The Inter-German Border: Living Divided

Entering the final leg of our program, we left France for Belgium and Germany to explore their perspectives on the war. While this class focuses on World War II, it is essential to look at the war’s aftermath, particularly on Germany and its people.

As World War II ended, despite being allies, the United States and the Soviet Union distrusted one another. The defeat of Germany opened debates about what would happen to Europe in the post-war period, especially the future of a Nazi-free Germany. To answer the German question, the Allies divided Germany into allied sectors at the Potsdam Conference. This solution was supposed to be temporary; however, it lasted for forty years.

When Nazi Germany collapsed, a vacuum of power ensued. The United States, as a global economic power and the world’s leading democracy, wanted to create a democratic, capitalist Germany. In contrast, the Soviet Union wanted to create an authoritarian, socialist Germany. By 1950, it was apparent that there would be no unified Germany any time soon as the United States and the USSR could not compromise. As a result, the Inter-German border was established to separate the east and west. Berlin was likewise bisected, affecting the free movement to civilians.

A torch is signifying freedom at Point Alpha.

The Point Alpha Memorial does a great job of discussing the military and civilian life in Germany during the Cold War. Our guide Arthur Hahn, having lived through the Cold War, offered a personal take on the history of the period while informing us of the day-to-day lives of those in each part of Germany. Explaining the creation of a border for population control, Hahn discussed the drastic measures East Germany would take to avoid escapees. From weapons triggered by tripwires to landmines and dogs, the East German border service had towers lined up to observe and prevent civilians crossing the border into West Germany. The measures were so strict that he told us about his father being unable to visit his family on the other side of the Iron Curtain – something I could not imagine today.

When discussing living in West Germany, Hahn mentioned that he never believed the Iron Curtain would come down. West Germany gained an increased American presence with the creation of NATO, and the United States sent armored cavalry regiments to the border to detect threats from the Warsaw Pact. I was surprised when Hahn explained that he felt safe and that West Germany had a very friendly relationship with the Americans. He threw in fun little details about how children would play in the woods and befriend the Americans for things that were hard to come by, like chocolate. He also mentioned sharing his first beer and cigarettes with American soldiers!

While America offered relief measures such as the Marshall Plan to West Germany, the East grew impoverished. Hahn shared the story of two men seeking opportunities in the West who tried to cross the walled border on Christmas Eve. One was killed, and the other was shot in the legs and left in no-man’s land until the next afternoon. Unfortunately, the one who was shot would be detained and face the amputation of his legs. As a result, those on the border in the West would hold a ceremony every Christmas Eve – something Hahn said he participated in when he was young.

A Soviet Union Tower from East Germany.

Aside from the West German perspective, I enjoyed having the American perspective from both the museum and the personal experience from Professor Mansoor, who served on the border as a captain in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. I did not realize how many fewer control measures were established on the western side – especially the number of towers. Professor Mansoor clarified that the American Army’s goal was to identify potential military attacks, not to act as border patrol, hence the lack of towers compared to the number on the eastern side. I also found the significance of the placement of the American flag at Point Alpha to be fascinating. The American flag is observed to be hovering over the ground and not planted into it. From the tour, I learned that this was because the Americans were not there to occupy Germany but to defend it.

American flag hovering over the ground at Point Alpha.

As I left Point Alpha, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to live in the United States and in a time of relative peace. The isolation from my family, especially my sick grandfather during the pandemic, is as close as I can get to feeling the German families’ separation from one another. The lost opportunities I faced now seem minute compared to the restricted lives of the East Germans under Soviet control. Again, visiting the sites of history has humbled me beyond measure, and I could not be more thankful for the opportunity to explore them.

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