The Boys Who Loved Birds
February 18, 2015
Our publishing partner on this story is NOVA Next.
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“In this area you should go just behind me,” the stout man says, the th of his this buzzing like a bee. Then, as if to reassure me, he adds, “I’ve been here before, with other colleagues and journalists, and no one died.” I’ve traveled here, to the former Iron Curtain, still studded with the occasional land mine, in pursuit of a love story. It’s an improbable tale about two boys, a friendship, and a passion for birds.
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1989, the man in front of me had hatched a plan to transform the former no-man’s land that separated Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc into an eco-corridor running through the heart of Europe. It was a preposterous idea. The Iron Curtain had been just that—a series of steel-reinforced barriers. Electrified fences, razor wire, land mines, trip lines, and machine guns: If it could stop, maim, or kill you, the Soviets put it there. Not exactly “eco.”
What’s more, the corridor would bisect one of the most heavily settled and fully domesticated continents on earth. Central Europe’s ecosystems have been so thoroughly reduced that locals don’t even bother hanging window screens.
Yet if returning lynx, wolves, and other wildlife are any indicator, it might just work. If it does, the European Green Belt, as proponents call it, will be one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.
To get the story right I would have to follow a stranger into a minefield. Still, something about the man put me at ease. With his dimpled cheeks, olive vest, and soft leather shoes, Kai Frobel looked like a teddy bear on safari. Placing one foot in front of the other, and keeping several paces between us, just in case, I followed him into the former wasteland.
Gunter and Kai
For much of the 20th century, the Iron Curtain was the province of steely-faced soldiers, cunning spies, and desperate refugees. In the spring of 1973, a young boy wandering the Curtain’s edge seemed oblivious to its dangers and geopolitics. Wearing a green parka and Wellington boots, a pair of binoculars strung around his neck, Kai looked the part of a spy. His daily peregrinations, sometimes lasting from early morning to late evening, made his presence along the border all the more intriguing.
The adults on both sides were busy watching each other, but the thirteen-year-old focused his eyes on the no-man’s-land that lay between them. And his ears. A soft whistling sound marked the return of the whinchat, a small buff-breasted songbird that migrated from sub-Saharan Africa each spring. He watched as the males performed courtship displays on the barbed wire fence that marked the beginning of the Todesstreifen, or death zone.
The liminal space between East and West, roughly the length of a football field, was a haven for wildlife. Many of the birds, like the great grey shrike, the boy had never seen before. If the guards on the other side of the border would only take a moment to observe the shrike, he thought, they’d no doubt appreciate how the bird impaled its prey—grasshoppers, beetles, and other bugs—on spikes of the blackthorn bush.
The guards did, however, keep close tabs on the boy, named Kai. Border soldiers from both East and West would later suspect that he worked for the other side. But barely a teen and scarcely taller than the surrounding shrubs, the young birder posed little threat.
As Kai walked along the western edge of the border, no fence prevented him from entering the buffer zone between his native West Germany and the East. Yet like anyone who grew up near the border, Kai knew that taking so much as a step inside the death zone was not only forbidden but also incredibly dangerous.
Tens of thousands of East Germans had fled across this border since the first barbed wire fences starting going up in the 1950s. Many survived. On August 25, 1963, a two-and-a-half year old named Peter Eichhorn accidentally wandered across a minefield not far from where Kai grew up, then fell asleep on the other side.
Hundreds of refugees, including a boy named Rainer Brand, died trying to cross. In 1966, the fifteen-year-old’s lungs were punctured when an East German soldier shot him in the chest. Kai knew that if the East Germans mistook him for a refugee they would shoot to kill.
Yet something about the forbidden nature of the no-man’s-land attracted the boy. Walking along the border one day, his long dark hair brushing his shoulders, Kai suddenly had the odd feeling no one from either side was watching. It was midday, a time when guards from both East and West often took their lunch break. He was passing a particularly wooded section of the no-man’s-land, one where a small boy could easily disappear.
He took a last look at the barren agricultural fields behind him, then quietly slipped into the East.
