The death strip as a habitat: 25th anniversary of the ‘German Green Belt’
Before reunification, Germany was divided into East and West. The 1,400 km border between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic was a strip of land where nature could regenerate for 40 years. It provided a unique habitat for many endangered species of plants and animals. The former ‘death strip’ became the ‘German Green Belt’.
The division of Germany was a good thing for the sand lizard. The inhumane actions perpetrated by the GDR regime against its own citizens along the border to West Germany were a blessing for this reptile. For decades, sentries trimmed down bushes and hedges here so that they could quickly sight people trying to escape – unwittingly creating ideal living conditions for this crawling creature.
‘The sand lizard needs good, loose soil to lay eggs in and open spaces for sunbathing’, says biologist Holger Keil of the Heinz Sielmann Foundation, who is managing a nature protection project in the ‘German Green Belt’ at Eichsfeld-Werratal. In this 130 km section alone, Keil's team has identified 276 rare animals and plants, some of which are on the Red List of Threatened Species. They include the wildcat, the small whiskered bat, brown trout and common centaury.
Wet meadows and inland dunes
The ‘Green Belt’ that stretches 1,400 km through Germany is a strip only 50 to 200 metres wide. ‘It is a unique habitat network that stretches from the Baltic Sea in the north to the border triangle between Bavaria, Saxony and the Czech Republic in the South’, says Daniela Leitzbach, who coordinates conservation projects throughout Germany at the Nuremberg Green Belt project office of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND).
For Leitzbach, the main thing that makes the ‘Green Belt’ so special is that it consists of a large number of different types of habitats. Rare low-nutrient sand grassland areas and inland dunes can be found here along with dwarf shrub heathland, wet meadows and pristine forest areas, for example in the Harz Mountains.
Thus, during the division of Germany, a refuge developed for rare animals and plants that do not get along well with intensive agriculture or large-scale development and so migrated to the strip of land along the border. Examples include the whinchat, a ground-nesting bird that breeds in meadows. The area is home to 1,200 endangered species.
Nature protection: preserving populations, closing gaps
To this day, the ‘German Green Belt’ is still struggling with landowners and farmers who want to transform it into lucrative farmland. Lobbying efforts are necessary, but so is the will to compromise. After all, part of the area indeed must be used for farming in order to be preserved. This applies to clearings, in particular, which must not be left to be overgrown. ‘We cannot exclude farming altogether’, says Daniela Leitzbach.
The ‘German Green Belt’ still has some gaps. 13 per cent of the area is currently built up or used for farming. A five-year project is now running in order to close these gaps by purchasing land and conducting model measures.
German Green Belt: a living memorial of German division
Daniela Leitzbach's wish for the future is to see an ‘interconnected biotope that can be experienced by people in all its diversity’. To achieve this, she hopes for ‘nature-friendly tourism’, which already enables visitors to explore the former death strip on hiking and cycling trails. But she would also ‘wish for the Green Belt to linger in people's minds as a living monument of peace and democracy and to be remembered by the younger generation as well’.
After all, the ‘German Green Belt’ is not just a unique nature reserve. With the preserved watchtowers, concrete blocks, border markers and the newly opened border museums, it is also a memorial of around 40 years of German-German history.
Discussion about the inner German border in the community
Is the ‘German Green Belt’ an appropriate way to chronicle Germany's division? Do you know of any other successful examples of projects to commemorate the time before unification? Or do you have ideas of your own on the topic of ‘25 Years after the Fall of the Wall’? Discuss them with us. We look forward to your contributions!