The Iron Curtain’s Comeback

How the death-strip turned into a biodiversity Eden, and why its story is emblematic of Europe’s problems today.

For half a century, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, running between the Soviet Block and Western Europe. It claimed hundreds of lives, made the paper every day and instilled fear and dread in everyone. Not a bad career. But with the end of the Cold War, the Curtain “fell” and its infrastructure disappeared piece by piece until it could hardly be recognized at all. Today, the Iron Curtain makes its comeback, this time as a bike trail: the “biggest green success story in Europe since the Cold War,” according to The Independent (UK).

The “Iron Curtain Trail,” a title cutely belittling the ominous history of the strip, was launched as a common project by 23 countries in 2005. The border runs from the Northern tip of Norway down to Turkey, passing by the Baltic Sea, Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. The reclaiming of the geopolitical landscape started back in the late 1970s, when West German biologist Kai Frobel noticed that the no-man’s land between his state and East Germany was home not only to automatic rifles, land mines, and border guards, but also to rare animals, such as the black stork and the fish otter. Years of little to no human contact along the border had preserved a biodiversity that could hardly be found anywhere else. When the wall came down in 1989, Frobel and his organization, das Grüne Band, struggled to convince the newly reunified state to declare the entire former inner border as a natural reserve. With nearly three-quarters of the strip successfully secured in 2005, das Grüne Band turned to examine the fate of the Green Belt in its meandering path abroad.

The Iron Curtain Trail project presents a pan-European natural conservationist headache. It requires international coordination on the level of preservation, as well as historical memory, or the way member states and their populations think about the Iron Curtain and its place in their own national history. “Unfortunately, civic society is not as well organized in the former Soviet bloc, and the institutional weaknesses of nature conservation can be easily exploited,” said Frobel on the challenges the project faces. Ironically, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last head of state before its collapse, is one of the most prominent supporters of the initiative. Over the past seven years, the project has enjoyed moderate success, while also running into hurdles, despite Gorbi’s support, that hark back to larger European issues of mutual distrust.

Interestingly, the Iron Curtain overlaps in a few spots with the current border of the European Union: between Romania and Serbia, and between Bulgaria and Turkey. These areas represent very real and current sore spots for the European Union and its member states. Bulgaria and Romania have been pending approval for their entry into the Schengen zone since their membership in the EU in 2007. Though Bulgaria claims that its border with Turkey is highly secure, its entry in the zone has been repeatedly denied, and their case is up for review in July.

Another example of distrust surrounding border security is the EU inner minister’s decision earlier this month to reinstate temporary border controls within the Schengen zone. This renationalization of borders within the EU has caused severe indignation, and the European Parliament has threatened to bring the inner ministers to the Court of Justice, if need be. With the Euro in crisis and the borders no longer open, the EU is fast running out of the symbols it has long been able to rely on.

In this political atmosphere of mutual distrust, the Iron Curtain Trail is all the more culturally significant. The trail is not only the former physical frontline of the Cold War, but also the tangible instrument of Soviet bloc control over its population, whose freedom of movement was drastically limited. It is important not to forget that this movement is also being limited today, this time from the other side of the border, that is, from behind the EU’s flags. The tag line of the EU-funded project may be “experience the history of European division” – but it’s not all just history. Go enjoy the bike ride, but be ready to exchange currencies, and don’t forget to take your passport with you.

Read more in this column Anna Polonyi: Terrorists and Occupiers

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