Many segments of the Berlin Wall still exist today, serving as a reminder of the city’s past, together with that of Germany, before and after the Fall of the Wall in 1989. One of the examples that a tourist in Germany must see is the East Side Gallery. This 1.4 kilometer stretch runs along the River Spree and Mühlenstrasse between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, going from Oberbaumbrücke to the Railway Station Ostbahnhof. The former Wall was converted into an open-air Gallery in 1990 with the goal of mixing history and art into one. Since that time, as many as 120 artists from around the world have displayed their works along the wall, where special themes are displayed, from the Time of the Wall to the Strive for Peace. Pop culture themes are also included in this gallery. Here’s a sample courtesy of a friend and former high school classmate of mine from Minnesota, Kristin Krahmer, during her recent visit with her family. More examples and the history behind the Gallery can be found here.
My father and I had an argument once over how Germany was bordered when I was a child growing up during the 1980s. He claimed a concrete wall surrounded only West Berlin while I claimed that there was also a concrete wall that divided the country into two.
Apparently, we were both right, especially when we look at the towns of Hirschberg and Untertiefengrün, located on the Thuringian-Bavarian border, with the former town in Thuringia. The two towns are separated by the River Saale (Sächsische Saale is the official name) with Hirschberg having the majority of the population (2200 inhabitants). By the same token, however, the small Bavarian community with 130 residents seems much more modern than its crossborder neighbor.
According to history, the town of Hirschberg was first mentioned in the 12th century and had already built a castle and courtyard used for trading of livestock and crops. Untertiefengrün was first mentioned in the 14th century but became part of the community of Berg (Oberfranken) in 1978. Before the Berlin Wall existed, Hirschberg was well-known for its leather products, for a factory had existed for over 500 years, producing shoes, bags and leather pants, even during the times before 1989. In 1992, the factory went bankrupt and was forced to shut down. The entire 16 hectares of property was torn down, four years later. What’s left of the factory, became a museum for the town’s history and a park with lots of greenery.
When people first think of Hirschberg in terms of German history, they think of the infamous East German border crossing complex located at where the Motorway 9 betwen Berlin and Munich is now located. The complex was located on the northern end of the Rudolphstein Viaduct, approximately five kilometers west of Hirschberg. Yet as one digs even deeper into the town’s history, one can see that the town really suffered a great deal after World War II. When the war was over, the Soviets took over Hirschberg as part of their zone (which became the GDR or East Germany), whereas the Americans took Untertiefengrün. This is where the history of the Saale River crossing comes in.
History books and postcards pinpointed the first crossing as being made of wood and built in 1699. Most likely it had been rebuilt many times over the course of 226 years due to wear and tear, combined with potential ice jams that damaged the structure. In 1925, a contract was let to build a concrete bridge. It featured a two-span arch design that was closed spandrel but whose arches featured step-like curves instead of the usual straight-line design. The bridge was in use until right before the end of World War II, when Nazi soldiers, fleeing the encroaching American troops, detonated the bridge. At the conclusion of the war, only one of the two arch spans existed. American troops quickly built an improvisory span to temporarily connect Hirschberg and Untertiefengrün. However, this crossing was shortlived. Fearing the population drain caused by many residents fleeing Hirschberg and subsequentially, the Soviet Zone (later, the GDR), the bridge was subsequentially removed a short time later. Border fences were going up beginning in 1948 and culminated with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Fast forward to 30 December, 1989. It was over a month and a half since the Fall of the Wall and at 8:00am that day, another improvisory bridge was built at the location of the former crossing. Hundreds of residents crossed the bridge into Bavaria and back at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Their crossing was back, and the walls have come down. Yet it also marked the beginning of changes to come. Many who were scarred by the Wall and the attempts to be controlled by the government were the first to flee to the West. Others left when the leather factory closed down two years later. It became the Bridge of Opportunity for many looking for a better life elsewhere, while leaving the dark past behind them for good.
