How the Iron Curtain became an ecological paradise
The following is an excerpt from Wild Places by Sarah Baxter.
From deadly division to lifeline. Few would have anticipated that the dark rift of a continent for decades would give the earth such respite, foster such green shoots, see natural connections springing from such macabre division. And yet, a sliver of land once consigned to concrete, guns, barbed wire and border guards has been revitalized; it is now home to orchids and otters, wood grouse and wild cats, marsh fritillary butterflies, black storks, rare mosses. These are rivers reseeded, forests reclaimed, grasslands richer in biodiversity, countries once separated united by conservation. The fearsome frontier that few have dared to cross – and where some have died trying – is now a place of hope and renewal.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, a so-called iron curtain was drawn across the middle of Europe, which would divide the continent for nearly 40 years. Stretching from the Barents Sea, on the Russian-Norwegian border, to the shores of the Adriatic and the Black Sea, it began as a political and ideological fissure, separating the East influenced by Soviet socialism and the liberal West. . But, over time, it also became a physical frontier: a long, almost impermeable barricade of walls and fences, watchtowers, ditches, bunkers and traps.
Nowhere has the “curtain” been so heavily militarized as along to die Grenade, the “inner German border” which separated the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). This line stretched almost 1,400 km (870 miles) from the Baltic Sea to what was then Czechoslovakia, crossing villages, separating communities, tearing friends and families apart. On the GDR side in particular, the fortifications are heavy and complex along the entire length of the wall: a restricted area, a protective strip and outer fences are built behind the border, patrolled by 50,000 armed men. Nearly 700 towers were erected; 1.3 million mines were laid. It created a virtual no man’s land, a fatal void that claimed the lives of many who were desperate enough to try to cross.
It was a deadly space for many, yes. But not for wildlife. As the Cold War rumbled, political tensions ran high, and the world was in flux, the environment along the line remained immune to drastic change. Development and most human disturbance within this narrow border have ceased. The border areas were largely off-limits, so no agriculture was practiced, no trading centers were built; people were kept apart, either by fear, or by force, or by choice. Thus nature was allowed to pause, able to revive, branch out and stretch along the divide, creating an almost continuous corridor of semi-wild from the Baltic to Bavaria. The region’s approximately 5,200 species of flora and fauna, of which more than 600 are considered endangered, have been left to fend for themselves. The fortified fences offered few obstacles either, with animals such as foxes and badgers simply making their way through.
The benefits that this brutal barrier brought to nature did not go unnoticed. The German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) was established in 1975 and began to record the increasing diversity of species and habitats in the “death strip”. Specifically, he found that 90% of several endangered bird species, such as the whinchat and the wood lark, preferred to breed inside the border zone and avoided farmland. In 1989, when die Grenze (and the Berlin Wall) finally fell, the German green belt project was born. His task would be daunting: to transform this interminably long and ugly defensive network into the most unconventional of nature reserves.
Today, the German green belt or Grünes Band Deutschland–is a string of pearls of rich, varied and vital conservation areas stretched between lands that have been intensively cultivated. A large part of the military paraphernalia has been dismantled, although some observation towers, memorials and fence sections are still standing, providing poignant and important reminders of the past. Ancient customs officers, foresters and inhabitants who testified to the divide into action now leads guided tours. In places, old barracks have turned into hotels. But now nature is in charge.
And what a variety of nature. Because the green belt extends so far it encompasses a wide ecological range, cliffs and dunes to lakes, banks, ravines, moors and mountains, wildflowers meadows, beech forests, quaking bogs, ponds, lagoons and heather heather. In these diverse surroundings, many species thrive. The coast is a paradise for gray seals, goosanders and migrants common cranes. Along the Elbe there are breeders storks and white-tailed eagles while, when winter comes, huge flocks of whooper swans fill the sky. Lynx have been successfully reintroduced into the caves and crevices of the Harz mountains – a strongly defended landscape, formerly completely prohibited – and birches and the pines begin to grow in the unintentionally plowed land when searching for mines. Wild cats hide in the woods of Eichsfeld, while the Franconian Forest is home to martens, deer and Boar. The Vogtland is a bloom of flower meadows, birds and butterflies. On the border with the Czech Republic, there are streams in where pearl mussels thrive.
The German green belt is still under construction. Some sections were destroyed following reunification, creating gaps along the line. But the hope is that these will be closed, so that the course of the Iron Curtain can be preserved for both history and nature.
Extract of Wild Places by Sarah Baxter, published by White Lion Publishing. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.