Saturday, 22 March 2014
This morning, I have an appointment with Herr Ritzmann from the Grenzlandmuseum in the village of Göhr, and two of my new Workaway friends decide to tag along. Although the museum doesn’t open its doors until the tourist season begins on the first of May, Herr Ritzmann is willing to show visitors around by appointment.
Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann was a youngster when the partition that became known as the Iron Curtain was built. He remembers watching the labour force at work, only a few kilometres from his home near Schnega in the district of Lüchow-Dannenberg. He was fascinated by it all and, at the age of thirteen, began to take pictures of the border with his first camera – now also part of the exhibition. His collection of photographs exceeds five hundred and represents a personal documentation of historic value.
Of course Ritzmann was at the local border crossing in Bergen (about halfway between Göhr and Salzwedel) on the day the border was opened in 1989. He describes how a long line of Trabis crossed into the Federal Republic of Germany; how residents of the West had set up tables and stalls to welcome their new neighbours with drinks, fruit and cake; how people embraced and shed tears of joy … ‘It was an exciting time’, he states with a look laden with memories.
After Germany’s reunification, Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann travelled along the former border with a GDR army truck and collected memorabilia for his little museum, anything that was moveable: parts of the metal-mesh fence, complete with wires and alarm lights, border posts and warning signs, radio communication units of Russian provenance, border guard uniforms for all seasons, documents, maps, a large flag nobody wanted anymore, various mines (complete and in splinters), buoys from the Baltic, and even an army truck and a patrol car. The complete office of an NVA-Officer, including its red telephone, is a highlight. Ritzmann encourages our friend to dress up in an original officer’s uniform and try out the desk. Erich Honecker – head of state and butt of jokes (see previous blog post) – smiles cautiously from his picture frame.
GDR border guards helped Ritzmann to stow his treasures. ‘Take whatever you like – take it all!’ they said. He is still friends with a number of them, and a press picture shows him raising a glass with the former enemy at the 20-year-anniversary of the day the border collapsed.
Of course Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann also knows the story of the wily mayor of Harpe and shows me the ‘Vodka Bend’ on a map. (Please see blog post ‘Cycling in the Borderlands’ for this intriguing tale.)
A less amusing note is struck by articles reporting the number of casualties along the border, and the often gruesome deaths of men willing to risk their life to escape the socialist paradise. (You can read more about this in my blog post ‘Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining’). Lacerated by the shrapnel blasted by spring guns along the fence, they were sometimes left to die by the border guards who arrived at the scene without delay. Those who wandered into the mine fields also died alone, just like the wild boars, the stags and red deer that had the misfortune to get caught there. Only hares and foxes fit through the small holes cut at intervals into the mesh of the fence. These openings were reinforced with a collar of sheet metal and bolted tight from the outside. Hidden by the undergrowth on the western side, no one even knew they existed, except those small animals that were thus able to cross the border without setting off the alarm and losing their lives in the process.
Nevertheless, people kept trying their luck, and a few were successful. Three workers at a factory in the vicinity of the fence observed the border guards over time, became familiar with their routines and hatched a plan. Before six o’clock one morning they escaped, in a bulldozer that took the shrapnel in their stead as it tore a hole in the fence and ripped concrete posts from the ground. The men got away unharmed.
Border guards were also (one might assume, especially) susceptible to escape attempts, and therefore they were always deployed in groups. They knew that their comrades had orders to shoot them, should they make a dash for it. In any case, those scouts that were sent to explore the land beyond the border, smuggled out through secret, hidden, tiny gates, were drawn solely from the politically rock-solid elite. They were kitted out with smart uniforms and the best equippment, and they always wore ties on their missions that involved a lot of crawling through bushes. Clearly meant to impress the decadent capitalists with their accoutrements, they were strictly forbidden to speak to the enemy. No greeting, no nod and certainly no smile … Ritzmann remembers meeting such eerily silent figures on his early rambles.
It is a dark chapter in the history of man’s violence towards his fellow man, and added to the state-sanctioned cruelty is the hypocrisy with which it was justified: The armed fence was there to ‘protect’ the citizens of the GDR from the fascists beyond, the great enemy that was always trying to get in and corrupt the socialist paradise of happy workers and farmers. (Isn’t it strange then that all the guns and mines were on the inside?) Of course, a heavy amount of hysterical propaganda was necessary to shout this threat into existence in the minds of the populace. But this kind of brainwash, beginning in early childhood, was undermined by the media of the West. Westfernsehen and Westradio were of course strictly taboo, yet their allure was strong. In the end, they helped to reveal the government’s propaganda as the pack of lies it was. And when the farmers and workers saw, and compared to their own, the style of life, the means of production and the advance of technology in the West, they began to realize that they had been cheated. ‘It was then I knew that a big crash was about to happen …’ a farmer said after his formal visit to the other side of the fence.
Those living within a certain distance of the border in the West were allowed to apply for permission to visit family in the East several times a year. But they had to pay an admission fee, as well as exchange a set amount of their money at a rate of 1:1 per day of their stay. Of course there was nothing to spend that money on, so it was an expensive outing and not overly popular.
A large sign next to the road to Salzwedel marks the place of the former border line. A watery ditch running along the woods may or may not have been part of the former fortifications. Everything has been removed: The metal-mesh fencing (its raw material supplied by Krupp-Essen and the finished product by Sweden – thank heavens for neutral nations; they must have made a fortune from that order!), the barbed and the trip wires, the concrete paving, the mines … nothing remains but a bitter memory and a green belt of healthy, because undisturbed, nature.
After my visit at the museum, I wander into the woodland of firs and follow tracks that criss and cross between the trunks of tall conifers. The ground is mossy, strewn with small fir cones … and it is quiet, so very quiet. Despite its grim history, this land is beautiful and of Zen-like tranquillity. I like everything about it: the softly rolling landscape, the expanse of sweet-smelling woodland and the charming architectural style of its settlements. And since I am not looking for employment, the absence of industrial development seems a blessing. Could a way be found to generate job opportunities here without turning the Wendland into an ugly park of industrial estates? I hope it with all my heart.