Lange: Death Strip to Green Belt

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(HOST)  Commentator Kerstin Lange says that a strip of land that once signified death and separation has been transformed into a green space dedicated to life.

(LANGE)  A few weeks ago, a certificate arrived in the mail declaring me the owner of a piece of Germany.  No, I didn’t buy a property there, at least not in any conventional sense – I bought a symbolic piece of the former border between East and West Germany.  Like an ugly scar, that border once snaked through the German landscape from the Baltic Sea to the mountains of Bohemia.

Now, 20 years after reunification, the former border seems quite distant in many people’s memories.  These days, you can easily cross it in either direction on one of the shiny new highways without knowing that the Iron Curtain once divided the country and the continent right under your feet.  By contrast, the course of the Berlin Wall is now traced by a double-row of bricks in the ground – the real thing having long since been scattered all over the world by souvenir hunters.

Outside of Berlin, the former border has a function far beyond that of a historical marker.  What was once known as the death strip has turned into Germany’s longest and skinniest nature preserve – almost 900 miles long and about 300 ft. wide.  During the four decades the strip kept the people of East and West Germany apart, it provided a sanctuary for animal and plant species that were getting crowded out in the intensively farmed areas on both sides.  In between the forbidding border contraptions – watchtowers, metal fences, mines, and automatic guns — some 600 threatened plant and animal species found refuge here.  Today, this "Green Belt" attracts hikers, bicyclists, and birders from all over Germany and beyond, reminding me in some ways of Vermont’s Long Trail – our own place of retreat from all the ironies of civilization.

While the deadly weapons have long been dismantled, there are still stark reminders of the human toll the border took.  On a recent visit to the Green Belt, I came upon a simple grave whose marker declared that the young man who was buried here in 1963 had died because he wanted to get "to Germany from Germany".  

So the Green Belt holds within it the memory of enormous human suffering – and the faith in the future that comes with preserving biological diversity.  I think of the former border as a memorial in the widest and deepest sense – a biological, human, and historical memorial all in one.  The biological richness of the former death strip was a historical side effect.  But the continued protection of this natural – and national – treasure depends very much on focused human effort.  Agricultural operations encroached on the border strip within months after the border was opened.  

It is thanks to the German affiliate of Friends of the Earth that the work of protecting the Green Belt was started and continues.  My purchase of a Green Belt certificate was only a small show of support, but it is a great reminder of how much things can change, sometimes for the better, and of what is worth protecting

(TAG) For more commentaries by Kerstin Lange, go to VPR-dot-net.

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