Fast forward to 2019, 30 years after the Fall of the Wall. A permanent crossing over the River Saale is 10 years old- a concrete slab bridge with Warren Truss railings. The towns of Hirschberg and Untertiefengrün are united. But things are much different now. Changes in the economic structure combined with globalization has turned the two communities into “ghost towns.” One can see people walking the streets, farmers harvesting their crops despite the droughts that have devastated Europe in its second year. Church bells are ringing. But on both sides of the River Saale stand dozens of empty buildings. Remnants of schools and the leather factory still stand on the Hirschberg side. Cafés and hotels that used to host American troops and tourists on the Untertiefengrün side are empty with “For Sale or Rent” signs on the windows waiting for the next tenants to take over. While the former German border crossing at Rudolphstein Viaduct has become restaurants, hotels and service stations hosting thousands of commuters, truckers and tourists daily along the Motorway 9, the communities of Hirschberg and Untertiefengrün, once divided by the Wall along the Saale, have their bridge back but have long become forgotten communities that withstood the test of time, even when divided.
After many years of hardship caused by the division of Germany into two, the two communities are going to sleep now, hoping that the next generations that come will appreciate what the two have to offer, aside from their history, which is vast farmland with lots of hills and a deep, heavily forested River Saale- no longer a border between East and West but a river where people can hike and bike along it, swim or fish in it, and take pictures, all without the dangers of being watched.
More photos of Hirschberg and Untertiefengrün based on my visit can be found here:
There is a website devoted to the former border between East and West Germanys, photographed in the 1980s. To access the website, click here. Some pics of the border and crossing in Hirschberg are included there.
After Checkpoint Bravo and Glienicke Bridge at Potsdam, the next set of photos takes us down to Thuringia again, but this time to the border train station Probstzella. With a population of 1300 inhabitants, the city was located right in the middle of the inner-German border, which separated Thuringia and Bavaria. In the time before World War II, it used to be a popular railroad hub as it served traffic going west towards the Rennsteig Mountains, south towards Lichtenfels and north towards Jena and Leipzig. The existing train station at Probstzella dates back to 1885, when the line between Saalfeld (south of Jena) and Lichtenfels opened to traffic. The line going to the Rennsteig Mountains via Sonneberg opened to traffic in 1913 but was closed down by 1997.
It is at this station where the East German government took the most difficult task in keeping its citizens from emigrating to Bavaria. Because the town was located deep in the mountain areas with steep valleys heavily populated with forests, the government undertook the most massive efforts in the town’s history. For instance, because the town was right in the middle of the 5-kilometer No-Go Zone, much of the residents at the border were forced to resettle inwards in an attempt to cut ties with their neighbors in the south and escape over the border. The rail line between Jena/Saalfeld and Lichtenfels was reduced to one track between Probstzella and the Bavarian border at Lauenstein- a stretch of 1000 kilometers. And lastly, the train station at Probstzella was extended to include a border control building right next to the train station complex, plus many tracks that were heavily guarded by patrolmen on the East German side. From 1952 until November 12th, 1989, passage between Bavaria and Thuringia via Probstzella was restricted in accordance to the interzonal regulations that had existed during that time.
When the border reopened to traffic on 12 November, 1989, the train station in Probstzella lost its entire meaning. There, passengers could travel freely between Bavaria and Thuringia without having to be stopped at the border control station and sometimes held in the waiting room for hours before either being allowed to pass or being turned back. It was at that time that decisions needed to be made regarding the train station and the border control building. The 1885 station building was sold to a private group with the full intention of constructing a East German museum devoted strictly to the history of the station during that time. That was opened on 6 November, 2010, one month after Germany celebrated its 20th birthday. The border control building however was demolished in 2009 because the structural integrity was compromised due to its deteriorating state.
The remains of that building were converted into a memorial. Consisting of two sets of waves plus a stretch of fencing used to keep the people from leaving East Germany, this memorial was erected in April 2010. It is now a park for cyclists and tourists wishing to learn more about the history of the border that had separated the two Germanys for almost half a century. The memorial is across the rail tracks from the train station, which now houses a museum. The station is considered a historical monument by the state of Thuringia. The photo gallery enclosed here is the train station and former border control point as was taken in May 2010, during a bike tour through the Franconian region. From Saalfeld to Kronach, I had an opportunity to enjoy the nature of the mountains and forest but also learn about the history of this area, especially the border that had once kept people away from the western half but today, people can pass right through. Once a stopping point, Probstzella has become a forgotten place with a place in German history.
