6/24, Point Alpha Foundation, East/West border outside of Geisa
(((This post was one of the most difficult I’ve written thus far. Not because of the content, though those are certainly coming; it was because this experience was incredibly surreal and difficult to put into words. Sure, we were all a little loopy from the heat, but it was mostly because the reality of a divided Germany is so near in our history. I was born in a world with an Iron Curtain. Trying to wrap my brain around that has taken more time than I imagined it would, but in trying to be both chronological and diligent, this needs to get out in writing (hopefully to be amended in the future). So, I apologize for my narrative writing and lack of articulation regarding this incredible experience. Just take my word for it: it was profound. And if you’re ever near the border of Hesse and Thuringia, PLEASE go visit Point Alpha Stiftung.)))
On a 100 degree day in former East Germany…
Only the best stories start that way, right? We had a full day scheduled at the Point Alpha Foundation, starting with the interpretive center/museum, where we were able to meet a former West German guard who shared many of his personal experiences with us. We also had an ambitious hike along the former East-West border planned for our afternoon at Point Alpha. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating, and we also didn’t want people to get sick less than halfway into our trip. So, an abridged version of the walk was planned.
We started the morning at Point Alpha with our guide Wolf, who works for the Foundation. Though a quick tour through the building, both the depth and the importance of the information conveyed there was apparent. Though I was alive for the last few years of the Cold War, I didn’t experience a truly divided world. In suburban Minneapolis, I and others around me were mostly insulated from the true conflict and upheaval of the world we lived in. To be in a place, and to meet with people who had experienced that division personally changed my understanding of the conflict. Now, getting to teach about it, continually learning about it, talking to people who experienced it both directly and indirectly, I am continuing to understand the severity of the threat that many people all over the world felt in their daily lives.
The lives of those who lived in Vacha, Geisa, and many other border cities were immeasurably impacted. Families split by the border were unalterably damaged. We heard from someone who served as a West German guard during the Cold War, and as he spoke, I shuddered to think of the psychological warfare that was carried out against those loyal (or merely perceived to be loyal) to the democratic, capitalist West.
We had the chance to walk to border, and saw replicas of the fence, barbed wire, and Shepard dog houses for those animals charged with patrolling the border (they don’t call them German Shepards in Germany. Huh.) We climbed the NATO observation post (OP Alpha), and cast our gaze on Geisa, which was the Westernmost city of the former East Germany at one point.
Along the border now also exists the Path of Hope, which serves not only as the former road that ran along the border, but now has 14 sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, giving new meaning to the border and the journey that people take as they walk along it.
Point Alpha was particularly notable for so many reasons, not the least of which was because it was a location on the Fulda Gap, which is the likely place the Warsaw Pact forces would have used to gain entry into Western Germany, had the Cold War broken out into actual hot warfare.
All told, I wish I could tell you more about military strategy and the Fulda Gap, and the logistical reality of the danger that was possible at this place. I wish I knew more about the experiences of those in border towns and those who crossed the border to visit family and friends. I wish we could have walked the several miles into Geisa along the border. Instead, what I can tell you is that the number of meaningful experiences I had at Point Alpha on a sweltering June day was too many to effectively convey. What an unforgettable day.