As he crept deeper into woods, under bushes, around ponds, and over fallen trees, he could scarcely believe his eyes. “It was very different than anything I’d seen before,” Kai says, recalling the event years later. “It was like a small wilderness.”
Six years later, on the opposite side of the border, another thirteen-year-old, a lithe boy with a mop of blond curly hair, approached the no-man’s-land from the East. Gunter Berwing rode to the border on a single-speed bicycle that his father had cobbled together from spare parts. Half a kilometer from the West, he came to the first of a series of heavily fortified fences, the beginning of East Germany’s “protection strip.”
As Gunter approached the fence in the fall of 1979, he saw a man covered from head to toe in cream-colored clothing standing near the edge of a large pond. Next to the man, Gunter could make out a net of thin mesh thread, strung, as if for badminton, between two poles.
The boy watched as the man pulled a brilliant, blue and white songbird from the net and placed a thin metal ring around one of its legs.
The man, Ulrich Oberender, would teach Gunter how to gently extract birds from the net without injuring their delicate wings. He taught him how to identify different species by their plumage. The rings they placed around the birds’ legs would allow others to identify individuals should they be recaptured later.
The more time Gunter spent at the banding station, the more interested he became in rooks, a type of crow that roosted by the thousands in the hills above his home each winter. Each morning the birds would fly across the border to West Germany where they would stay until nightfall. Gunter wondered why they crossed the border and what they did in the West.
But West Germany may as well have been a different planet. The inter-German border, distinct from the Berlin Wall, which formed a ring around West Berlin, stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Czechoslovakian border in the south. Scarcely a road, rail, or phone line linked the two countries. There was no way he would ever find out.
In the spring of 1973, when Kai Frobel emerged from his first foray into East Germany’s no-man’s-land, his heart was racing. Years would pass before he would find the courage to enter the woods again. Yet, save for the occasional forested area, the open meadows of the no-man’s-land were readily viewable from the West.
And his observations weren’t limited to wildlife. One winter day he saw a group of East German children sledding down a hill on the opposite side of the border. “They were kids, the same age as I,” Kai says with a sigh. “There was no possibility to cross the border to say hello.”
Nor was he the only one making observations. In the evenings, he would often walk along the borderline looking for nightjars, long-whiskered birds that came out at night along a particularly sandy section of the border. When Kai encountered West German border patrols, the guards typically paid him little attention. Yet, every time he arrived at the section of the border where the nightjars lived, the West German soldiers immediately appeared, demanding to see his papers.
Years later, Kai would discover that the birds nested near a tunnel that the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, used to smuggle spies into the West. “The West German border police knew this tunnel, and every time I went there I had on a green parka, binoculars, camera, and gum boots—looking like a soldier spy,” he says with a laugh. “They thought I had some connection to East German soldiers.”
Apart from rooks and spies, the only thing that actually crossed the border with any regularity was East German trash.
On May 30, 1970, three years before Kai first crossed the border, a West German farmer near his home had been raking garbage in his field on the banks of the Steinach River. More agricultural canal than river, the Steinach flowed from the east along the southern edge of Sonneberg, Gunter Berwing’s hometown, before crossing into West Germany. There, it turned south, paralleling the border for several kilometers before passing through the village of Hassenberg, Kai Frobel’s home.
The farmer stood a short distance from the border, where sardine tins, beer cans, and plastic containers collected after spring floods. As he raked, a landmine that had drifted downstream with the trash exploded, blowing his face apart. Neighbors brought the man to Kai’s father, the village doctor, who staunched the bleeding as his son looked on.
Soon after, the nightmares began.
“It was at night,” Kai says describing the reoccurring dream that haunted his childhood. “There was a shining of fire, the whole sky was red and yellow. Then the Soviet army troops and tanks crossed the border. They entered through the Steinach Valley, and they came from Sonneberg.”
For Gunter Berwing, living several kilometers away in Sonneberg, the border wasn’t so much a threat as it was an inescapable jail. Where Kai could walk along the inter-German border, and, if no one was looking, even enter East Germany, Gunter couldn’t get close.
