The small farming community of Mödlareuth, located halfway between Berlin and Munich in rural Germany, is home to around 50 people and has just one pub. And yet it attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year.
Upon arrival, the reason for this is clear. Among the 18 houses and farms is a 100m-long strip of concrete white wall, which was once part of the former border between East and West Germany.
Physically separate from the more famous Berlin Wall, the Inner German border was nearly 1,400km long and divided East and West Germany from 1949, when the Soviets established East Germany, until the border fortifications started to topple down in 1989. Mödlareuth lay directly in its path, meaning that during this time, part of the quiet village was in the socialist east and the other in the capitalist west.
The concrete intrusion is now part of the Mödlareuth Museum, alongside a watchtower, metal fencing, a reconstruction of the heavily fortified barrier and other relics. The aforementioned pub, opened in 2002, is called “Zum Grenzgänger” – “the Border Crosser” and the village is still known as “Little Berlin”.
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Today, tourists armed with cameras have taken the place of armed guards. And while visitors and locals can now walk from one side of the village to the other with ease, ignoring the old warning signs, they are, in fact, still crossing another, less-visible border: the line between the federal states of Bavaria and Thuringia.
The story of how this village once belonged to two contrasting political, economic and social systems – and the way in which the border still manifests itself today – is a fascinating tale. One that begins with the local stream.
In 1810, boundary stones were placed along the banks of the Tannbach stream to define two German sovereign states: the newly expanded Kingdom of Bavaria and the Principality of Reuss of the Younger Line (Fürstentum Reuss jüngerer Linie). These stones, engraved with the initials “KB” and “FR”, can still be seen today. Both sides became part of the united German Empire in 1871. After World War One, with the formation of the states of Bavaria and Thuringia, whose border ran along the same line as the stones, the stream took on a new role.
The village is still known as “Little Berlin”
It wasn’t until the end of World War Two, however, that this watery border propelled the village and its residents to the frontline of tensions that would divide Europe for decades.
In 1945, as post-war Germany was separated into four occupation zones under the control of the Allies (United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union), Mödlareuth also found itself divided. The demarcation lines defined in the 1944 London Protocol resulted in Thuringia going to the Soviet Union and Bavaria to the Americans. While Berlin was split deliberately, Mödlareuth was most likely not on the radar of world leaders, meaning it was accidentally caught in the crossfire.
To begin with, it was still possible for villagers to walk back and forth across the stream, even though they might be stopped for a document check. But as tensions rose between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies as the Cold War intensified, the Tannbach marked an ever-widening rift.
In 1949, the stream became part of the border between the newly formed German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). It ran from the Baltic Sea, close to Lübeck, in the north to where the northern Bavarian border meets the Czech Republic in the east, carving off the north-eastern corner of Germany as East Germany. While people and places were divided along the entire border, in Mödlareuth it split a small community.
This separation became more severe in 1952, when the GDR closed the East-West border (with little warning) to prevent further large-scale emigration to West Germany.
Residents looked on as the border was increasingly fortified, firstly with a 10m control strip, then fencing, barbed wire and eventually a concrete wall in 1966. “Mödlareuth was a particularly built-up and well-guarded part of the border,” said Robert Lebegern, director of the museum, explaining that this was due to the proximity of housing and people to the eastern side of the border. Later mines were installed along the wall in East Mödlareuth as a further deterrent.
At 700m long and 3.3m high, with no checkpoint, Mödlareuth’s concrete wall well and truly separated the village. It was constructed five years after the Berlin Wall as part of the ongoing reinforcement of the Inner German border, and the term “Little Berlin” was coined by US troops soon after.
The impact of this hostile division in a small community is hard to comprehend. Pictures from the time, which can be seen at the museum, provide some idea of its visual dominance. But the border was much more than an eyesore, particularly for those living in East Mödlareuth, who were faced with restrictions such as nighttime curfews, travel limitations and a ban on meetings after dark.
While one side of the village was shut off from the world, the other was suddenly exposed
And while one side of the village was shut off from the world, the other was suddenly exposed. Visitors from West Germany and beyond started travelling to West Mödlareuth to get a closer look at Little Berlin. Even former vice president George HW Bush made a stop on the western Bavarian side during an official visit to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1983. He later sent a message of congratulations to the villagers when the border reopened in 1989.
The decision to keep a 100m piece of the wall perpetuated interest in the village long after the Cold War ended. But beyond the remnants of a divided past and the tourist crowds who come to see them, everyday life in Mödlareuth has more or less returned to normal – although a political border still remains.
While this border between the federal states of Bavaria and Thuringia is harder for day-trippers to spot, it results in a number of important differences between the two sides. They have different postcodes, car registrations and dialling codes. There are two mayors. Some public holidays are different. And for village children, it can even determine which school they attend.
The border also influences identity. “The villagers are first and foremost Mödlareuthers, but they are also either Thuringian or Bavarian,” Lebegern explained, adding that it’s not uncommon to hear someone from the Thuringian side say they are going to see the Bavarians or vice versa. In a country founded on federalism, this is an important distinction.
People tend to associate 9 November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that night checkpoints were also opened along the entire Inner German border
A good way to tell the difference between the two sides is to listen out for the greetings people use. The Thuringians, who were in East Germany, tend to say “Guten Tag” (“good day”), a standard German greeting; while the Bavarians say “Grüss Gott” (originating from “God bless you”), something you will commonly hear in southern Germany (and Austria).
Interestingly, these alternative greetings are part of a broader separation of dialects that occurred during the Cold War. A 2010 academic analysis of language samples, collected shortly after German reunification and published by German federal government agency Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (The Federal Agency for Civic Education), found that the Inner German border created a divide of dialects along political lines. This language-separation process, which would have taken centuries at a relatively open border, resulted from the reduced interaction between the two sides and a greater influence from the wider surrounding area.
Another difference to listen out for in Mödlareuth is the rolling of “r”s, something the Bavarians do and the Thuringians don’t. Today these dialect divisions remain in Mödlareuth, albeit a bit diluted due to the return to integrated village life. Villagers now have a common Christmas tree and one maypole, for example. They will also celebrate the upcoming 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall together.
“People tend to associate 9 November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that night checkpoints were also opened along the entire Inner German border,” Lebegern said. Within hours, people could not only travel from East Berlin to West Berlin, but also from East Germany to West Germany.
Since Mödlareuth didn’t have a checkpoint, part of the wall had to be torn down before residents could traverse their village border. Exactly one month later, on 9 December, following increased pressure from locals, a small crossing point for pedestrians was officially opened. Rather than uniting strangers on top of a graffiti-covered wall as in Berlin, here a gap in the concrete reconnected neighbours and family members. Mödlareuthers celebrated with a drink (or two) and ate Thüringer Rostbratwurst, a local sausage that’s been produced in Thuringia for hundreds of years.
In the week leading up to 9 November 2019, the village will join countrywide events to mark 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Inner German border. This includes a light installation along the path of the wall in Mödlareuth as well as a convoy of classic East German cars through the village.
A second event will be held on 9 December to remember the day the local wall officially opened – with the Tannbach still flowing quietly and constantly in the background.
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