Wikipedia remembers the Wall
The making of a featured article: interview with ChrisO
route followed the former inner German border (left side) from the Baltic Sea south to the border with Czechoslovakia.
Next Monday, 9 November, will mark 20 years to the day since the dramatic opening of the Berlin Wall was broadcast to stunned audiences around the globe – footage of East Germans pouring into West Berlin like the bursting of a dam; young people standing on the wall and attacking it with any tool they could lay their hands on. These iconic moments changed the world and appeared to give a sense of closure to a brutal and chaotic century. However, they overshadowed the almost simultaneous fall of a barrier that was more than ten times its length and considerably more elaborate: the inner German border. This vast, fortified border system nearly 1,400 kilometres (900 mi) long marked the physical boundary between two geopolitical systems that were locked in a Cold War for nearly half a century.
The extraordinary events of November 1989 are commemorated with a featured article about the inner German border. The Signpost interviewed the main author of the article, London editor ChrisO, who travelled nearly the full length of the former border from north to south on bicycle during August and September 2009. Chris's trip enabled him to visit the many local museums and archives dedicated to its memory, and to take a large number of photographs of the border. Critically, it gave him background information and experience to write a neutral account of a subject that is usually described in emotive, ideological terms. During and after the trip, he combined what he learned with his knowledge of modern world history to rewrite and greatly expand the article; this has provided a comprehensive overview of the history, structure, operation and eventual fall of the Iron Curtain in Germany.
How was Chris's interest in the border sparked? He says, "for anyone over the age of about 35, the world had been dominated by the confrontation between east and west, an apparently permanent threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads. The border was the front line in the Cold War, with an eerie resemblance to the prison camps of World War II – the watch towers, the search lights, the dogs, the barbed wire, the double fences. I wanted to give young people a balanced account of what it was really like, and to fill in details that older people may not be aware of."
Ironically, while the border left a deep physical scar across some of the most beautiful landscape in Germany, it was protected from the industrial and urban development that compromised much of Europe's natural environment in the post-war period. Germans from east and west have seized the opportunity to make much of the border an international wildlife sanctuary, which has become a popular tourist attraction, especially for cyclists. "Much of the route is through gently undulating terrain, ideal for cycling, and I was lucky to have only one rainy day in my two and a half weeks; it was more a problem of guarding against sunburn." Excellent guide books are available, with maps showing the locations of the border museums, remnants of fortifications, and the remaining watchtowers. Some museums are set up like research centres, with professional archivists and curators. Others focus on exhibiting artefacts saved before the border was dismantled. Among them is the Border learning pathway in Zicherie-Böckwitz, owned and run by a farmer from the Western border community. The kilometre-long path displays an original command watchtower and faithfully reconstructed stretches of the two border fences and the Berlin-style wall that divided the village of Zicherie from its neighbour Böckwitz. Between wall and fences is a replica of what became known as "the death strip".
An annotated illustration of Heinz-Josef Grosse's attempted escape route; the scene is now part of the Schifflersgrund Border Museum in Thuringia.
The killings started in 1945. Between then and 1989, more than a thousand people died trying to cross to the West – shot by East German border guards, or killed by mines or through drowning in rivers or the sea. In Schifflersgrund, Thuringia, Chris photographed a section of the border in lush countryside that belies the bitter memory of a young East German man, Heinz-Joseph Grosse. A maintenance worker entrusted with the operation of an excavator right at the border line, on 29 March 1982 Grosse noticed the absence of the border guards and drove his machine across the death strip and over the anti-vehicle ditch to the outer fence. By resting the excavator's bucket on the fence he was able to climb over. Ahead of him lay a steep incline of 50 metres (164 ft) up to the legal border, the near side of a West German road. However, just halfway up the incline, Grosse was shot dead by two guards at a range of 60 metres (197 ft). In 1996, the former guards were brought to trial for this incident, and in a controversial judgement were given only suspended sentences of 15 months. Chris says, "Part of the moral challenge for re-unified Germany lies in how to allocate blame: is it the managerial 'desk killers' who issued the orders or the front-line soldiers following those orders who should be punished? Many in eastern Germany see the border guards simply as conscripts who were doing their duty." Perhaps the eastern view is a pragmatic approach to the need to move on and forget, since a large proportion of the population found ways of surviving by cooperating with the regime, at least outwardly: are they all to feel guilt? Western Germans, who were always permitted to see and discuss the border, are less generous towards those who did the shooting. "This is another of the border's ironies, considering that easterners were the targets of the bullets."
Next week, the German people will commemorate in their own ways the fall of the inner German border and the re-unification of their country. But what are English-speakers to make of it all? Chris's view is that "there's no one way of seeing the border – there are so many angles, depending on who you are and what perspective you're taking at a particular time". The ultimate fault-line between state and mixed economies, freedom and fascism, American and Soviet rivalry? Germany's punishment for the war? A moral dilemma for would-be escapers and border guards? We will continue to debate these issues for decades, but one thing most people agree on is that without the fortified border, the East German experiment would not have been possible.
Chris returned from Germany with the aim of producing a first-class article in time for the anniversary – a tight schedule. An earlier version of the article went through the peer review process at the Military history WikiProject, which is fast becoming one of the Internet's most dynamic centres for producing material in its field. After receiving valuable advice there, he nominated the piece for Wikipedia's tough featured article candidate process. "I was prepared for a lot of work, and it's just as well. The reviewers were generous in their praise, but brought up problems with images, citations, and lots of little stylistic matters. Then we realised it was far too large for an article in summary style and would have to be reduced by more than half, with excess content split off into daughter articles. Unusually, quite a few reviewers pitched in to bring the article to promotion standard, for which I'm very grateful. I'm happy with the result, and now we have a number of daughter articles that could come together into a featured topic next year."
Inner German border will appear on Wikipedia's Main page on Monday 9 November.