail along part of the former border, partially preserved in its final conditions to this day. This can be walked for free but it is pretty long, more than 1 hour for a well-trained young man, going up and down the hills to the West of the museum. I found it really much interesting especially for photographs, plus there are many information panels all along the trail, but you’d better go prepared especially on a torrid summer day.
Large parking available in front of the museum.
This place is the prototype of a checkpoint on a busy road crossing the border line. The main building of the museum has been built in a former customs house. The modern and well designed exhibition tells about the history of the Inner Border.
In a first part the focus is on the border control policy of the GDR – this was incredibly restrictive, as they tried to prevent Westerners from introducing illegal goods as well as western newspapers, books and similar ‘propaganda items’, plus they actively worked to stop people trying to flee th GDR using FRG vehicles.
This all was obtained with careful control of all vehicles, reportedly generating long queues. Every suspect good triggered a litigation, possibly resulting in access denial, fines, interrogations, … Among the hardware related to the topic, original passport control booths, movable mirrors for looking under stopped vehicles, optical instruments for checking parcels, uniforms, firearms, passports, papers.
In a second part, the museum tells about the Inner Border as a whole, including detailed information on the modernization stages from inception to demolition, and of many technical devices deployed to prevent escape. At some point, the innermost fence was supplied with contact sensors, linked to the watchtowers, telling the patrolling troops where the escapee was exactly. The strip between the inner and outer fences was filled with flattened sand, to make footprints immediately visible. This strip was filled with mines at a certain point. These had to be updated to more recent models later on, and the old ones were reportedly blown. Other deadly mechanisms included small cone-shaped explosive charges hanging from the fence, which exploded shooting plummets over a predefined area in case the fence was touched.
More information about the border include anecdotes, and numbers about people who died or where wounded trying to flee, and of those arrested for border-related issues. Also documented is the incredible cost of the whole border system, which like the Stasi – the detested internal police of the GDR – employed thousands of people, and necessitated of continuous maintenance and updates.
More about the history of the checkpoint in Eichsfeld and on the days of the re-opening can be found in the museum. A building close to the main hall, once for passport booths, hosts a photographic exhibition, very lively and interesting, about this particular checkpoint and the border re-opening. Also visible are a communication hub and a mechanic’s shop for disassembling suspect cars. In the outside courtyard of the museum some vehicles for patrolling are preserved, together with the original seal of the GDR once proudly standing in the middle of the border checkpoint.
Approaching the trailhead of the loop trail, very close to the museum, it is possible to spot vehicle stopping devices able to cut the road immediately in case of suspect escape situations.
A short map for the loop trail can be obtained for free in the museum. The checkpoint was like a punch in the otherwise continuous line of border fortification. Part of it can be seen going uphill along the trail. Original lamps shedding light along the border are still standing. Before reaching the watchtower on top of the hill it’s possible to see a well-preserved part of the original border system. Also visible are some shooting posts probably from an earlier time.
Crossing the border and going West – freely possible only today – you can still see a cippus with the ‘DDR’ sign. The sight from the west makes for good photo opportunities of how the border would have been like back in the Eighties, looking from the FRG towards the ‘dark side’. Curiously enough, an observation tower was built on the West looking to the East, reportedly not for military purposes but for tourism. As you can see from the photos in the museum, this was where people from all over Europe came to see in person an open-air prison in the middle of Europe, in the form of a country administrated by a Communist dictatorship.
Typical striped concrete posts with the symbol of the GDR can be seen ahead of the border fence to the West, marking the real geographical border.
If you ar looking for detailed and well-organized information about the Inner Border, as well as for a nice preserved checkpoint and a portion of the border fortifications, I suggest coming to Eichsfeld. The museum can be visited in half an hour and up to 1 hour. Add about 1 hour for the loop trail. Furthermore, the place is close to the beautiful Harz region, surrounded by a beautiful countryside. It makes for an ideal, unusual detour from that region or from the busy areas of Kassel, Gottingen and Hannover.
Differently from other sites, there is not an official museum preserving the border here, nor is this place well advertised with road signs. Furthermore, the focus of the place, a former watchtower and a part of preserved fence, can be reached with a walk – on a very well prepared horizontal road, once a military communication road running along the border – about 1.2 miles long each way, i.e. about 2.5 miles both ways, so be prepared.
The trail head is in the small village of Sorge, in Saxony-Anhalt close to the border with Lower Saxony along road 242. After taking to the village from the 242, you need to turn right to reach the trailhead, which coincides with the end of the paved road and a no passing sign. Free parking available there, plus a sign with a detailed map of the site.
