On a recent German tour, one MCUSA editor criss crossed the former Iron Curtain, riding in the former East Germany.
The freedom of the open road draws riders as one of the intrinsic thrills of motorcycling. A quick trek this year through the former East Germany drove that realization home to me. Schuberth Helmets invited Motorcycle USA to tour its German production facilities in Magdeburg, about 100 west of Berlin, followed by a quick day-long jaunt southward to the mountainous Harz region.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. German reunification occurred in 1990. For the youngest generation of German adults, memories of the GDR are either non-existent, or a distant sliver of childhood. Now East Germany is building and thriving, many jobs and opportunities shifting from the West. Schuberth itself is a prime example, having relocated its manufacturing operations from the former West German city of Braunschweig. This prosperity was not always the case, with East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as it was officially known in the West, a repressive Soviet-bloc regime anchoring the western boundaries of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
The A-2 Autobahn makes short work of the miles to the Helmstedt-Marionborn border crossing (top). Die Wölbung der Hände memorial sculpture is located on the western edge of Helmstedt-Marienborn border site.
An oppressive lack of freedom certainly didn’t come to mind as we got our journey underway on the Autobahn. Jumping westbound on the A-2 the only limiting factor for the top speed of our BMW R1200GS was common sense (and only barely). We screamed toward our first stop – the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing.
Germany is faced with messy decisions on what to preserve from its dark past. This is most notable with its Nazi/WWII legacy, particularly the Holocaust. But the same holds true of its East German history. The biggest symbol of GDR repression, the Berlin Wall, was all but completely torn apart by the newly freed Berlin citizenry. Many of the border outposts and barriers on the interior border, as it’s known, were also removed, but some have been preserved.
The Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing is one such historical remnant. The busiest checkpoint during East/West partition, the crossing bears the name of two neighboring towns, Helmstedt in the West and Marienborn in the East. Drab and dreary, the concrete slabs that make up the grounds have weeds shooting up through cracks as the A-2 blusters by, now unimpeded. Guard lookout towers remain, along with an old billboard once for eastbound travelers. The sign now lords over visitors – its visage a German border guard with binoculars and the text “SEE YOU” letting all know they are being watched.
A wide series of checkpoint lanes remain, where vehicles would queue up for the painstaking border crossing process, backing up traffic for hours. Plain buildings dot the site, most unused, with signs indicating to visitors the various stages of the checkpoint system. The process often included full dismantling of vehicles, as well as powerful X-Ray scans to check for contraband. People could be sequestered for questioning without cause.
Stories circulate as our touring group meanders through the vacant site. One American member of our entourage recounts visiting East German relatives as a child, going through that very checkpoint. Once in the GDR his family had to check in with the local police. After the visit they had to face the anxiety of returning home, which would build up to the final tense Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint. The tension only lifted once out of reach of the final border failsafe, a rail-driven barrier that would slam across the road to discourage any drivers with a mind to run the gauntlet with their vehicle. Once safely across the border, the family would all turn and salute the East German guards – with the middle finger.
Schuberth’s German employees recall similar instances of cross-border visits. Or more often than not, rue the decades of lost visits to close blood relations. Riven apart by ideological borders, the East German state had even more insidious means of dividing families, with people sometimes turning on their own kin as government informants. The GDR’s secret police, the Stasi, cultivated a nation of snitches, with some figures placing the informant to citizen ratio at 1/50. The Stasi’s voluminous surveillance files became a source of great interest after reunification, as citizens have requisitioned their own files with disturbing results on just who was keeping tabs on them.
The Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint museum exhibit shows the means by which the government forcibly kept its populace from defecting across the border.
We learn more while milling about the on-site museum, where we see an interesting motorcycle on display. While the Trabant car has filled the Western mind as the iconic symbol of East German transportation, we see another in the form of an MZ motorcycle. Our German hosts explain how wait lists for a new Trabant took years, so many GDR citizens sourced small-displacement motorcycles for transportation. The army green M Zed rests, its blocky single-cylinder rising up from the gearbox, untouched by the steel-pressed frame and fuel tank inches above. Not a particularly beautiful bike, the MZ looks stern but practical. Riders will take what they can get.
