Thursday, 13 March 2014
Today, my new Workaway hosts have planned an outing to show me the area, and so we pile into a van and set out to Schnackenburg. It is the second-smallest town in Germany, numbering less than four hundred inhabitants, and located in Lüchow-Dannenberg by the Elbe River. More of those charming half-timbered houses line yet more cobbled streets, but there is no shop, no pharmacy, bank, post office or grocery store. And apart from us, there is not a soul to be seen. I am unused to such deserted settlements and wonder if it is the season, the day of the week or some unknown custom that keeps the German population from enlivening their streets. One thing is certain: It cannot be the weather, for today the sun is shining with all the force of an early spring.
Once mysteriously called Snaakenborg, ‘City of Snakes’ in the Lower Saxon idiom, Schnackenburg found itself fenced in on three sides when Germany was divided by the Allied Powers. It was cornered by the Iron Curtain, so to speak, but its little harbour acquired a new importance as the last inland port of the West, with its customs facilities right on the border.
Incidentally, it seems that along this stretch of the river the exact location of the border between West and East Germany was disputed: the Federal Republic of Germany (West) saw it as running along the opposite riverbank, while the German Democratic Republic (East) placed it firmly at the centre of the waterway and secured the territory with twenty-four patrol boats.
Previously, there were sometimes as many as twenty vessels berthed here, and people came from far and wide to gaze through binoculars at the communist border and its watchtowers. In those days, the commercial infrastructure of Schnackenburg was still intact, but since the reunification of Germany economic decline has sapped its life blood. Now that it is no longer a place for transferring cargo from one country to another, its little port is only used occasionally by sporty pleasure boats.
Schnackenburg’s Museum of the Border is still closed because it is not the tourist season yet. But outside its locked doors we can study panels that show its location on a map that traces the former border, as well as a long list naming those who died in their attempt to cross the fiercely guarded line. This border, to quote Wikipedia’s concise description, was “a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War. It marked the boundary between two ideological systems – democracy and single-party communism. Built by East Germany in phases from 1952 to the late 1980s, the fortifications were constructed to stop the large-scale emigration of East German citizens to the West, about 1,000 of whom are said to have died trying to cross it during its 45-year existence.”
In April 1956, lance-corporal Harry Moll of the billeted People’s Police dies of exhaustion after successfully swimming across the Elbe. – In August 1962, 15-year-old Gerd Knönenkamp is shot in his attempt to escape. – October 1963, in trying to cross the border, Bernhard Simon steps on a mine. His left leg is torn off and he dies while his brother drags him to western territory. – In June 1967, teacher Bärbel Elli Richter and her husband cross the Elbe with diving equipment, but she gets tangled in a fisher’s net near Schnackenburg and drowns. – In September of the same year, the townsfolk of Schnackenburg hear cries for help in the night. Four days later, the body of Manfred Hube is found, drowned. – A month later, Karl-Heinz Bösel drowns opposite Schnackenburg during his escape attempt. – In January 1969, Bernhard Wolfgang Zill crosses the Elbe successfully. He reaches the western riverbank but dies of hypothermia on his way to Schnackenburg. – A year later, in December, two schoolboys risk their lives in an escape attempt across the river: Rainer Bahlhorn (15) drowns in the icy water, while his friend Reinhard Bergunde (14) makes it to the other side and drags himself to the road, where he is saved … The list goes on.
It is still not certain how many victims the Iron Curtain claimed in Germany alone, for such incidents were kept secret by the GDR. (It was certainly not good for the image that one’s citizens would rather risk a grim death than go on living in the glorious Republic of Workers and Farmers.) The number of known cases in Germany increased from 197 in 1989 – the year the border was opened – to 916 by 1997, but more recent estimates put the real figure closer to 1,100 deaths.
The wide, peaceful flood plain with its glittering river gives no indication of the cruelty and the terror it was once part of. In this ideal habitat for water fowl, chattering congregations of ducks, wild geese and common cranes are celebrating the arrival of spring and preparing for another season of procreation. Their excited sounds accompany our walk, and we see them grazing in the meadows or circling in the sun-filled air. Trails of webbed footprints create delicate patterns on the river’s sandy banks. Rarer birds like sea-eagles and black storks are also drawn to the wetlands around Schnackenburg, now that they are nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.