This place has not much to offer in terms of hardware. The inner fence is encountered soon after the trailhead. The road then points into the land strip once going to the outer fence, running on it for about 1 mile, and finally reaching a modern, tall watchtower with a square section. What makes this site interesting is the fact that it is almost desert. During my walk and stay there I encountered two people – from the Netherlands – in total. The area of the former border is deserted and unreally silent – very impressive.
Further on, former mine fields are presented, plus a strange monument to peace or equilibrium, unclear, but it’s made of stones and does not disturb the panorama.
It is noteworthy that they are keeping the strip around the preserved portion of the fence spoiled of vegetation. This was a distinctive feature of all the Inner Border line which is vanishing with time, as trees and vegetation are often reclaiming those areas.
There is actually a small independent museum about the Inner Border in Sorge (website here), where also a border railway station was operated. Due to time constraints I could not visit it.
The most distinctive feature of the place is the characteristic Soviet ‘ghost aura’, making it really grim even in plain sunlight. The chance to walk the trail with nobody around adds to the atmosphere. Of course it requires some extra-walk with respect to other sites, and all in all the hardware it has to offer is not so abundant, so I would recommend visiting only for more committed specialists. The roundtrip time depends on your level of training, but may be easily about an hour.
The village of Hotensleben is on the border between Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, hence it once stood right on the Inner Border line. This town can be conveniently reached about 6 miles to the South of Helmstedt on highway N.2 going from Hannover to Berlin.
The border site is located on the western end of the village, on the L104 heading to Schoeningen. In case you are coming from Schoeningen you will clearly see the installation before reaching Hotensleben. Large free parking by the site.
As it was often the case for towns close to the Inner Border or crossed by it – see Mödlareuth upper on this page -, besides the usual border devices including fences, minefields, watchtowers, vehicle stopping grooves and bars, also a wall was put in place. To be exact, two walls were erected in Hotensleben, totally enclosing the strip where a service road, a minefield, fences and watchtowers were standing.
Parts of these walls have been preserved for posterity. The outer wall, mostly similar to that you can find in Mödlareuth, is tall and white, whereas the innermost one is made of grey concrete slabs. Watchdogs once stood between the innermost wall and the next fence.
Today the place is totally open access all day around, and it is made of two parts. The southernmost area showcases a modern watchtower with a round section, which has been cut for improving stability as it is not maintained any more. Look for the concrete slabs making the pavement of the service road nearby, and to the manholes with GDR factory labels.
The main part is to the north of the road. Here you can appreciate most clearly the geography of the border strip, as it is placed on the side of a hill, over a gentle slope, offering a bird-eye view of the installation. Curiously, the topography of the border devices here is reportedly mostly similar to the one implemented in Berlin in the most recent times – so from here you can have a more precise idea of what was the Berlin wall than from everywhere in Berlin.
On top of the hill – a very short walk from the parking – a watchtower of the earliest type, a rather bulky, square-shaped tower, is still standing.
To the outside of the outer wall some border signs remain – as usual, the line ran in the middle of a creek.
There is no museum here, just an open air exhibition with some information provided through leaflets you can pick-up close to the parking.
I found this place very suggestive – also due to visiting near sunset, when I spent all my time there totally alone -, and the fact this represents a specimen of the Berlin Wall better than you can find in Berlin itself adds extreme value. It’s unlikely you will find much crowd here, so the place is ideal for photographs as well as for memory and thoughts. As there is no museum and the site is limited in size, visiting may take from 15 to 45 minutes. Would surely recommend for every kind of public, thanks also to the short distance from highway N.2 and from the Marienborn site.
This is a gigantic installation also known as ‘Checkpoint Alpha’, which used to work as a major checkpoint for the highway traffic entering the GDR and/or heading to/coming from Berlin along highway N.2, from Hannover and central FRG. It can be spotted to the South of the highway, adjacent to it, immediately after the town of Helmstedt going to Berlin.
The place is accessible in at least two ways. If you are driving to Berlin, you can stop by the service/fuel station about .5 miles after the Marienborn/Helmstedt exit. The service station occupies part of the former site, which can be reached by foot. If you are driving from the opposite direction on N.2 or you are not coming from the highway at all, you may start from the village of Marienborn, take the K1373 in the direction of Morsleben (i.e. to the north), and turn to the left immediately before passing below the highway, keeping on K1373. This road goes west parallel to the highway for about 1 mile, then you clearly see the site to the right. Coming from the town of Marienborn it will be possible to spot also a watchtower of the oldest type along the former border. Scant information from the website here.
