Wüstungen – Introduction text of the book (sample excerpt)

by Göran Gnaudschun

The German word Wüstung refers to an area of human settlement or activity which, at some point in the past, has become abandoned. It refers to places that now lie fallow or have become derelict due to acts of war, epidemics, famines, agrarian crises, or events of that kind. Places where people once lived, but where only relics in the soil, historical documents or oral traditions are there to remind us that they ever existed. The settlements on the eastern side of the former inner-German border were razed to the ground because they stood in the way of an unobstructed line of fire, because they would have proved extremely costly to keep under surveillance, or simply because they were too close to the border.

The border between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) came about as a consequence of the Second World War, a powder keg that Germany had ignited. It quickly evolved from a demarcation line between the occupation zones in East and West into a closed border between two states and, then, a secure, heavily guarded border and protection system that separated the adversaries of what was then a bipolar world. It was guarded initially by Soviet troops, then by the German Border Police, the National People’s Army (NVA), and finally by units of the GDR border troops assigned from the troop strength of the GDR army. But unlike other borders, most of the defence energy expended, energy stored as in a battery for an emergency, was directed inwards, against the friendly country itself. Of course, no-one wanted to be invaded, but more importantly no-one was to be allowed to escape from the sovereign territory of East Germany.

It was unfortunate that the border did not run through a wasteland or wilderness, but through vibrant ploughed and tilled terrain where people lived, worked, gave birth, and died. People who were closely intertwined with the villages all around them. In Zweedorf for example the meadows were on the western side while the farms were on the eastern side. Some farmsteads, for example in Christiansgrün, had cowshed doors just yards from the boundary line. In Mödlareuth the border went right through the village. In any case this sensitive area was far too populated. Too many people to keep under surveillance, too many who posed a permanent flight risk, because they were familiar with the terrain, because they knew the area before the border even existed, and therefore could not readily accept it.

The state border was gradually expanded into a virtually impenetrable fortification. Every successful escape was meticulously investigated. Statistics were compiled that analysed the times when the majority of escapes took place; whether the fugitives were operating alone, in twos or in groups; where they started out from; what modes of transport they used to reach the border area; what social strata they came from; and what their attitude to the GDR had been. Fortunately, people often act irrationally, which is why it was not possible to predict their decisions down to the last detail and why some escapes were successful.

Those who lived near the border strip were under particularly close scrutiny. There were files in which they were divided up into categories such as: factor of uncertainty, person posing a threat, HWG (person with frequently changing sexual partners), returnee, negative returnee, work-shy, antisocial, former member of the SS, immigrant, and reactionary element. The files kept a record of people’s character, family circumstances, personal frailties, and attitude towards the state. In some cases the reports went on for years. They often ended with a forced resettlement decision. Those concerned, and their families, were given a matter of hours to load up their entire household.

There are detailed reports of clearances where people had asked the officer in charge for his gun so they could shoot themselves and their family, or where those sentenced to be resettled set about the announcement squad with a chair. Tellingly, the first GDR-wide resettlement operation of 1952 was given the secret code name Aktion Ungeziefer, or Operation Vermin.

It was rarely about clearing out entire villages; rather, the aim was to get all those who had been evaluated as unpredictable out of the border area and make it secure. But it was also about intimidation. Who would be next? Had someone perhaps complained about the supply situation, or watched West German television, or refused to join the Agricultural Production Cooperative? The vacated houses were not always pulled down right away; instead, they were often re-occupied by comrades loyal to the party line.

The resettled were usually deported to regions far away, often to poorer and sometimes unacceptable living conditions. Many became homesick and struggled to come to terms with their sense of uprooting and the loneliness among new neighbours. Some, far from home, took their lives; but for that there are no statistics. The people in new locations remained under Stasi surveillance, and rumours were often circulated that their resettlement had somehow been due to criminal offences. They remained outsiders, the ‘washed ashore’ as a contemporary witness put it.

The second major resettlement campaign, Operation Consolidation, took place once the Berlin Wall had gone up and the German-German border was extended like a fortification from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia. In the individual districts efforts were made to give the operation a more poetic name: in Magdeburg District, it was ‘Operation New Life’, and in Karl-Marx-Stadt District ‘Operation Fresh Air’. Between 1952 and 1961 a total of eleven thousand people were forcibly resettled; around three thousand people escaped deportation and fled to the West.

Farms that were difficult to put under surveillance were left vacant and became dilapidated. But their desolate state made a bad impression on the enemy; plus they also obstructed the line of fire and represented danger spots by providing fugitives with a place to hide. And so, one by one, the villages, farms, hamlets, and individual farmsteads were razed to the ground. In the course of our research we found one hundred such Wüstungen, but there are bound to be more. The Stasi files show the resilience with which some people chose to stay. Almost to the very end. The final village clearance operations took place in the late 1980s.

In these now barren locations people had once lived; there had been life there, the ebb and flow of life marked by the course of time. Many of these places have a history that goes back almost a thousand years. It was their misfortunate that, for forty years, they were simply in the wrong place. Today, there is plenty of vegetation there, and in some places you find yourself right in the middle of a forest. The Wüstungen are now situated in the Green Belt, Germany’s largest continuous nature reserve. Nature, then, has reclaimed these settlement areas.

The GDR leadership had managed to clear these sites, first through enforcement, later through promises. In the 1980s there were even some inhabitants who moved away voluntarily. Life in the border area had become ever more regimented and difficult; it could take weeks for a tradesman to get a pass in order to come and repair a leaking water pipe. The surveillance was total and continuous, and it certainly was no easy life living in an atmosphere of constant mistrust. There were unannounced checks to make sure no ladders had been left out in the open and that all sheds were locked. Visits from friends or relatives who lived outside the border area were extremely rare, and anyone who spotted a stranger was required to report them. In the village of Erlebach, which according to our research was the last to be razed, namely in 1988, the resettled themselves removed the tiles from their roofs so they could re-use these scarce building materials on their new houses.

Time and time again the border was successfully breached, even though most attempts were foiled. No effort or expense was too great for the ‘anti-Fascist rampart’. It was meticulously planned, drawn, built, expanded, and mined, mines which later had to be cleared again. It was straightened, re-fenced, equipped with durable concrete towers, fitted with refined signal wires, equipped with devastating spring-guns, guarded by new military personnel every spring and autumn, fitted with dog runs, re-raked time and again, and doused with weed killer. Together with the Berlin Wall, the inner-German border was 1,539 km long. Stretching out behind the immediate border fortifications was a 500 m wide protective strip with watch towers, earth bunkers, spotlights, and dog runs. Adjoining it was the exclusion zone, usually some five kilometres deep, which could only be accessed with a pass. It could be said that the border fortifications were not just the largest building project of all time on German soil, but also that they remained unrivalled in their perfection.

And after forty years this vast complex came to share the fate of the Wüstungen. Starting in November 1989 it was razed to the ground in no time at all.