The point where the cold war could have turned hot


Locals say one false move at Point Alpha would have sparked the third World War, writes DEREK SCALLY

POINT ALPHA in the centre of Germany is where the cold war could have turned hot.

That’s what locals say when you arrive in the village of Geisa. This is where Nato and the Warsaw Pact, the military of the capitalist and communist ideologies, faced off at close quarters for 30 years.

One false move here, locals say gravely, and it would have sparked the third World War.

It all seems so unlikely, wandering on a sunny day through this pretty part of rural Germany where the rolling hills of Hesse meet the peaceful forests of Thuringia.

But just as doubts surface about the cold war saga, the landscape disgorges a reminder: in a glade, a large yellow-shelled snail makes its way up a tree trunk, oblivious to the fact that the next tree over is a concrete support still holding rusting barbed wire.

It was factory fresh in 1962 when soldiers unfurled it to form two barriers. In the space, a metre apart, they planted the mines.

As in Berlin a year earlier, the sealing of the border here disrupted everyday cross-border traffic and the one-way westward traffic in refugees.

Between 1949 and 1962 some three million East Germans, out of a population of 18 million, fled west.

On a quiet forest road, local guide Helmut Henkel from Geisa in the former East points out what looks like a regular roadside drain.

It is a custom-made military shaft, one of hundreds in the area which, in the case of a Soviet invasion, were to be packed with explosives and detonated – destroying all roads to the border to slow down enemy progress.

On the hike, Henkel describes the constant changes in the chameleon-like border.

The original barrier was replaced with a high metal mesh barrier in 1966. The mines were removed in 1972 to ease East Germany’s entry to the UN.

That objective achieved, the authorities replaced them with self-triggering spring guns that sprayed escapees with hundreds of metal splinters.

These were dismounted in the 1980s – a condition of a loan from Bavaria to the nearly bankrupt East Berlin – and replaced by pressure pads hidden in the ground that triggered an alarm.

All of this hotspot’s history is preserved in the Point Alpha US army base, now a museum. After the hike and Henkel’s frank stories – a brother who fled west, his best friend who spied for the Stasi – the exhibition in the former barracks seems a little dry.

But military fans won’t be disappointed by the equipment on show alongside detailed attack plans through the nearby Fulda Gap.

Point Alpha’s survival as a cold war site wasn’t always a given: it took more than a decade, and a sustained campaign from local residents, for reluctant politicians in the state of Hesse to support its retention.

“It’s the way people are with their own history – first we were fed up with the border and just wanted to see the back of it,” says Henkel. “Then when it was nearly gone the interest began to grow again and it was considered important to retain or reconstruct, particularly for young people.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the Point Alpha museum. One local man, let’s call him Martin, worked in Geisa in an East German army battalion charged with maintaining the frontier.

From repairing the fence to servicing the border vehicles, he spent most of his day working, as he puts it, “Feindwärts” (facing the enemy).

He maintains that everyday life in East Germany was easier than it is today.

Many of those who fled, he suggests, were running away from personal problems and only dreamed up political grounds later.

But he is critical of the regime, too. “Erich Honecker and the other old windbags were incapable of reform but unwilling to cede power to a younger generation that was,” he says.

“The borders should have been opened in the 1970s to at least let people see the West and the state-run businesses should have been allowed greater freedom.”

Unlike other points along the border, where locals turned their backs on the divide, people here say it was hard to ignore the threat in the air.

Their fears were well grounded. After the border fell, US military forces found a Soviet battle plan – last updated in September 1989 – to push through the nearby Fulda Gap and make for Frankfurt, 90km away. With its airport and train station, the city was an important strategic target.

As we cross the almost invisible border, Martin recalls visits to local Soviet military bases in the 1980s that left him in no doubt about who would have won a cold war stand-off here.

“The Russians had more men, more equipment and greater motivation,” he says, nodding gravely. “If they’d wanted to, they would have easily pushed their way through to Frankfurt.”