The interzone border agreements was introduced by the four powers that controlled and rebuilt Germany in 1945: The USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. It implied that residents were only allowed to leave their zones if they received special permission from the garrison of the occupied countries. This was eliminated by the creation of West Germany by the Americans, British and French forces in 1949, yet the Soviets tried many attempts in keeping the residents in their zone, culminating with the closing of the border and simultaneously, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Interzonal Transit Agreement of 1972 between the governments of East and West Germany allowed for the laxing of restrictions, whereby residents who were on business or retired and wanting to visit family in the west were allowed to leave but for a given time span. That expired when the borders opened allowing free passage on 9 November, 1989.
At the border at Lauenstein, there used to be a welcome station for those who entered Bavaria from Thuringia. It featured a train station and a restaurant on the road parallel to the tracks. The station has been decommissioned and is now privately owned, whereas the restaurant was operating at the time of the visit.
The former border was eventually converted into a stretch of green trees, known as the Green Zone. This initiative was started in 1991 with the purpose of repopulating the trees and other forms of vegetation. At the same time, it was also a marker of the border that had separated the two Germanys. In one of the pics, there was such a strip shown draping the mountains at Lauenstein.
Today’s rail service still serves Probstzella but only on the north-south axis. Currently, regional service between Jena and Nuremberg via Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Bamberg operate under three different providers, including the Deutsche Bahn, agilis and Erfurter Bahn. At one time, ICE-trains passed through Probstzella from 2000 until December 2017. Nowadays, only a pair of InterCity (IC) trains between Leipzig and Karlsruhe pass through. However, plans to reactivate the Fernverkehr (long-distance lines) are in the making. By 2023, a dozen IC-trains per direction are expected to use the line again, with the goal of making the Leipzig-Karlsruhe line the primary route, but also providing 2-trains-a-day-service between Munich and Berlin via Jena, Saalfeld and Lichtenfels, which the ICE trains had used before being relegated to the new line which now runs through Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle.
This next Photo Flick in connection with the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall takes us to the Drei-Freistaaten-Stein. Here is where the states of Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia meet. The marker is legendary for this is the exact location of previous kingdoms and countries. The original marker was placed here in 1840, marking the boundaries of the following Kingdoms: Saxony (KS), Bavaria (KB) and Reuss (FR). The agreements with KS and KB was made on 13 August, 1840 and with FR on 23 October, 1854. While the Kingdoms were folded into the German Republic under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck in 1871, the boundaries were divided again after World War II, with Thuringia and Saxony going to the Soviet Union and thus becoming part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Bavaria went to the US and it eventually became part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). From 1949 until the Fall of the Wall in November 1989, this area became part of the Death Strip, with armed guards patrolling both Germanys with the East German guards trying to keep people from fleeing to Bavaria. One can see the markings of what was the border when walking to the monument after parking at the site between Grobau (Saxony) and Münchenreuth (Bavaria). What used to be barbed wire fences, ditches, watch towers and concrete paths has now become a green strip of land, aproximately 500 meters wide. The concrete paths where tanks and jeeps used to drive on has become part of the hiking trail that runs along the former border. And even though the ditches still exist, they are being covered with trees and other vegetation.
And of the marker?
It still exists but in a different form. A new marker and picnic area was created and opened to the public in November 2007. The initiative was spearheaded by the State of Thuringia and supported by the other two states. There, a marker duplicating the one from 1840 was created and placed in the middle of a concrete triangle panel which spans a ditch but points at the direction of each of the three states. Each side, representing a state, has a bench and refuse can. What surrounds the three state corner nowadays are windmills and cornfields, plus some wind as the area is on higher elevations near the Fichtel Mountains. It’s a quiet place to reflect on the past and present, but also provides a great view of the entire Vogtland Region.
More on the history of the marker can be found here.
