Germany’s Green Belt is one of Europe’s most unique open spaces: a once heavily militarized stretch of the Iron Curtain that’s now a natural wonderland filled with a variety of threatened animal species.
by Matt Hickman
Although the Berlin Wall came crashing down on Nov. 9, 1989, there’s another important milestone for a reunified Germany that was ushered in this month. As of Feb. 5, 2018, the heavily fortified concrete barrier that divided the German capital beginning in 1961 has now been down longer than it was up: 28 years, two months and 27 days.
That being said, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the physical and ideological divide between East and West wasn’t just limited to a famous 90-some-mile wall in Berlin.
Predating the Berlin Wall by 16 years and located nearly 100 miles east, the Inner German Border was the true physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain: a 870-mile frontier that ran the entire length of the divided country from the Baltic Sea in the north to the former Czechoslovakia in the south. On one side of this 650-foot-wide strip of land stood the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and on the other — just beyond an extensive network of dog runs, minefields, concrete watchtowers, bunkers, booby traps and forbidding electrified barbed wire fences — stood the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a communist dictatorship that remained firmly in the grasp of the Soviet Union until the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc.
Remnants of the “Death Strip” that once severed Germany still exist — so called because hundreds of East Germans perished while attempting to flee the GDR for less totalitarian pastures. Many of the old watchtowers, fortifications and short stretches of fence have been preserved. Here, history, no matter how painful, hasn’t been paved over and replaced with shopping malls and tract housing. And as such, the scars of a divided Germany remain. But what unusual and beautiful scars they are.
Almost the entirety of the Inner German Border has been reclaimed by Mother Nature as part of a sprawling wildlife reserve and outdoor recreation area known as Das Grüne Band — the Green Belt. Encompassing large swaths of undisturbed countryside and farmland in addition to the border zone, in some ways the Green Belt — often described as a “living monument to reunification” and a “memory landscape” — remains a no man’s land given that a wide variety of plants and animals, many rare and endangered, positively rule.
Germany’s Green Belt isn’t entirely continuous. However, most of this exclusion zone-turned-wildlife haven remains in a near-natural state.
From ‘death zone into a lifeline’
Rich in biodiversity and largely unhampered by 21st century human development, the Green Belt is a project of German environmental group Bund Naturschutz (BUND) that dates back to 1989. However, work had begun on the non-fortified western side of the border zone much earlier after conservationists noticed that this woeful place was also a wildlife magnet. “The division of Germany was a travesty that robbed people of their freedom, but a positive side effect was the way the sealed border allowed nature to flourish,” Eckhard Selz, a park ranger hailing from the former East Germany, explained to the Guardian in 2009.
In a 2017 NBC News profile, conservationist Kai Frobel, considered by many to be the father of the Green Belt, explained that “nature essentially has been given a 40-year holiday” in the erstwhile border area, which itself has been transformed from a “death zone into a lifeline.”
“When we grew up in this area, we all thought that this monster of a border line had been built for eternity,” 58-year-old Frobel says of his teenage years spent as a budding conservationist hailing from Colburg, a Bavarian town located on the western side of the border but largely surrounded by the GDR. “No one, really no one, believed in German reunification at the time.”
When the Iron Curtain collapsed, Frobel and his fellow conservationists, including many from the former East Germany, rushed to protect and preserve the border zone. The worry was that the largely untouched area would give way to roads, housing and massive commercial farming operations — a “brown belt,” if you will. Vital wildlife habitats just recently discovered would be lost.
With governmental backing, the Green Belt became the first German nature conservation project to involve parties from both sides of a nation that had just been fused back together. Decades later, an impressive 87 percent of the Green Belt, which passes through nine of Germany’s 16 states, remains in an undeveloped or near-natural state. While there are some gaps in this unusually elongated wildlife refuge, BUND is continually working to restore them and prevent other sections from giving way to development.
“You will find no other place in Germany with the richness of habitats and species that the Green Belt provides,” Frobel tells NBC News.
A Cold War era concrete watchtower still stands along the eastern section of what was once the notorious Inner German Border.