East German fortifications began anywhere from 500 meters to several kilometers east of the actual border—with a three-meter tall, steel-reinforced fence covered in electric trip wires. Only farmers with good party credentials were allowed past to work, under the careful watch of East German soldiers.
Despite it’s euphemistic name, Gunter knew the protection strip’s true role. “It wasn’t to prevent West German or U.S. troops, but to prevent East Germans from going over,” he says.
If Gunter, or any other East German, wanted to escape to the West and made it over the initial fence, they would soon come to a road known as the Kolonnenweg or convoy way. Next to the road was a strip of barren earth roughly ten meters wide. East German border guards, one for every thirty-four meters of the border, drove their jeeps along this road, monitoring the exposed soil for footprints. Past the barren earth, a steep, paved ditch prevented any would-be escape vehicles from plowing their way through. Beyond the ditch stood two additional fencerows, separated by a thirty-meter expanse—riddled with land mines.
Those who made it over the fences and past the land mines then had to cross a roughly 100-meter-wide no man’s land, the space Kai had entered when no one was looking, before reaching West Germany.
Growing up in the shadow of such fortifications, Gunter felt trapped. “It wasn’t a threat, but a feeling of confinement,” he says. “The rooks could fly over the borderline, but for people, it was not possible.”
In 1977, when Kai was seventeen, the Bavarian ministry of environment held a science competition for children. Kai entered, compiling bird sightings he’d made along the border over a period of several years.
His study not only won first prize, it also marked the first time anyone had recognized the biologic wealth of the border zone. “This border strip, especially the area up to the first metal mesh fence, represents the most pristine area in the entire study area,” Kai wrote. “It must be regarded as exceptional and therefore needs to be protected.”
Three years later, on the east side of the border, fourteen-year-old Gunter began a study of his own. In 1980, the year the West boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics, Gunter started keeping detailed records of the comings and goings of the rooks. “For five years of observations, I stood beneath these trees where these birds rest,” he says with a laugh, “and only once did one of them defecate on me.” Gunter’s study was unusual and clearly prize-worthy. But in Communist East Germany there would be no prizes. “They were not fixated on who was the best, because all were equal,” Gunter says, without a hint of irony.
To find out where the birds went in the daytime, and why, he would need help. He had an aunt, Nelli Ruppert, an older woman who lived in the West yet visited his family in Sonneberg from time to time. Soon after Gunter started counting birds in 1980, he asked Nelli if she knew anyone in the West who could tell him how the birds spent their days.
With Nelli’s help, a fourteen-year-old East German boy and a twenty-one-year-old West German college student, both mad about birds, began exchanging letters.
Unsure of who else might be reading, they kept their notes brief and formal. Yet, the stationery they chose provided hints of shared interests, whether a crested tit nestled in an evergreen tree stamped on the outside of an envelope, or a postcard from a conservation station on the North Sea.
The boys soon realized that they shared a strong interest in birds and other wildlife that went well beyond rooks. Yet, like the kids Kai had seen playing in the snow, there was no opportunity for the two to ever meet.
A meeting across the border
But a year later, Kai found a way. He applied for a one-day pass. These were typically issued to older people who wanted to visit family, like Gunter’s Aunt Nelli, but as a twenty-two-year-old living near the border, Kai technically fit the requirements. After several months, his application was approved.
Driving to the border crossing early one morning, Kai grew nervous. In his childhood nightmares, Sonneberg was the source of the troop invasion. A borderland museum near his home likened the Iron Curtain to a “concentration camp wall.” On a more mundane level, he worried how he would recognize his East German pen pal.
Pulling into the parking lot opposite the Sonneberg train station in the summer of 1981, the first thing Kai noticed was the smell. “The air was thick with coal dust and the taste was awful,” he says. The low-quality yellow coal in use in the East made everything smell of rotten eggs. Though just miles from his home, the drab buildings, empty, potholed streets, and nose-turning smells were entirely foreign.
