Landscapes, ideas blossom along Berlin Wall death strip
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the border region that once served as the No Man’s Land around the free island of West Berlin lies largely undeveloped.What remains are bitter memories, a handful of watchtowers, a vast green oasis rimming the capital and dreams of using it in a creative way that still preserves its tragic history.
The mines and dogs and barbed wire are gone, as are the border guards with orders to shoot to kill, the so-called death strip and, of course, the Berlin Wall itself.
What remains are bitter memories, a handful of watchtowers, a vast green oasis rimming the capital and dreams of using it in a creative way that still preserves its tragic history.
Dutch landscape architect Joyce van den Berg has set herself such a task, saying secret gardens, art installations and recreational spaces could flourish in what she calls a "trauma landscape.”
The death strip or No Man's Land straddled the 155-kilometre-long (96-mile-long) border drawn around the free island of West Berlin by communist East Germany to keep its citizens prisoners of their own country.
Anyone caught in the buffer zone on either side of the Berlin Wall, or the inner-German border running between East and West Germany, risked being shot.
At least 136 would-be escapees were killed and after the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this November, Germans were keen to erase all traces of the despised barrier.
The butterflies are back
Nature has run wild in reclaiming the "Sperrgebiet" (Prohibited Area), which is up to 2.5 kilometres wide in some sections.
The result is a rich habitat that has nearly swallowed an extraordinary landscape, with unique plants and countless rabbits, foxes and deer reclaiming what was once theirs.
"In 20 years there will be nothing left of the bizarre landscape created by the Wall," Van den Berg said on a recent cycle tour of the strip, most of which still belongs to the German state. "Twenty years on, the landscape is blooming and the butterflies are back."
Van den Berg began the project by documenting the entire Sperrgebiet on long bike rides with the help of maps collected by a former Stasi officer and archived aerial photographs.
She sees her work as a race against time, and her ideas range from the fanciful to the highly promising.
The route where soldiers patrolled is now a smooth bike path beloved by cyclists and history buffs. The group enters a clearing and comes upon natural dunes that have begun to develop again from the region's famously sandy soil.
The border patrols smoothed the sand with machines each day so they could observe any suspicious footprints of anyone trying to escape and soaked the ground with pesticides so no undergrowth would block their view.
Van den Berg says a little tilling could allow "mega-dunes" to develop and attract volleyball and sand surfing enthusiasts, and bring badly needed tourism income to an economically depressed region.
"Oranienburg in particular could benefit if this area became a recreation centre," she said, referring to a city just north of Berlin best known as the home of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen, now a memorial.
Van den Berg says she would like to keep alive the memory of escape tunnels dug to help spirit people from east to west, tracing their course with spotlights.
Checkpoints such as Dreilinden on Berlin's southern flank could also be revived as makeshift hotels steeped in history, she says.
During the Cold War, West German trucks often spent hours parked until they were inspected and granted permission for transit into West Berlin.
Van den Berg suggests furnishing East German trucks for lodging, for example, after a bike tour of the Sperrgebiet. Others could serve as restaurants serving East German delicacies.
The tour continues past one of five of the original 302 watchtowers still remaining. Van den Berg would like to see old foundations used as wind-protected gardening plots.
One such watchtower is now used by the German Youth Forestry club, which has taken it over to teach about conservation and the region's painful history.
The group has erected a memorial to four teenagers shot dead in the 1960s and 1970s in foiled attempts to dash over the Wall to freedom.
Marian Przybilla, who volunteers with the club, said it took over the tower in May 1990, just two months after East German soldiers abandoned the site and five months before the two Germanys united.
"At that time, the joy over the fall of the Wall and the desire for free movement here meant that everyone wanted to remove the traces as soon as possible," he said. "Now we are trying to win back important parts of our history that were lost."
Although many of her ideas will never see the light of day, Van den Berg has a few powerful supporters.
But some tour participants from the east said the ride roused bitter memories.
"I have no regrets that they tore down almost all of the Wall, the barbed wire and the watchtowers," said Hannah Rohst, a 33-year-old architecture student from Niederschoenhausen in east Berlin. "There was plenty I had no desire ever to see again, and so much we wanted to forget."