Border fortifications, division, sorrow and tears of joy – the history of a divided Germany is brought to life in Helmstedt.
It’s hard to imagine today: due to its location along the Iron Curtain, the Helmstedt region was cut off from the eastern hinterland until the start of the 1990s. The people were directly affected by the division and by the border fence that ran behind their gardens. The people of Helmstedt then also experienced the opening of the border on 9th November 1989 all the more intensively: euphoria, a spirit of optimism, immeasurable joy at seeing loved ones again – the events of the time continue to shape the region to this day.
In museums and at preserved historic places, people in Helmstedt try to retain the joy of reunification and make it possible for others to get a real sense of what the events were like. This is very important for anyone who didn’t experience the reunification period in person themselves – and for subsequent generations.
As if it were yesterday: memories from the opening of the border
The people of Helmstedt documented the joy: long lines of Trabant cars and the queue in front of the town hall when the welcome money was paid out. Even today, some people can still remember that a helicopter landed in the town centre to bring money. And that it was unthinkable to buy a yogurt on your lunch break, let alone walk into your local electronics shop. There, doormen made sure that only so many customers went in and out.
But people also remember the times of the Cold War. The bullying that people in the restricted zone of GDR were subjected to, nightly forced relocations and reprisals. The terrors of the Marienborn border crossing point, the strictly controlled bottleneck between both parts of the country, are also preserved at the eastern edge of the Helmstedt region.
On an organised tour called ‘Grenzenlos’ (No Borders), which lasts three and a half hours, you can access places that used to be banned – and drive down roads that for decades were dead ends that ended in no-man’s land.
‘No Borders’, first stop: Zonengrenz-Museum (Zonal Border Museum) in Helmstedt
Based on original items, photographs, models and life-size scenes, the Zonengrenz-Museum Helmstedt (Zonal Border Museum) lets you experience the history of the former inner-German border in five sections.
In the ‘Escape’ area, for instance, an improvised two-part ladder demonstrates the ingenuity that people at that time employed to try to overcome the barriers. However, extracts from GDR criminal proceedings and thus the consequences of failed escape attempts are also documented and displayed. The ‘Business and Transport’ section takes a detailed look at the cross-border commuters in the first few years after the Second World War. It was still possible, if dangerous, to cross the border at that time.
‘No Borders’, second stop: border memorial in Hötensleben
Not even two kilometres to the east of the Schöningen paläon Research and Experience Center, the former border fortifications have been retained in their original condition in Hötensleben. The screening wall, field of view and field of fire with floodlights, a patrol road and a car barrier, the border wall and watchtower can be seen along a 350-meter area.
Between both fences in the nearly 1,400 kilometre-long ‘protective strip’ – as it was known in euphemistic GDR parlance – ‘border violators’ were to be ‘captured or destroyed’ by the GDR border troops.
In Hötensleben, you learn about successful and failed escape attempts and also hear intriguing stories – such as tales of cigarette breaks shared by East and West German border officials. ‘Aktion Ungeziefer’ (‘Operation Vermin’) also gets a mention: in 1952, people living in the restricted zone who were considered unreliable and unwanted in political terms were forced to relocate to the interior of the country.
‘No Borders’, third stop: Marienborn German Division Memorial
Helmstedt had the Marienborn border crossing point (GÜST) to thank for a certain degree of notoriety far beyond Germany between 1945 and 1989. Not just because the GÜST was the largest and most frequented facility of its kind, but Allied transport from and to West Berlin was also handled here on the A2.
Perhaps you yourself had to hand your passport to a border police officer dressed in grey back then and remember the anxious minutes or hours of waiting until you had your document back in your hands again. This sense of anxiety can still be felt today between the passport reception point, the mortuary and exchange office.
During a tour of what is now the Marienborn German Division Memorial, you can follow the path that your passport took back then via a sophisticated system of conveyors, some of which are underground, to the inspection point in the staff building. A look at the inspection garage, part of the customs control for car departures, should be part of every visit to the memorial. Even many sophisticated escape attempts, such as in cavities in the bodywork, came to a bitter end here.
The procedure in the garage was notorious among travellers:
‘I know about it from my aunt and uncle; they were driven into what was known as the ‘garage’ and the car was dismantled. They had to undress, and so on and so forth. It was an oppressive feeling.’
Bert Ulrich reported this in a contemporary witness project at the Marienborn German Division Memorial. The regulations the customs employees had to follow during their work have also been passed down. These state, among other things:
These and other interesting original documents are now part of the permanent exhibition at the customs barracks.
Under your own steam: Grenzlehrpfad Helmstedt-Beendorf educational border path
In the Lappwald hills, you can combine your personal adventure tour along the border with a short walk in the forest. The Grenzlehrpfad, a circular educational route between Bad Helmstedt and Beendorf measuring around one kilometre, illustrates the fateful effects of Germany’s division using stories experienced by people on both sides of the border.
Future-oriented: Helmstedt’s mission to break down barriers
The ‘No Borders’ project also involves an academic analysis of division and unification in the Helmstedt region. Helmstedt University Days, part of ‘No Borders’, considers remembering to be an educational task, especially for younger generations. As they look to the future, the people of Helmstedt campaign for breaking down barriers in every regard and finding ways to reach their neighbours.