“You had the feeling that you weren’t in Germany but another country,” Kai says. “It was Eastern Europe, part of the Warsaw Pact.”
His fears of failing to find Gunter, however, proved unwarranted. When Kai arrived, “We knew immediately he was from the West,” Gunter says. Next to the antiquated, pale gray East German Trabants in the lot that day, Kai’s yellow Fiat blended in about as well as a flying saucer. His bright T-shirt, jeans, and blue tennis shoes, were all sure signs of a “Wessi.”
Gunter took Kai to his house, a tidy two-story with a vegetable garden out front. His mother had been born in Hassenberg, just down the street from where Kai grew up. For lunch she made the boys dumplings, a meal that decades later still brings a smile to Kai’s face.
That afternoon Gunter introduced Kai to some of his friends, other young birders interested in conservation, and they all went to a forested area in the hills north of town. Kai felt an immediate bond with Gunter. He was only fifteen but taller than Kai, and possessed a certain maturity Kai hadn’t known in kids his age in the West.
As Kai spent the afternoon—first with Gunter and his family and then tromping through the woods with the teens—his preconceptions about East Germans began to change. The boys and girls he met spoke the same language as he did but something about how they spoke was different. “They had a very friendly, very human way to talk with each other,” he says. “It was not as hard as in West Germany.”
As darkness fell, Kai was anxious to return to the West. His visa would expire at midnight. It was only a short drive to the border but he didn’t want to take any chances. Gunter, used to the constant restrictions of life in East Germany, wasn’t concerned. They had plenty of time, he told Kai. Besides, there was a disco on the edge of town where kids met on the weekends to dance and drink beer. Would he like to join him there?
Later that evening, when they said their goodbyes in the parking lot of the disco, Kai was unsure when they would be able to meet again.
“Es geht seinen Gang,” Gunter told him, it takes its course.
It was a phrase Kai had never heard before and one that seemed incredibly optimistic: Don’t worry, everything will work out.
The two met nearly a dozen times over the next few years, whenever Kai could secure a day pass. For each visit he brought pralines for Gunter’s parents and books on birding and nature conservation for Gunter. Gunter reciprocated, sharing the latest studies on birds from the New Brehm Library, an East German publisher whose works were highly sought after but difficult to get in the West. As their friendship grew, so did their common interests. “As time went on we discussed more private things—friends, girlfriends, whatever,” Kai says.
And as the boys’ friendship developed, the Stasi kept an increasingly close watch on both of them.
Gunter in particular was highly suspect, and not only for his ties to Kai. He headed an environmental youth group in Sonneberg. Most of the group’s activities—birding and small-scale conservation projects—raised few eyebrows. In 1983, however, Gunter and a few other members of his group attended a conference organized by a church group that focused on environmental problems.
At the time, East Germany was an environmental catastrophe. Roughly the size of Virginia, the tiny country mined more coal than any other on earth, including the entire Soviet Union. Wastewater from mines, chemical plants, and factories flowed into the earth, poisoning the water. Acid rain from burning low-grade coal in antiquated power plants destroyed the country’s forests, killed lakes, and lowered agricultural production. Birding was tolerated, but discussing such serious environmental problems was verboten.
After the 1983 conference, the Stasi kept a closer watch on Gunter and his West German friend, compiling thick dossiers that chronicled every meeting and letter the pair exchanged. According to their files, which both men obtained after reunification, Gunter led a “negative and decadent group of young people.”
Kai was seen as an even greater danger. The Stasi concluded, incorrectly, that he held a high-ranking position in West Germany’s rapidly emerging Green Party. They gave him a code name, “The Alternative,” and noted that he was “abusing environmental issues to inspire alternative political activities intended to undermine the Warsaw Pact.”
The strong wording and code name seems comical today. At the time, however, the growing environmental movement, itself a reaction to unprecedented pollution caused by state-run enterprises, posed a serious threat to the East German regime.
East German officials preferred to counter the movement by subtly undermining its leaders rather than arresting individuals or disrupting public protests. An internal Stasi report on how they dealt with one of the leaders of East German’s environmental movement, Wolfgang Rüddenklau, offers insights on how they approached Gunter.
