From Death Zone to Lifeline

Mikhail Gorbachev on the occasion of the establishment of the European Green Belt Initiative © Juergen Schmidl

The absence of conventional land use, agriculture, and most forms of human disturbances along large parts of the Iron Curtain and the surrounding areas resulted in the conservation and emergence of large areas of pristine nature and a connected system of various natural habitats and landscapes. In the former Eastern Bloc countries, the border lands were mostly off-limits and unutilised, with some villages near the border razed to the ground and people forcefully resettled in the interior. In the West, by comparison, the remote border areas were less attractive for investors, were sparsely populated, and did not require any major infrastructure development.

Already in the 1970s and 1980s a growing appreciation was emerging of the special value of the natural and traditionally cultivated landscapes along border areas in a number of regions in today's European Green Belt. Biologists discovered the rich biodiversity along the former border areas in various studies and research projects, for example in Finland and Russia and along the inner-German border.

The idea of a European Green Belt was put forward for the first time in 2002 at the opening of a land art monument, the East-West Gate. One year later, in 2003 in Bonn, the Initiative was formally born, when various existing regional initiatives merged into one common European initiative during an international conference. At both events the guest of honour was Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union.


Memorial landscape

Ruins in the harbour of Liepaja (Latvia) © Joerg Schmiedel

The European Green Belt is an exceptional symbol of European history. This living memorial reminds us of the peaceful overcoming of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. It is a physical reminder in the landscape of the turbulent and often tragic history of the 20th century.


No future without a past

One main aim of the European Green Belt initiative is to preserve this lifeline as a memorial landscape. Remains of border fortifications (watchtowers, patrol paths, ditches or border buildings) provide a vivid picture of the inhumanity of the border regime.

Along the Green Belt, you will find many projects and activities dedicated to making history visible and experiential: For instance a map of the region’s military legacy, and guidelines aimed at ensuring the safe use and maintenance of military objects in combination with nature tourism in Latvia on the Baltic coast. Or there is the "Experience Green the Belt" project along the inner-German Green Belt, which makes razed villages visible again and works with students to collect oral history by interviewing contemporary eyewitnesses. The Iron Curtain Trail (EuroVelo13) invites people to experience the nature, history and culture of the border regions by bike.


From splitting of Europe to Cold War

Tanks in Sakar (Bulgaria) © Gunther Willinger

Europe’s division into two different political and ideological spheres began with the Russian Revolution and the spread of communist ideas into political life. During World War II, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Hitler-Stalin –Pact, in which they promised mutual renunciation of aggression, neutrality in wars with third parties, and - in a secret protocol - the partition of Europe into spheres of influence. After the German invasion, the Soviet Union joined the Allies as one of the three big parties.

Towards the end of World War II, beginning with the Tehran Conference in 1943, the Soviet Union started to follow its interests for a post-war order. In exchange for having supported the Allies in the fight against the Axis powers, it demanded the adjustment of the Polish-Soviet border (the Curzon Line) and support for Yugoslavia’s communist partisans. This was followed by the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, which determined the post-war division of Europe into two spheres of influence.

After the war, many Eastern European countries fell under Soviet socialist influence. Most of them subsequently joined the Warsaw Pact, while the “Western” countries from Norway to Turkey practised a social or free market economy, and most of them joined the Western defence alliance, NATO. Some European countries stayed out of the two alliances: Yugoslavia remained fully independent, while Albania broke free of Soviet influence in the 1960s and aligned itself with China.

West of the Iron Curtain, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland remained independent in a military sense and formed the so-called “non-aligned nations”. Economically, the Western states were organised in the European Community and the European Trade Association, whereas the Eastern states formed COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, 1949-1991). Germany and Austria were separated into four zones of occupations (Soviet, American, British and French).

In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were founded, and in 1955 the Austrian State Treaty was signed and confirmed by the occupying powers - Austria declared its political neutrality. The following period of political tension, intense armament on both sides, and several proxy wars throughout the world was called the Cold War.


The Iron Curtain and its Overcoming

Border Fence between Bulgaria and Turkey © Gunther Willinger

Originally the word for the fireproof curtain in a theatre, in 1946 Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” for this new barrier between the two political and military systems in his famous "Sinews of Peace" speech in Missouri.

The Iron Curtain became an almost impermeable physical barrier: metal fences, walls, bunkers, barbed wire, guard towers, spring guns, land mines and watch dogs created a death zone between countries that separated families for decades and caused death or injuries to hundreds of people trying to cross the border. With a weakened economy in the border regions, many residents moved out of the area.


The Pan-European Picnic

In 1989, the border between Hungary and neutral Austria became the first part of the Iron Curtain to be dismantled: On 19 August 1989, a meeting (Pan-European Picnic) was organized near Sopron, mainly by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, to celebrate the foundation of the Hungarian state. The opening of the border for Hungarians was a good opportunity for almost 600 tourists from the GDR to escape to Austria, and resulted in the first crack in the Iron Curtain. Later that summer, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, ceremonially cut the border defences separating their countries. The Pan-European Picnic was an important event during the revolution of 1989 and led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.