The one upside of a nation-dividing no man’s land
In October of last year, Frobel, along with Inge Sielman and Hubert Weiger, were awarded the German government’s top environmental prize for their tireless work preserving and protecting the old Inner German Border and environs. (The trio received a combined 245,00 euros or roughly $284,300.)
As Deutsche Welle explains, the Green Belt’s dual function as a historical site and wildlife refuge is more vital today than ever. Many animals, forced to seek out new habitats due to encroaching development in outlying areas of the German countryside, are flocking to the protected area in record numbers.
“The Green Belt is now home to countless natural wonders that have been crowded out in other areas,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir explained at October’s Germany Environmental Prize ceremony, held in the city of Brunswick.
Tranquil, sobering and biologically diverse, the Green Belt is popular amongst hikers, cyclists, birders and history buffs alike.
In total, conservationists believe the Green Belt to be home to upwards of 1,200 plant and animal species that are endangered or near-extinct in Germany, including the lady’s slipper orchid, the Eurasian otter, wildcats and the European tree frog. The Green Belt also hosts a large number of rare and threatened birds such as the black stork.
“We discovered that over 90 percent of the bird species that were rare or highly endangered in Bavaria — such as the whinchat, the corn bunting and the European nightjar — could be found in the Green Belt. It became a final retreat for many species, and it still is today,” Frobel tells Deutsche Welle.
One less rare species found in growing abundance throughout the Green Zone are tourists. Germany has long touted the region as a sustainable “soft” tourism hotspot, particularly in recent years. Laced with hiking trails and dotted with nature viewing areas along with a fair number of memorials, museums, quaint villages and a handful of crumbling leftovers from the Cold War era, the Green Zone passes through already tourism-friendly nature regions including the Franconian and Thuringian forests, the Harz Mountains and the verdant floodplain of the river Elbe.
In addition to local conservation groups, a number of local tourism authorities are working alongside BUND to promote the natural splendors of the once inaccessible border region. “Numerous cycling and hiking trails along the Green Belt connect special points of experience and information,” reads the Green Belt tourism page. “You can see cranes and northern geese from observation ramparts, conquer castles and palaces, descend into diminutive mining pits, climb border towers, dart along old border trails in the dark, or be inspired by works of art.”
With informative signs guiding the way and pointing out important sights, the Green Belt is described as a ‘memory landscape.
A model for something much bigger
Of course, Germany wasn’t the only country cracked by the Iron Curtain.
For nearly four decades, the entire European continent was split between East and West with little movement between the two sides. And much like the heralded conservation area that’s flourishing in a once-divided Deutschland, the European Green Belt Initiative aims to protect biodiversity along the line of former Iron Curtain but on a much more ambitious scale.
Stretching from the Barents Sea on the Russian/Norwegian border and along the Baltic coast before cutting through the heart of Central Europe and terminating at the Adriatic and Black seas, the 7,500-mile European Green Belt links 24 individual countries through a winding necklace of national parks, nature preserves and other protected areas.
As in Germany, many of these European border regions were largely restricted/avoided during their existence. And so, wildlife moved in and flourished in relative solitude.
“Unwittingly, the once-divided Europe encouraged the conservation and development of valuable habitats. The border area served as a retreat for many endangered species,” explains the European Green Belt website.
Founded in 2003 and very much modeled on the work of BUND in Germany, the European Green Belt Initiative is a burgeoning grassroots movement comprised of around 150 governmental and non-governmental conservation organizations hailing from a diverse number of countries.
And in addition to inspiring a band of protected wilderness that bisects the European continent, the many successes of Germany’s Green Belt have also inspired South Korean officials to reach out to Frobel and his colleagues and discuss ways that the Korean Demilitarized Zone could some day (emphasis on some day) be transformed into a protected wildlife area.
“Conservationists are already preparing a so-called Green Belt Korea, and are in close consultation with us,” Frobel told Deutsche Welle in a 2017 interview with Deutsch Welle. He points out that the Korean Demilitarized Zone, home to “a well-preserved biodiverse habitat,” is the “only region in the world that can be compared with Germany before 1989.”
“They are using Germany’s Green Belt as its model for when reunification comes — even though the situation doesn’t look too good at the moment,” says Frobel.