…If we lock him up, we’ll have everyone against us again… If we strengthen the nasty side of his character and subject him to more and more stress…then he will gain more enemies. Rüddenklau must be made unbearable for his own friends. This sophisticated [approach] shall be arranged through the intervention of [informal collaborators] assigned one concrete task at a time.
The Stasi allowed Kai and Gunter to continue meeting but recruited other teens to infiltrate Gunter’s environmental group. Gunter considered one of them in particular, a pretty girl roughly the same age as him, to be a good friend. Decades later, he still avoids all questions on the topic. “It happened thirty years ago,” he says. “This time is closed.”
Kai’s visit to Sonneberg in the fall of 1984 would be the last such trip for several years. Gunter would soon turn eighteen, and come spring he would begin his obligatory military service. It was a beautiful autumn day and the two spent it in the field a few kilometers from the border, looking for birds, dragonflies, and other wildlife. Near sunset they stood, with a couple of others, on a hilltop meadow a short distance from Gunter’s home. The afternoon was particularly clear, offering views of the castle of Coburg, in West Germany, some twenty-five kilometers away.
As they watched the setting sun, they discussed when it might be possible for Gunter and his friends to visit Kai in the West. East Germans age sixty-five or older could get special visas for as much as a three-day stay. The boys calculated how long it would be before Gunter reached that age.
“It was 1984 and he was eighteen,” Kai says, decades later, running the numbers again in his head. “So: forty-seven years. He would have to wait until 2031. It was a very sad moment. Everyone knew forty-seven years was an eternity. It was a mix of laughter and hopelessness.”
The quest to build the Green Belt
Gunter sent one of his last letters to Kai in April 1985, two days before his military service began. He updated his friend on his environmental group’s conservation projects. He also mentioned infighting, perhaps orchestrated by the Stasi, that threatened to dissolve the group entirely.
…Unfortunately, however, some disputes occurred during the pond construction and I fear that we will have to rebuild our youth group. It is unfortunate that I have to go away at this time. You will definitely hear from me again.
With best regards,
After his military service, Gunter applied to study forestry at a technical college but his application was denied. He would later learn this was due to his environmental activity and his close ties to Kai. Unable to go to school, Gunter found employment as an assistant forester, working near the border under the watchful eye of the border soldiers. One day in the spring of 1988, however, the troops assigned to Gunter and a colleague lost their way, leaving the pair unguarded.
It was a remote stretch of the border that was free of landmines. “We had thirty minutes alone, thirty meters from the fence,” Gunter says. “It would have been no problem to cross.”
Yet as much as Gunter wanted to see the West, he had no interest in defecting. As difficult as things were, Sonneberg was his home. Besides, by that point he had already met Anne. “Meine Frau war meine Freundin,” he says—My wife was my girlfriend.
While Gunter struggled under increasing political repression, Kai focused his efforts on surveys of the no-man’s-land from the West. What he found confirmed the key role this buffer zone played for conservation. For many of the region’s rarest birds— like the whinchat and the nightjar—more than 90 percent of breeding pairs were found in the “death zone” between the two countries.
At the same time, Kai began reading the work of Aldo Leopold, the early American conservationist. Leopold had toured Germany in the 1930s and was horrified by what he saw. “One of the most insistent impressions received from travel in Germany is the lack of wildness in the German landscape,” Leopold wrote. He described rivers confined in “straitjackets of masonry” and “bear-less, wolf-less, eagle-less, cat-less woods.” The country’s forests were so uniform, Leopold wrote, “it is almost as if the geological clock had been set back to those dim ages when there were only pines and ferns.”
Leopold’s descriptions of a lifeless German landscape resonated with Kai. His forays into the no-man’s-land and the incredible diversity of life he found there, suggested an alternative path forward.