Also on display are the methods of how the GDR effectively imprisoned its populace. The border region was one of the world’s most heavily mined, and the countryside was closely survielled. Exhibit photos show border guards armed with cameras and binoculars, always watching. It would be farcical, except for the other displays – names of the dead who chanced a crossing and failed. Most perished from mines, others were gunned down.
Getting our fill of the eerie surroundings we return to riding, this time on the more engaging backroads. Gentle rolling terrain, mixed with farms and scattered woods. Scanning the countryside there are still decaying watchtowers sprinkled here and there, along with roadside warning signs indicating mine hazards remain.
Road signs mark the older Iron Curtain border, with most road crossings bearing any other reminder of the danger that once existed escaping from East to West.
Crossing country borders in the EU now is as hassle free as crossing state borders in the U.S. During the GDR regime, however, it must have been terrifying trying to go anywhere in country. The restrictions had to have been particularly demoralizing to teenagers and young adults. After getting my driver’s license as an adolescent, I recall deriving great pleasure in driving. Pure, aimless driving, with the only rationale for my travels to burn fuel and see new places. I still find it meditative and therapeutic to crank the odometer through the barren expanses of the American West.
After enjoying the German countryside, we arrive at one if the few remaining sections of the inner border wall. The juxtaposition is striking: On the Eastern side a cluster of simple family homes make up a small village, then there are a series of walls, barriers and obstacles. First is a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, followed by a second, taller fence with more wire. Next is a wide swath of open space, the grassy surface concealing numerous mines underneath. Following the minefield is approximately a 20-30-foot wide barrier of soft, loamy dirt, through which any crosser would leave easily recognizable tracks. After that, metal tank traps line up to halt any motorized attempts at freedom. Finally, a tall concrete wall, then more open space and in this particular border section, a river to swim across. Above all, a tall watchtower commandeers the landscape, machine guns trained on the likely escape routes. To further discourage its citizenry from leaving, armed guards constantly patrol pathways along the wall with dogs.
The final barriers of the East/West border, with a watchtower in the distance. To get this far, defectors would have had to vault a pair of razor wire lined fences and wide minefield, not to mention roaming armed guards with dogs.
An entire nation jailed inside its borders. How dreary it must have been to every day see those barriers, and the promise of freedom on the other side. Our riding group follows the path up to the watchtower. Three wreaths rest on the wall as a memorial. The names of those dead become more real.
Back on the bikes, we cross the Iron Curtain west. Now the border is marked by a brown sign, which displays a map of Europe bisected by the Cold War border. Strolling through the countryside we bounce up into the cloudy hills of the Harz. We see the brown signs off and on, reminders of the once grim line in the earth. As we stop at our lunch destination, portions of a massive red and white radio tower peer through thick mist. The weather effect adds drama, the location yet another aspect of the Cold War aggression, where listening outposts carried out surveillance and espionage on the border.
Now peaceful and serene, it’s difficult to imagine that at one point this line of demarcation was a trip-wire for world destruction. East vs. West. Warsaw Pact vs. NATO. Capitalism vs. Communism. America vs. USSR. The ideological dichotomy had conventional arsenals of tanks, warplanes and soldiers poised on constant alert, along with massive nuclear payloads. All awaited devastating orders that thankfully never came.
Our German Harz tour returns to Magdeburg through scenic byways. In the early morning hours the next day, we rush up the Autobahn again toward the Berlin Tegel Airport. It’s tiny for an international terminal in such a large European city. Originally the Tegel site served as a base of operations for the famed Berlin Airlift. Only servicing its limited West Berlin populace pre-reunification, a larger international airport is being constructed south of Berlin to serve the entire city and its surburbs.
Jetting home in the dark hours of morning, the German landscape disappears into thick clouds. This German trek was memorable, like all my international travel assignments. I’m anxious to speed home to my wife and child. I also feel myself itching for the wide open country of my western home. Free to come and go, and ride, wherever and whenever I please.