Between 1961 and 1989 a large concrete barrier divided the city of Berlin. Beyond the city limits, the concrete gave way to fences and barb, but the effect was the same: it split the whole of Germany in half.
The divide wasn’t just physical – it was political and ideological too, separating thousands of friends and families in the process. Its presence strengthened the idea of the “Iron Curtain”, an imaginary border drawn across Europe fuelled by tension between East and West Europe in the aftermath of World War Two.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 (which effectively symbolised the fall of the Iron Curtain throughout Europe) the areas that once consisted of barbed wire and armed border patrols have become an oasis for a number of plants and animals to thrive – demonstrating how historical sites from the past can take on new meaning. In this case, an area of conflict now represents a “safe space” for our fragile environment.
The German Green Belt is an area which passes through the middle of Germany and follows the former borders of West(BRD)and East(GDR)Germany. “There were a lot of endangered species, particularly birds, from the western side” notes Liana Geidezis, Head of Green Belt and a Regional Coordinator at BUND(Friends of the Earth Germany).
East meets west
In December 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, BUND invited 40 nature conservationists from former East Germany to a meeting in the city of Hof. “It ended up being a meeting of 400 people! It was a very emotional experience. During this meeting it was agreed that the terrible border line that separated people for so long was now a unique stripe of nature which would now be called the Green Belt. It was very much an east meets west initiative.”
Safeguarding the area was not an immediately popular idea outside of nature conservation circles. Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a big desire from the majority of citizens to get rid of anything associated with borders (such as watch towers and fences) as a way of distancing themselves from the idea of a divided Germany. “It was a slow process to get wide-spread backing for the Green Belt initiative. It started with galvanising support at a local level, as well as gaining support from science, which then trickled to political support. It was not an overnight change – in total this took about ten years!”, says Liana.
Making the Green Belt accessible to the local community and tourists is a top priority, especially following the success of a project financed by the German government.
“’Experience Green Belt’ was a really great project which ran for four years which helped local people and visitors connect with nature and learn about German history. There’s an education aspect of the tourism so that people are aware of the importance of keeping certain sections closed off to protect habitats.”
A symbol of peace
The Green Belt now forms part of a wider European Green Belt network, an ecological corridor that spans 12,500 km from the Norwegian-Russian border right down to the Greece-Albania border. The historical dimension serves as a crucial element for campaigns to safeguard unprotected areas of the Green Belt, which make up 30% in Germany and 53% in the wider European green belt area.
Liana describes it as a “memorial landscape” within European history. “It is a symbol of peace, freedom and cross-border cooperation – not only for nature but for people too”.