Kai published his bird surveys as part of his master’s thesis in September 1985, at the age of twenty-six. One month after finishing his studies at Bayreuth University, in Bavaria, he was offered a job as a regional director for BUND Naturschutz, one of the country’s leading environmental groups, at their headquarters in Nuremberg. It was a plum position, one rarely offered to someone so young. The position gave Kai a unique opportunity to purchase land close to the border to try to extend the accidental wilderness of the Iron Curtain.
With his career in West Germany taking off and a growing realization that any contact with Gunter could cause further political problems for his friend in the East, the two young men slowly began to drift apart.
But then the wall between them came crashing down.
On November 9, 1989, Kai sat watching the evening news, alone in a small flat in the south of Nuremberg. Tears streamed down his face as he watched crowds of East and West Berliners dancing together on top of the Brandenburg Gate.
“I never thought this day would come,” Kai says. “We all thought this border was built for eternity.” The Berlin Wall was breached on a Thursday evening. By the weekend, the entire inter-German border had opened.
Gunter, meanwhile, was soon among thousands of East Germans making their first visits to the West. He traveled to Hassenberg where he visited Aunt Nelli and Kai’s parents. But there were few phones in East Germany at the time, and he had no way to phone ahead, so he missed Kai.
When Kai arrived at work on Monday morning, Hubert Weiger, his boss at BUND Naturschutz, called him into his office. A forester’s son, Hubert had a deep appreciation for Germany’s remaining unspoiled areas. Politically astute, he had developed working relationships over the years with officially sanctioned environmental organizations and politicians in East Germany, all the way up to Erich Honecker, the country’s recently deposed leader.
When Kai entered his boss’s office, a room overflowing with maps and papers, Hubert told him to sit down. The Iron Curtain had fallen. If they didn’t act fast, its precious no-man’s-land would soon disappear.
Within a week, the pair mailed invitations to twenty-seven East Germans—every environmentalist in the country for whom they had contact information. “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,” the letter began. “The opening of the border finally allows the overdue exchange of information and experiences between conservationists on both sides of the border….There is an urgent need for us to work together.” The letter went on to invite recipients to attend an initial meeting at the Ice Pond, a tavern in the West German border town of Hof.
So on the morning of December 9, 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gunter Berwing, twenty-three, borrowed his parents’ Wartburg, a car with a two-stroke engine that belched blue smoke, and drove to Hof. He hoped to arrive early to catch up with Kai Frobel, now thirty, before the meeting began. His parents’ car, however, lacked winter tires and a light snowfall left him slipping and sliding into Hof just in time for the day’s events.
For Kai and Hubert, road conditions were less of an issue than the traffic. East Germans had flooded into Hof and other border towns in recent weeks to receive their “welcome money” from the West German government and to shop in Western department stores.
“We couldn’t use the normal roads,” Kai says. “We had to use a very small farm road between agricultural lands.”
With the general chaos that followed the opening of the border, they weren’t sure how many of their East German colleagues would attend the meeting. When they arrived at the Ice Pond, its parking lot was filled with East German automobiles. “We were very upset to see all these cars,” Kai says. “We thought they stopped there to park and then go shopping in the inner city. Then, we realized they were our guests.”
Those who attended the meeting, roughly 400 in all, overwhelmed the Ice Pond’s dining hall. With guests spilling out the door and down a narrow hallway, Kai pleaded for the protection of something he called the Grünes Band, or Green Belt, along the former Iron Curtain.
“The border strip between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic must be secured primarily as a green belt and an ecological backbone of Central Europe, and it must be done immediately!” Hands flew into the air in a unanimous show of support. The Green Belt was born.
The Gorbachev factor
With little opportunity to catch up in Hof, Kai invited Gunter to Nuremberg over the Christmas holiday. He treated his friend to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, a first for the East German. The pair then spent New Year’s Eve at a recently opened border crossing between Sonneberg and Hassenberg. Their girlfriends, Anne and Ines, joined them, mixing with several hundred others from the two Germanies.
Gunter and Anne would marry a year and a half later, in September 1991. Kai and Ines’s relationship ended tragically, however. In May of 1990, both Ines and the couple’s unborn child died from unexpected complications related to the pregnancy. “We planned to marry that summer,” Kai says. “Then, from one evening to the next, all was gone.”
