I grew up in a divided country. For forty years, one of the most heavily fortified borders of the world ran across the German landscape like an ugly scar.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought about the end of the division – less than one year later, the two German states were reunited.
That was an amazing turn of events, you might say, but who cares at this point? All of this is history now – it’s been almost thirty years.
But history, of course, consists of events and stories that happen in real people’s lives – today’s events and stories will be part of the fabric of history before we know it. By the same token, the stories of "real" people are often considered too mundane to be listened to and written about by journalists and historians.
I’ve been fascinated by the former border for some time now. Each time I have visited portions of it, I have discovered stories that have stayed with me – human stories and stories in the landscape. Some of these stories are heartbreaking, others are stories of hope and Zuversicht – a sense of possibility, or faith in the future. One of the great “good news” stories of our time happened right here – the transformation of the once brutal border strip into a long (close to 900 miles), skinny (100-500 feet) nature preserve: The Green Belt (Grünes Band)!
Photo by Klaus Leidorf
This summer, I plan to trace the former border by bicycle, learning about its natural and cultural history, visiting towns on both sides, and talking to people I encounter. In part, this will be a personal quest to help me reconnect with Germany and to understand how the country and the people have changed since the border ceased to divide people. But I will also be contemplating questions that I believe are relevant for most of us alive today – questions of place and belonging, of borders and identity, of personal history and “big” history:
* What is national identity, and how does it change over time? Since reunification, Germany has become an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic society that has only recently recognized itself as a country of immigration. Many residents of Germany have roots in other countries. The sense of national identity is likely to be quite different among young Germans compared to those who had to define themselves as East German or West German, and different again compared to residents of Germany who have migrated from other countries.
* In this mobile, fast-paced world, many people long for a sense of home or belonging. How do we relate to the places we are from and to the places where we live? If we don't have a strong sense of belonging, are we missing anything? Can one cultivate a sense of belonging?
* What is the meaning of borders? I was born on the Western side of the former border, and so grew up with considerable privileges compared to most East Germans – and continue to be privileged compared to people from many other nations. How are our lives affected by the luck of the draw that drops us on this earth in one place rather than another? And what does this mean for how we live together in a given country and on this planet?
* How do we learn from history, and how does history become meaningful?
If you feel moved to support my expedition and the Green Belt, your donation in any amount will be much appreciated. 10% of your donation will go to the organization that maintains and protects the Green Belt (BUND, the German affiliate of Friends of the Earth). A portion will help cover the cost of accommodations, maps, books, food; and train tickets for me and my bike to get to and from the former border. And, depending on the level of interest and support for this work, a portion will support my writing about it all. What’s in it for you? See the perks listed in the side panel! And many thanks for your interest.
For updates, see my blog .