This place is a real ‘Jurassic Park’ of Communism, a true, evoking, grim relic of the Cold War. The installation is big, and today totally disused, but not abandoned. Actually, when I visited in summer 2015 some of the former passport booths were undergoing (slow) restoration, and were not accessible. The former main customs building, once hosting the offices of the guards, today hosts a nice and detailed free permanent exhibition, with some artifacts, explanatory panels and site control devices, plus many self explaining photographs – the only major flaw being everything is in German only. Here you can find a leaflet also in English, guiding you in the exploration of the site. Some report guided tours are offered, by I didn’t try myself, as I expected them to be given in German only.
First of all, the geometry: the place worked as a GDR checkpoint for both directions of traffic. All vehicle traffic was detoured here, both coming in or going out the Communist territory. This was one of the main gates to the Soviet bloc, so this place was reportedly very busy year round, with legendary waiting times to be expected in all directions.
For those entering the GDR, the main worry for border patrols was the introduction of contraband goods and ‘western propaganda’ in the form of books, newspapers, prohibited goods, religious items and so on. All cars, buses and trucks were accurately scanned.
In order to cope with the huge traffic flow, passports of incoming passengers had to be placed over a treadmill leading to the passport control booths, in order to start passport processing before the vehicle actually reached the booths. This device is still standing.
In the part deputed to controlling buses and trucks it is possible to notice higher banks and ladders for getting a vantage view. Movable mirrors are placed at the level of the canopy.
I was impressed by the shabby appearance of this control station, especially doors, booths and the material of the canopies… really an anticipation of Communist quality for those coming in. Red emergency buttons all around could trigger a blockade of the control post in case of suspect activities.
Dedicated buildings included a livestock inspection quarter and a depot for inspecting dangerous material, a morgue and a bank – which can be recognized by the window railings. All Westerners coming in the GDR were forced by the law to buy a certain amount of GDR marks, at the exchange rate of 1:1 to FRG marks – due to the almost null value of the former, this was basically an entrance fee to the ‘Paradise of Socialism’.
The outgoing traffic was scanned as well, in search of potential enemies of the state trying to flee the country. A suspended deck for inspecting trucks is still standing close to the highway. The lanes leading to the control booths are still painted on the concrete of the pavement passing north of the main office building.
Suspect parcels in all directions were X-rayed or optically scanned. At a certain point in history, a well deceived scanning device – the grey ‘booth’ with no windows you can see in the photos – was put in place besides the outgoing traffic lanes, reportedly covertly X-raying all cars leaving the GDR even before reaching the control booths – definitely another era…
Military troops going to West Berlin were treated more smoothly, but the platform of their dedicated office, immediately nearby the highway, has been demolished.
Original lights all around and deserted garages, barracks and service buildings for the border personnel complete the picture. Also noticeable are the concrete post where the round seal of the GDR was once proudly standing – today there is a unexplicable hole instead of the ‘DDR’ emblem -, placed between the two roadways in the middle of the highway close to the checkpoint area.
Albeit different from all other border checkpoints – no fences, mines or concrete walls – this place is similarly evocative of the oppressive border policy of the GDR, which was evident also to ordinary Westerners trying to reach Berlin by road. This was a place where many people routinely experienced what a restrictive Communist dictatorship really meant. Would surely recommend for people interested in recent history, history of the Inner Border and the GDR, as the place is mostly preserved as it was in 1989, and easy to reach even if you’re just passing by. Exploration may take from fifteen minutes to more than an hour if you include the museum and a careful look to everything.
The small sleepy town of Schlagsdorf is less than 10 miles South of Lubeck. It is located in Mecklemburg-Vorpommern, on the border with Schleswig-Holstein. It can be conveniently reached by car from highway N.20 going from Lubeck to Rostock, or from the South via road 208.
The town hosts a small indoor museum in a former customs house, with a permanent exhibition and a cafe opening in the warm season (website here). The museum operates also a reconstructed specimen of the former border fortifications which is accessible by preliminarily purchasing the ticket by the museum office. The open air exhibition can be reached with a .2 miles walk through the village, or by car. Free parking all around.
The museum is focused on the restrictive customs policy of the GDR, and most notably on the effects of the border on the geography of Schlagsdorf and small towns nearby.
The area is pointed with lakes and creeks, so the geographical placement of the border line was particularly difficult around here. There existed places where the border crossed some rivers or creeks, and special nets were erected there, reaching to the bottom, cutting any communication also by water. These barriers have been demolished now, but this is well documented in the museum.
Another practice of the Communist regime even from the times of Soviet occupation was deportation of the population of some of the villages. Especially in this area, in order to avoid the creation of enclaves where the border line was too tortuous, it was decreed that some rural villages should be simply abandoned. This further dark side of the history of the Inner Border is documented here.
Like in other similar museums, some original signs, uniforms and models give an idea of how the border looked like in the decades when it was blocked.
Photographs of the border re-opening in 1989 and of the natural preserve now having taken the place of those grim installations complete this much interesting exhibition.