Below the town, a little motor-powered ferry takes cars, cyclists and pedestrians across the river and connects the end of the road in Schnackenburg with a similar road on the other side.
Our crossing takes only a few minutes. The long spell of dry weather has reduced the water to an unusually low level, but dykes indicate the height to which the floodwaters of this great river will rise at times. I try to detect the direction of the Elbe’s flow, but in this wide plain it moves in a manner too sluggish to be perceptible. Heike points west-northwest. “It flows towards Hamburg, over there.”
Arrived on the other side, we enjoy a snack in the sunshine, sitting on the terrace of a little café that looks like – and probably is – a family enterprise run from the home. Cyclists interrupt their celebratory spring outings and arrive in twos and threes, hungry for generous helpings of delicious German cake. Now we wander along the crest of a dyke and enjoy the glorious day, the bare, watery landscape secretly preparing to cloak itself in green leaves, and the liveliness of the birds.
I had already noticed that, in the eastern part of Germany, the Elbe seems to be everywhere. I had crossed it on my way into Wittenberg, walked along its dykes in Woerlitz, and then traversed it in Dessau and again near Magdeburg on the road to my new destination in the Wendland, where it is once again a determining feature.
We drive onwards into ‘the East’ and stop at the old fortress of Lenzen. A museum dealing with local history is now housed inside the magnificent old tower, and a large section of its exhibition concerns, unsurprisingly, the Elbe: that long, important waterway connecting the mountains of the Czech Republic with the German lowlands, with the major ports of Hamburg and Cuxhaven, and ultimately with the North Sea.
It is here that I learn about das Grüne Band – the Green Belt: It is the new name given to that particular strip of land which, as the former heavily-guarded border of the Eastern bloc, was out of bounds to everyone for forty years. Everyone, that is, except the border guards and their dogs. This barrier ran as a death strip of roughly 12,500 kilometres from the White Sea on the northern-most rim of the continent to the Black Sea in its south-east. Nevertheless, this terrible fence, watched over by guard towers and rigged with wires that would trigger instant blasts of expanding bullets, proved a blessing in its horrific disguise to the biosphere that thrived in the absence of human interference. It is true that large animals such as stags, red deer and wild boar occasionally triggered the automatic shooting system and bled to death in the glaring spotlight of the border guards that were summoned instantly by the alarm system – but plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals thrived during those decades in an eerily protected zone.
Now a society called BUND – Friends of the Earth Germany has taken on the task of protecting this unexpected silver lining of the Iron Curtain. As the metal fence and all its attendant paraphernalia were removed, a green belt varying between 50 and 200 metres in width remained. Linking nearly all the diverse natural habitats of the European Continent in a long, unbroken chain, it is home to many rare plants and animals. One can hike along trails or follow the Four Countries Bicycle Path to experience “the beauty of this landscape, as well as relicts of the grim history of this borderland”. – What an unexpected discovery: The former death strip has become a line of life!
Our way back to ‘the West’ takes us onwards to Dömitz and the only bridge across the river for many miles. But before crossing over, we walk around the old fortifications, built in the sixteenth century, and look down into the waterless moat where reeds are poking through the black sludge. The large redbrick buildings of the bastion are cracked and sagging.
In the little town, the local building style of timber frame and brickwork, tastefully decorated with carved lintels and doors, makes for a charming atmosphere in the small settlement, enhanced by a sense of being lost to the world. Dömitz, located on the east side of the river, is struggling to find its place in the open market economy. They have the bridge, and a fortress in need of large cash injections, but little else it seems. Yet entrepreneurial spirit is quietly budding in the spring sunshine. By the side of the parking lot two children, boy and girl, are playing unsupervised, just as we once did. They have been busy rummaging through a pile of building rubble and have extracted cheap-looking, thin glass tiles from the socialist era. These little rectangles of glass, cleaned and polished, are now set out in a neat row on the ground to capture the fancy of passers-by. With eager voices and trusting faces the children approach us, showing us samples of their merchandise in outstretched hands while outlining their business plan. Heike enters into negotiations and buys five of these historic souvenirs for 50 cents. The children are very pleased and return to their enterprise with renewed vigour, while we cross the bridge back into ‘the West’, each wrapped up in our own thoughts.