From No Man's Land to Nature Preserve – The Inner German Border

Border Post © picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image A border post marks where one Germany ended and another began. (© picture-alliance/dpa) Walls, security fences, and automatic shooting mechanisms defined the inner German border that split the land into two for decades. Nonetheless, it has been crystal clear since reunification that these borderlines are not only a blemish in German history – but also an extraordinary jewel of nature. Along the erstwhile no man's land, nature unfolded freely like nowhere else. Now, the border zone is home to a unique nature preserve – the Green Belt.

Spring is the mating season. The green frog gladly climbs up a schrub and croaks as loudly as he can, in a bid to woo a female. Due to the fact that all male frogs have the same intention, there is a deafening concert on balmy evenings. This natural spectacle is a seldom occurence in Germany. The rate at which small bodies of water in which the tree frog lives are disappearing is on the rise, and the small tree frog is currently threatened with extinction.

However, near the erstwhile German-German border, for instance in the Rhön or on the Eichsfeld, one can hear the tree frogs yet again. Numerous animal and plant species have discovered a new home in the no man's land.

The establishment of the GDR in 1949 drew a borderline through the middle of Germany and due to the mounting East-West conflict culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall and the expansion of this border into a high security zone. Metal fencing and barbed wire, motor-vehicle-inhibiting trenches and minefields divided the German people, and many lost their lives while trying to escape before the wall came down in 1989.

With the wall gone, friends of nature discovered the paradise that had evolved along the borderline. The 870 mile and 160 - 660 foot wide green strip was left intact throughout the years and endangered animal species sought sanctuary and almost extinct plant species gained root.

The Green Belt Project

Werra River © picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image The Werra river in Thuringia was once a heavily guarded section of the German-German border. Scientist have registered a surprising diversity of species of more than 600 plants, among them 120 endangered, and some 40 dragonfly species there. (© picture-alliance/dpa) Conservationists quickly recognised the invaluable worth of the biodiversity and established the Green Belt Project to protect it. The old borderline stretches from Travemünde on the Baltic Sea to the Czech border near Hof in Bavaria and traverses the diverse landscapes of Germany. Bush- and woodland landscapes are part of it, as are moorland and swamps.

The Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN) has identified a total of 109 different intertwined biotopes along the Green Belt.

Even the typical flora and fauna of the varying biotopes has in the meantime been documented: Experts have registered 5,200 animal and plant species, 600 of which were considered to be either endangered or extinct in Germany. Whereas, for example about half of all the dragonfly species in the Federal Republic of Germany are endangered, life in the green belt consists of rare specimens like the green club-tailed dragonfly. Even the now seldom kingfisher can be encountered again along the natural banks of the rivers and seas.

At the point where the border patrol cut the vegetation so as to get a better view of fleeing refugees, meadow-like biotopes have materialized, where rare grasshoppers- and butterflies live. Because the marshland near the border was never drained and never artificially fertilized, rare native orchid species like the lady's slipper are flourishing.

Conservation and Politics

Ecker River © picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image "Experience the Green Belt" is the name of the largest project to protect and develop the former border area for recreation and eco-tourism. The Ecker River in the Harz Mountains, which straddle the former border between Lower Saxony and Saxony Anhalt, flowed in the shadow of the iron curtain. (© picture-alliance/dpa) It is the aim of Green Belt project that is coordinated by the envirnomental alliance BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) to declare the borderline and the nearby areas a reserve. The German states can only take this action if the German federal government cedes ownership of the former borderlands to them. Only Thuringia got its share of the borderline in 2008. Consequently, about half of the total acreage of the borderzone is protected. Eighty-five percent of the green belt is a natural landscape but commercial areas and roads are already encroaching.

The federal government has declared the Green Belt a national heritage area and supports a number of conservation and improvement projects.  The largest such project is in the Harz mountains between Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, where bicycle and hiking paths are intended to promote recreation and tourism in the Green Belt.

A Belt For Europe

In 2003, an initiative to extend the Green Belt along the former iron curtain and throughout Europe was developed. Along a course of over 5,200 miles from the Barents in the north to the Black Sea in the south, a European Green Belt would pass through 25 countries.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is working together to preserve nature in the space that once divided it. 

Inner German Border

25 Years Fall of the Wall

European Green Belt

European Greenbelt Logo © BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany)

A coalition of European conservationists and government agencies is working to extend the Green Belt along the entire route of the iron curtain, from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea.