The Cold War division of Germany’s ‘Puckoon’ has been a blessing and a curse for locals, writes Derek Scally
THE FIRST thing you see arriving in Mödlareuth is the gleaming white wall. It seems an obscene way to end the week after visiting the other invariably discrete border crossings along the former inner-German divide.
But Mödlareuth was always different. For nearly 40 years it achieved notoriety as “Little Berlin”, the village divided by the Cold War. In reality, it was more like a real-life version of Spike Milligan’s “Puckoon” – without the laughs.
Mödlareuth’s historical division goes back to the Napoleonic Wars of 1810 when the tiny Tannbach river became a divide between Thuringia and Bavaria. For 140 years the division made little difference in the locals’ daily life beyond one side saying “Guten Tag” and the other side replying “Grüß Gott!” But Germany’s post-war division left Mödlareuth with a huge problem: half of the village was in Thuringia, now part of the Soviet zone, and the other half was in US-controlled Bavaria.
The border that would become the village’s trademark appeared in June 1952 first as a wooden fence then, a decade later, as three parallel barbed wire fences. Only in 1966 did the three-metre 30 cement slabs arrive that villagers knew from the images of Berlin.
The Mödlareuth Wall was just 700 metres long, but long enough to slice the tiny village in two. Without an ID card with a special stamp, there was no way in or out.
“We had the wall to the front and, to our rear an electric fence,” said local man Arndt Schaffer to local television.
Families were divided, requests to go to the other side refused – even for funerals.
“The relatives had to go to a piece of high land and watch the burial from afar,” he said.
Escape attempts were rare, successful escape attempts even more so. In May 1973, a local man drove his van up to the wall and mounted a metal ladder on the roof, specially constructed to fit into the van’s roof rack ridges.
An investigation later found the border guard on duty, having spotted the escapee, had at least 30 seconds in which he could have shot, but didn’t.
It was a rare show of humanity that ended in disciplinary “reschooling” for the guard and, for the village, another reinforced metal fence in front of the wall.
Of all the stops along the former inner-German border, Mödlareuth has made the most effort to preserve the border divisions. As well as the section of blindingly white wall at the edge of the village, the village has retained the familiar, impenetrable metal fence and barbed wire. Even the original border crossings, watch towers and guard houses are still here.
A weather-worn sign on the Bavarian side, from the 1980s, reads: “This border is no border. We are in the middle of Germany!” Yet even with all these Cold War props, it’s still hard to believe that the black and white cat zipping along the fence and across the Tannbach stream would, 20 years ago, have triggered an alarm, a mine or an international incident.
The sheer prominence of Mödlareuth has been a blessing and a curse, then as now. Its unique propaganda value made the village a popular destination in the Cold War days.
Hundreds of tourists appeared on the Bavarian side and even George Bush snr appeared during his time as vice-president, to utter the less than immortal words “Ich bin ein Mödlareuther”.
Having the eyes of the world on them probably saved the eastern side of the village from being flattened, like so many other East German towns.
Today the village is visited by over 50,000 tourists annually – not including the countless journalists looking for a story – and the locals refuse all contact with outsiders.
“They come out after 7pm, when the visitors have left for the day,” says Ronald Stricker, head of the local museum. “They have all agreed not to talk to journalists any more after some interviews created bad blood among them.”
Decades of division appear to have left interest in the outside world, and life on the other side, as low as interest in the former border itself.
Stricker says the museum gets visitors from all over Germany except from the 50km radius around Mödlareuth.
Two decades on, the village has physically grown together but the two sides still belong to different federal states, with different postcodes, different schools and different holidays.
To test whether things have grown together, I conduct a little non- scientific experiment in Mödlareuth’s only restaurant, ordering (Bavarian) cheese spätzle, a German pasta-like dish, with a (Thuringian) bratwurst.
With raised eyebrows and a doubtful glance, the waitress asks: “Are you sure they go together?” she asks.
They did, beautifully.