West Side Stories and a Village Divided
“Border area, Exclusion zone. Entering and driving is only allowed with special permission!” reads a sign on the former inner German border. The Iron Curtain ran for about 7,000 km from the Barents Sea in the north straight through Europe to the Black Sea, and divided the continent into East and West. Not only were many neighboring states divided, but Germany itself was split in two.
Today there are hardly any reminders that the wall ever existed but with stories of spies having their covers blown, dramatic escape attempts and widespread surveillance efforts, Albert Eiber knows how to grab attention on tours of former East and West Germany.
He regales buses full of visitors with memories of the historic changes that took place in the border region between his home state of Bavaria and Saxony, then part of East Germany, when he returns to the places that were completely off-limits just a few decades ago.
Though Eiber, a former police officer, is nearing his 81st birthday, his managers at the tour company aren’t worried about him quitting anytime soon. “As long as I can, I want to offer the tours,” says Eiber, adding: “But I would like to see more interest from the younger generation.”
Tour requests come from all over the former East German states of Saxony and Thuringia, as well as from elsewhere in the country. According to the tour’s supervisor, Steffi Behncke from the Stadtverwaltung (city council) in Plauen, demand has been very high in recent years; older groups in particular often book three-hour bus tours that lead through the border triangle of Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria.
“Many want to see the places they were not allowed to go to before and want to hear the stories of what happened there,” says Behncke.
As the tour makes its way along the border, Eiber shows photos taken during his days as a border guard on the Bavarian – or West German – side. “Everything that happened at the border landed on my desk,” says Eiber, including various spectacular escapes from the East into the West.
Crossing the Border by Balloon
Anyone who was able to cross the border safely was often given a friendly greeting by Eiber in the local Bavarian dialect. Eiber recalls one hot-air balloon flight that caused a stir in the 1970s.
“The balloon’s occupants started in Thuringia and had to make an emergency landing at night, because they ran out of gas,” he says. “They did not know on which side of the border they landed.”
Another time, a woman came to West Germany via a 70-metre-long sewage hole. Eibar remembers the opening of the border in 1989 as a great stroke of luck – not least because it meant the end of 70-hour work weeks for the Bavarian police department.
“Little Berlin” in Bavaria
The tour also visits the village of Mödlareuth where one half is Bavarian, the other Thuringian. The Americans at the time called this small village with just 50 residents “Little Berlin”; it became a symbol for the division of Germany just like its big brother – the capital, Berlin. Impenetrable border posts and even a wall divided the two parts of the village from the 1950s on until the peaceful revolution. The partial demolition of the wall on 17th June 1990 was the hour of birth for the Deutsch-Deutsches Museum in Mödlareuth as a reminder of the division of Germany.
At this historic site, which is an important part of Germany’s history, original sections of the 700 meter long concrete wall, the metal fence as well as the observation towers still remain. Today’s memorial has an open-air exhibition ground, an exhibition area, museum educational rooms, media archive and a library.