House on the Border
The House on the Border (“Haus auf der Grenze")
The “House on the Border” is in itself already a piece of the history of the two Germanys. Since, in the early 1990s, activist citizens on both sides of the former border had prevented the re-naturalization of the American Point Alpha post, more and more people began to visit the area. The desire was great to have this unique site become a source of information about the bygone confrontation of the world’s power blocs and a testament to the border regime of the GDR – as was the need for people to depict their own lives and suffering at the former frontier. The US camp was out of the question as the site for such an exhibition. Ultimately, the “House on the Border” was built to enable depiction of a realistic and balanced representation of the conditions on the eastern side of the inner German border to which future generations could also relate. Both of the development associations on the Hesse and Thuringia side had successfully campaigned for public awareness and appropriations. The exhibits in the “House on the Border”, which stands right on the former patrol road, illustrate developments and events in conjunction with the border regime of the GDR.
Moreover, an exhibit on the top floor that was designed together with Biosphere Reserve Rhön (“Biosphärenreservat Rhön”) is geared primarily towards acquainting the youngest visitors with the flora and fauna that may be found in the current “green band” at the former border.
Forced resettlement and razed farms
The GDR’s border regime worsened considerably as of the early 1950s. The demarcation line had been successively expanded since 1952. Initially, a ten-meter wide section served as a “protective strip”, the entry to which was off-limits, while an additional five-kilometer wide “identity card zone” was also defined. All inhabitants of this so-called “restricted area” were subject to special registration by the offices of the People’s Police (Volkspolizei). As of spring 1952, persons deemed undesirable by the regime were moved from the border area to the interior of the GDR.
In the context of two large-scale campaigns that were initiated under the internal designations “Campaign Pest Control” and “Campaign Cornflower”, a total of 11,000 people were expelled and forcibly resettled. These amounted to purely arbitrary measures intended to intimidate the populace in the hermetically-sealed restricted areas. Some of the families only learned of the planned eviction shortly before their impending resettlement and hurriedly left their homeland, heading west with anything that they could grab on the fly. A number of very tradition-steeped farmsteads in the vicinity of the border were forcibly vacated and torn down (“razed”).
Expansion of the separation barriers in 1960 and 1970
Contrary to the public protestations of then GDR Council of State chairman Walter Ulbricht, far stricter regulations to secure the inner German border became effective on August 13, 1961. On September 14, the interior ministry of the GDR issued the decree (Nr. 39/61) to “guarantee the security at the western border of the GDR”. Already as early as 1961, the SED (Socialist Unity Party) Politburo had demanded the “engineer style fortification of the western state border”. To achieve this, the systematic buildup of the national border in three stages was specified. By April 1, 1962 the border was to have been fortified by trip-wire mines, roadblocks and surveillance towers. Until that time, mine barriers were erected over a distance of 614 kilometers.
Any and every perceived “illegal border crossing” was painstakingly analyzed by the “institutions responsible for state security”, evaluated and taken into consideration to the greatest extent possible for the continued buildup of the separating barriers. Thus, successful escape attempts involuntarily contributed to the intensified fortification of the border. The enormous costs of every expansion of the separation barriers were irrelevant.
The frontier remains a reality – 1971 to 1989
At the onset of the 1970s, the horror of the border regime was intensified yet again when the GDR leadership decided to install fragmentation mines at the expanded metal fence.
The SM 70 fragmentation mine was mounted on the outer border fence on the side facing the GDR. When touched, it detonated a 110 gram TNT charge that fired 80 steel splinters. These spring gun installations inflicted severe injuries on escaping persons and resulted either in death or permanent impairments. In 1977, a group of the SED Central Committee verified that the 1,393 kilometer border to the Federal Republic of Germany had been secured with 870 kilometers of border fencing. 271 kilometers of this fencing were equipped with the notorious SM 70 fragmentation mines while 271 kilometers bore mines embedded in the earth. Add to that, the 1,206 kilometers along the border patrol road, 602 kilometers of motor vehicle barrier trenches, 434 surveillance towers and 2,640 guard dogs.
Subsequent to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE Border Security and Management Concept, the spring gun installations were dismantled, but not before a second border fence, the so-called signaling fence, had been erected 500 meters further inland. This fence was equipped with signal wires that triggered a silent alarm at the nearest command posts when touched. Here, the precise sector of possible “border infringement” could be determined and the fleeing persons confronted before they even reached the last border fence.
The border troops of the GDR
On December 1, 1946 the paramilitary German Border Police was founded under the aegis of the Soviet Union. It was initially controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, and was transferred to the command of the Ministry for National Defense after the construction of the Berlin wall. Thus the border troops were a regular element of the ground forces of the GDR, the People’s National Army (NVA).
After the border troops had been disbanded as border brigades in the 1970s and restructured into the north, central and southern border commands, they were separated from the NVA in January 1974 and established as an independent troop corps with the designation “Border Troops of the GDR”. As a military unit, it boasted troop strength of 47,000 men at the time of the fall of the wall.
The Florian Geyer border regiment in Dermbach that was responsible for the segment at the Rasdorf Mountain was part of the border command south and guarded the especially sensitive area of the “Thuringia Balcony”. This was the point where the territory of the GDR protruded furthest into the territory of the Federal Republic and would doubtless have been the preferred route for a thrust into the Rhine-Main area barely 80 kilometers away.
The order to shoot
Initially, the border troops of the GDR were not subject to uniformly regulated orders governing the use of the force of arms at the border. This was only dealt with in strictly confidential service regulations. In 1982, the GDR People’s Chamber (parliament) passed the inhuman border statute. In Section 27, the so-called “Order to Shoot” provided for the use of weapons to prevent criminal offenses, which also included crossing the border. The border forces were only informed orally of the so-called “use of firearms”.
Of 233,000 researched flight attempts, the current assumption is that there were several hundred fatalities at the Berlin wall as well as at the inner German border. Research into each and every possible border fatality is exceedingly difficult as files were intentionally falsified, numbers whitewashed or witnesses had died in the meantime. Many a suicide or accident comes under the sphere of responsibility for border ‘security’.
The fact that to this day the existence of an order to shoot is generally denied by those responsible demonstrates once again the cynicism and inhumanity with which human rights were trampled in the GDR, above all by the SED leadership at the time. As of 1992, numerous court cases were prosecuted in which the members of the Politburo, among them Erich Honecker, the National Defense Council, as well as border officers and soldiers, were convicted of the crime of causing death – although to a manageable extent.