When Germany was divided during the cold war, nature took control of the deserted border area. Today it forms a reserve as fascinating as the country’s history. The German Green Belt (Grünes Band Deutschland) is a project of Bund Naturschutz, one of Germany’s largest environmental groups. The project began in 1989 facing a forbidding, 870-mile (1,400 km) network of fences and guard towers once ran the length of Germany, separating East and West. Now, one of the world’s most unusual nature reserves is being created along the old “Death Strip,” turning a monument to repression into a symbol of renewal.
For nearly 40 years, this 870-mile-long and up to 650-foot-wide strip of land was closely guarded by Communist soldiers with barbed-wire fences, mines and antivehicle ditches to prevent would-be defectors from crossing the Iron Curtain.
But in the nearly three decades since German reunification, the area has remained relatively undisturbed and become an ecological treasure trove of biodiversity. The uninhabited land has been transformed from “a death zone into a lifeline”.
For decades, Germany’s former border sector remained an inaccessible region. It is one of the great anomalies of Germany’s division history that in a place where a hostile line had been drawn, nature was able to develop undisturbed over a period of several decades. Apart from the no man’s land itself, this also applied to extensive tracts of adjacent land because they were so cut off. This “Green Belt” is characterized by an exceptional wealth of species and habitats, most of which are now endangered, representing a system of interlinked biotopes of national importance, which joins together or passes through valuable swathes of land and intensively farmed agricultural landscapes. The federal government, Länder and nature conservation organisations are joining forces to protect this “Green Belt” and develop it into a valuable habitat for humans and nature. Something which once divided Germany is now a symbol of national unity.
The German Green Belt follows the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) former East-West border and only contains part of the larger “Iron Curtain” border.
The Green Belt goes through all of the major land regions in Germany. In collaboration with individual states, the BUND and BfN were able create regions in which conservation and nature tourism worked together to create a system of land management that would ensure preservation. Each of these regions would help towards realizing the Green Belt’s tourist potential in terms of nature, culture and history and hence also to enhancing its popular appreciation in the region.
These regions include:
- Elbe – Altmark – Wendland: Grenzerfahrungen im Vierländereck (about experiencing former border territory spanning four different German states)
- Harz: Harz ohne Grenzen – Auf Harzer Grenzwegen durch Natur und Geschichte (with the focus on natural and cultural history along the former east-west border through the Harz region)
- Thüringer Wald and Schiefergebirge/Frankenwald: Das Grüne Band (inter)aktiv erleben (about actively and interactively experiencing the Green Belt in the Thuringian and Franconian forests)
Environmentalist have been working to extend the Green Belt beyond the German borders to reflect the larger “Iron Curtain” of the former Soviet states. The European Green Belt has evolved along the former Iron Curtain and runs the length of Europe, from the Barents Sea in the north to the Adriatic and the Black Sea in the south. In all, it extends for over 12,500 km along the borders of 24 states.
The Green Belt’s dual function as a historical site and wildlife refuge is more vital today than ever. Many animals, forced to seek out new habitats due to encroaching development in outlying areas of the German countryside, are flocking to the protected area in record numbers.
“The Green Belt is now home to countless natural wonders that have been crowded out in other areas,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir explained at October’s Germany Environmental Prize ceremony, held in the city of Brunswick. In total, conservationists believe the Green Belt to be home to upwards of 1,200 plant and animal species that are endangered or near-extinct in Germany, including the lady’s slipper orchid, the Eurasian otter, wildcats and the European tree frog. The Green Belt also hosts a large number of rare and threatened birds such as the black stork.
One less rare species found in growing abundance throughout the Green Zone are tourists. Germany has long touted the region as a sustainable “soft” tourism hotspot, particularly in recent years. Laced with hiking trails and dotted with nature viewing areas along with a fair number of memorials, museums, quaint villages and a handful of crumbling leftovers from the Cold War era, the Green Zone passes through already tourism-friendly nature regions including the Franconian and Thuringian forests, the Harz Mountains and the verdant floodplain of the river Elbe.
In addition to local conservation groups, a number of local tourism authorities are working alongside BUND to promote the natural splendors of the once inaccessible border region. “Numerous cycling and hiking trails along the Green Belt connect special points of experience and information,” reads the Green Belt tourism page. “You can see cranes and northern geese from observation ramparts, conquer castles and palaces, descend into diminutive mining pits, climb border towers, dart along old border trails in the dark, or be inspired by works of art.”