Here’s a really cool transition from a symbol of oppression to a symbol of growth and freedom: the old Soviet Iron Curtain has turned into a nature sanctuary. How cool is that?
But when its creators mark its 20th birthday this year, they will also be celebrating the fact that 23 European countries are currently engaged in a project to make it nearly five times as long. “The aim is to turn the Iron Curtain’s entire 4,250-mile length – extending from the Arctic to the Black Sea – into what is already being called the ‘Central European Green Belt’,” says Dr Kai Frobel, a German ornithologist and conservationist.
He was the man who started it all back in 1970s. In those days, it seemed impossible that the Berlin Wall might one day fall or that the Soviet empire could crumble. But that was almost irrelevant to Frobel, now a leading member of the German nature protection group, Bund, but then a teenager from the West German village of Hassenberg, which stood nearly in the Iron Curtain’s shadow. At 13, he was an enthusiastic birdwatcher. Equipped with a pair of pre-war Zeiss binoculars, a green army surplus parka, and heavy gumboots, he used to spend most of his free time in the hilly wooded countryside of his native northern Bavaria looking for new bird sightings, which he would record in his notebook.
An invisible trace is left by the last of the 1.3 million mines that used to litter the area. The vast majority were removed but the German authorities say they still cannot guarantee that all the Green Belt is completely mine-free. “This has its positive sides,” says Matthias Fanck, who is showing an exhibition on the Green Belt project in the former border town of Probstzella: “It means that tourists tend to stick to the paths and leave the nature reserve untouched.”
Twenty years on, the Green Belt has become an important part of Germany’s tourist industry. At strategic points along its route, visitors can call a free mobile phone number and listen to witnesses’ accounts of what the border once was. “It gives today’s generation of young Europeans an idea of what the Iron Curtain meant,” says Frobel.