The East German Death Strip Is Now a Beautiful Nature Reserve
Warsaw Pact armies kept people away from the border, so animals moved in
The Iron Curtain divided Europe for more than 40 years and is one of history’s most iconic barriers. What began in 1945 as a simple barbed wire fence expanded throughout the Cold War to encompass a deep militarized zone extending kilometers from the actual border.
The East German military heavily restricted people from going anywhere near this vast strip of land. Guards in checkpoints scrutinized the passports of anyone who approached, and a guard patrolled every 110 feet of the border.
Authorities bulldozed any villages obstructing the network of fortified fences, watchtowers and “kill zones.” A final double wall of barbed wire ran along the very front of the Iron Curtain. Anyone attempting to flee into West Germany risked being shot or stepping on land mines in the notorious death strip.
That didn’t stop people from trying. Over the decades, hundreds of civilians died trying to cross into the West.
The forbidden zone also emerged — inadvertently — as a major European nature reserve. The East German government prohibited building in the border land, and it was obviously unattractive for investors in the West. There was little need for traffic infrastructure because of the lack of cross-border travel.
This unreal expanse of land sat stagnant and untouched for decades while intensive agriculture and industrial development reshaped the rest of Europe. Nobody anticipated the ecological result of all this.
Birdwatchers in the 1970s were the first to notice the flourishing wildlife in no-man’s land and along the strip.
In the 1980s, binocular-toting observers in the West were able to document rare species and an incredible diversity of life within the East German border area. This natural phenomenon has also been observed along other militarized borders in recent years from Cyprus to Korea. Old-growth forests even rebounded on the eastern side.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the German people were eager to remove vestiges of the barriers that had divided them. There was no dispute about the need to open the border, but some conservationists were concerned about the impact of opening the border region up to development.
One month later, the non-governmental organization BUND and other environmentalists came together to sign the Green Belt Resolution of Hof, to urge lawmakers to establish a “Green Belt” — a wildlife refuge along the former inner-German border. In 2005 BUND finally achieved legislative success when the Bundestag declared the Green Belt a protected part of Germany’s natural heritage.
This was not just a conservation milestone, but echoed deeper feelings in the German psyche — the Green Belt is a living monument to the Cold War.
German conservationists were not the only ones concerned about the borderland. Going back to 2003 there has been talk of a European Green Belt. Organizers even pressured former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev into publicly endorsing the idea.
In 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the German Federal Conservation of Nature laid the groundwork for the European Green Belt at an international conference in Hungary. The European Green Belt movement has now been embraced by 22 border countries and could stretch from the Barents to the Black Sea.
A 2006 IUCN report lays out the deeper significance of the project. “This ecological network should remain a visible European historic monument for the future, to remind our children and future generations of various barriers and borders that separated the peoples of Europe – and of the ability to overcome them,” the report stated.
“Although this barrier, which lasted for over 40 years, has now been removed, it will always remain as a cultural reminder of how communities can become divided – and its natural values represent the only positive heritage of the Cold War.”
It’s a powerful symbol.