Author’s note: As Germany celebrates its 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall and its subsequent reunification, the Flensburg Files will be doing some coverage of the event and how Germany has changed in the past 30 years. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks and months ahead.
We’re going to begin with this Photo Flick and the region Bavaria and Saxony. This photo was taken in July of this year at the train station in Gutenfürst near the border. Today’s station is just an ordinary stop for all local trains between Plauen (Saxony) and Hof (Bavaria). It’s completely deserted and with only a few passengers boarding and disembarking daily, it will not be long until the station is taken off the rail network owned by the German Railways, Deutsche Bahn.
It’s hard to believe that this was the exact same train station that used to serve as a transit station between East and West Germany, 30 years ago. At this time, travellers wishing to leave East Germany through Saxony and Thuringia had to pass through this station in order to enter the west in Bavaria. Even when they tried to escape through Hungary and the Czech Republic during the summer of 1989, an agreement was made between the two governments and that of East Germany, which was ruled under Erich Honecker at that time, to allow the East Germans to leave their home for West Germany. The majority had to pass through this train station, in overcrowded trains, then travel through the country before reaching either West Berlin or the other West German states of Hesse, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.
When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November, 1989 and the borders dividing Germany opened two days later, East Germans left the country in droves, with large numbers passing through this station in overcrowded trains, in order to reach Hof and receive their 100 Marks in Begrüßungsgeld (EN: Welcome Money).
It was afterwards that the transit station lost its usefulness as a station that stopped all trains that were crossing the border between East and West Germany, with police officers checking the passports and travel documents of every passenger wishing to enter or leave East Germany, taking them off the train for questioning and possibly imprisoning them temporarily, withholding western goods destined for the East for families to enjoy.
The station started off as a train stop when the Magistral Railway Route opened in 1851. It became a train station with the construction of the station building in 1905 with only one track. It survived unscathed through two World Wars, but the expansion into a transit station happened beginning in 1947, which included an additional track, guard towers and lighting to ensure no one escapes over the border, even though the station was only a kilometer away from it. The white buildings where offices, holding cells, customs and the like all came in the 1970s. This included the building of the observation bridge overlooking the two tracks.
Today, as seen in the picture at the beginning of the article, the buildings still stand albeit empty, but the bridge is gone. It was removed in 2012 to make way for the electrification of the line from Zwickau to Hof. There are now three tracks, including the original one where trains from Erfurter Bahn and Vogtlandbahn stop daily. But it’s hard to imagine that this small and rather insignificant train station had a major purpose so many years ago. Unbelieveable that tens of thousands of people would have to pass through in order to cross the border 30 years ago, but now trains can pass through without being stopped because of border controls and search warrants.
And only a handful of people can board the train and get off at this very quiet and desolate train station……
The Magistral Route is a rail line that connects Nuremberg with Dresden with the line splitting at Steinpleis and a branch goes to Leipzig. Construction started in 1848 and lasted 25 years. The line serves regional trains today, but plans are in the making for InterCity trains to be reintroduced after the last ICE-train passed through in 2002 and the InterRegioExpress train in 2010. The start time depends on how long the electrification process will last. Currently the line from Hof to Dresden via Zwickau and Chemnitz as well as the Leipzig branch are electrified. The last segment to Nuremberg via Bayreuth is expected to be completed by 2025.
FC Union Berlin advances to the German Bundesliga for the first time ever after ousting VFB Stuttgart in the Relegation Round.
BERLIN- In the end, only the strongest survived. The strongest in terms of nerves but also in coherency. The strongest is the one that makes history. This was done last night with FC Union Berlin. After a 2-2 draw against VFB Stuttgart, who had been sitting in 16th place during almost the entire 2018/19 Bundesliga season, all the iron men could have done is put the iron curtain in place- literally in front of goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz and let Stuttgart fire their shots- to the left, to the right and right into the goalie’s hands. And while the offense was on autopilot, a 0-0 tie was enough for Berlin to make history.
For the first time ever FC Union will play in the premier league this upcoming season, competing with the likes of Bayern Munich- fresh off its seventh consecutive title but poised to lose its top two players in Frank Ribery and Ariel Robben- the Robbery Duo- similar to the Killer Bs of the Pittsburgh Steelers in American football before Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown left the team after the 2018/19 season and its lone B- the quarterback, Ben Rothlisberger. It will be facing other teams with multiple years of experience and armed with deep pockets for 1st class players, such as Frankfurt, Dortmund, Hoffenheim and Bremen. And while Freiburg, Cologne and Augsburg may be push-overs, like it was with Hamburg SV during its time in the second tier (winning 2-0 and tying 2-2), Union Berlin will have two rivalries to contend with:
Inner-City Rivalry: FC Union Berlin will have to contend with Hertha BSC Berlin, which has been in the premier league for all but two seasons since 1997. While FC Union Berlin has had many soccer rivalries in the German capital, even during the Cold War era, this one will be the battle of the iron fists that will attract tens of thousands, and whose victories will be very close. While FC Union lost a close one 2-1 on 3rd September, 2012, the two teams finished tied at 2-2 on 11 February, 2013, the last time the two played. When the rivalry continues this upcoming season, it will be the first inner-city derby in the Bundesliga since the 2010/11 season with Hamburg vs St. Pauli.
East German Rivalry: Apart from its western city rival, FC Union will have to contend with Leipzig. But not the Leipzig that many soccer historians are accustomed to. While Union and VfB Leipzig’s rivalry attracted thousands of fans during the 1980s and 90s, the Leipzig they will be facing is one that will have a new (and fiery) head coach and a talented group that is regrouping after losing the 2019 German Cup to Munich and finished third in the regular season- meaning RB Leipzig. Even they have played three games, FC Union has yet to beat Leipzig, having lost two and tied one- but all in 2015 and 2016.
FC Union Berlin will be the sixth East German team to be in the top league in almost three decades- the others were Dynamo Dresden, Hansa Rostock, VfB Leipzig (now FC Lok), Energie Cottbus and Hertha. It is the 56th team in history to reach the top tier. And after years of toil and disappointment, the team has entered chartered waters bound to make history. The team has the largest fan club in German soccer and its culture is implanted in Berlin soccer, with a stadium that has hosted soccer games, Christmas events and concerts and crowds that come to enjoy the game and not rampage it, like in some cities. This was noticeable with last night’s relegation game with Stuttgart- it ended in celebration and with no incidences! One could blame Stuttgart for its shortcomings, which will land them in the second league for the first time in three seasons, but the timing of FC Union Berlin’s rise to the top could not have come at a better time. All it needed was unity and the team got it.
Congratulations to FC Union Berlin on making it to the big leagues! 🙂
FC Union Berlin won the relegation based on the “Goal Away from Home” rule. This means the team that has scored more goals “away from home” wins, if the total goals scored by each team are otherwise equal. This is sometimes expressed by saying that away goals “count double” in the event of a tie. In this case, Berlin won against Stuttgart based on that rule by a score of 2-0 because of the 2-2 draw in Stuttgart.
BONN- On this day 70 years ago, the German Constitution was ratified, thus ushering in the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland). It was the first democratic government since the Weimar Republic, which was created in 1919 but lasted only 14 years. It also brought in its first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who until 1998, became the longest tenured chancellor in modern German history, having served from 1949 until his resignation in 1963. Bonn was its capital until 1994, when it was moved to Berlin, five years after East and West Germany reunited. Since 1999, all federal Offices and the German parliament are conducted in Berlin.
While Germany has some Milestones to celebrate, it is interesting to see how the West German government ratified the Constitution, which still remains in use and is discussed to this day (See the previous article on it here.). Two “Exemplars” on its ratification can be found in this article below; the first produced by the British channel Pathé, the other in German by Zeitzeuge Portal, which includes interviews with historians and political scientists in German. In either case, they are both interesting to see the reaction to the creation of West Germany from local and outsider perspectives.
This blog is the result of an idea that's in my head for already quite a time. I love languages, cultures, travel and lifestyle topics and would like to write articles about interesting topics related to these topics. This blog is more a project that I start for myself. Of course, I will be happy if my content is also a valuable source for others, so that we can share our ideas and experiences.