After Ines’s death, Kai poured himself into his work, spearheading a national effort to secure permanent protection for the Green Belt. At the time, Germany was racing towards reunification, and the two countries officially became one in October 1990. But the Green Belt was experiencing unprecedented difficulties.
For forty years, the guns of opposing superpowers had the given no-man’s-land its mandate. A unique ecosystem had flourished because anyone caught inside it would be shot. But when the Iron Curtain fell, Germans on both sides of the border wanted to eliminate all traces of the hideous symbol of division as quickly as possible. In the weeks and months following the border’s opening, fences were torn down, land mines cleared, and guard towers demolished.
Gunter joined in, supporting Kai’s work on a local level. He took a job with the regional government—a position he never could have held under the East German regime—to oversee conservation efforts around Sonneberg. He also began volunteering with a newly formed branch of BUND, helping the organization acquire land for the Green Belt near his hometown.
Yet farmers continued to plough over parts of the no-man’s-land to extend their fields. New roads connecting East and West turned other sections of the Green Belt black. In 1996, the passage of a “borderland law” allowed former landowners to officially buy back their land along the Green Belt at one quarter of its market value.
Still, despite the land sales, by 2002, more than a decade after the Wall fell, 85 percent of the Green Belt remained intact.
On June 9, 2002, Kai boarded a train in Nuremberg with Hubert, who was by then the chairman of BUND Naturschutz. The two were on their way to Duderstadt, a town several hundred kilometers to the north, for the opening of an art exhibition along the Green Belt.
As they rode in the train that morning, Hubert went over a speech Kai had prepared for him to give at the opening. Both men had attended countless Green Belt ceremonies over the past decade but Duderstadt was unusual. Mikhail Gorbachev would be there, along with a number of key officials from the German government.
Gorbachev is largely viewed with contempt in Russia today for dissolving the Soviet Empire. In Germany, however, “he is a hero, because he sent no troops or tanks when the East German revolution started,” Kai says. “And we all think this was mainly his decision.”
Gorbachev had been to the Berlin Wall after reunification, but this was his first visit to the former inter-German border. As Hubert reviewed the speech, the Thuringian countryside streaming past their cabin window, he suddenly announced a last minute change.
He would propose a “European Green Belt”—running along the entire former Iron Curtain from the Barents Sea north of the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea in the south. Kai was livid. Hubert’s proposal seemed impossible. Kai and a colleague at BUND Naturschutz were the only two people working on the Green Belt on a national level. They were already in over their heads, trying to secure protection for the corridor within Germany alone. Now his boss wanted them to expand their efforts to all of Europe.
When Hubert gave his speech several hours later, he floated the idea of a European Green Belt. Then he went one step further. He asked Gorbachev, through a translator, if he would be its patron.
The former supreme leader of the Soviet Union, one of the most astute political operators of the 20th century, had just been outmaneuvered. A ragtag group of German conservationists with an unusual plan for his former empire’s western frontier had manipulated him, with enough grace to make the Politburo blush. If Gorbachev said no, he would look like a jerk. He paused briefly before doing the only thing he could do, replying in the affirmative with a simple “da.”
A string of pearls
These days, a thin corridor of facial hair runs along the edge of Kai’s cheeks, connecting his bushy mustache and goatee to a mass of disheveled hair on top of his head. Tufts of dark brown mixed with a trace of grey grow wild over his ears. He brings an iPhone to his ear to make a call, yet checks the time with a wind-up pocket watch. Like the Green Belt, he lives in the present yet is rooted in the past.
We’re on a tour of the Green Belt, and Kai heads first to Hassenberg and parks his car in front of his childhood home. We walk up a staircase and enter his former bedroom, redecorated with fuchsia wallpaper and a jewelry box sitting on top of a white bureau. It looks small to him. “I remember it being so much bigger,” Kai says.
Out the bedroom window, a patchwork of farmers’ fields extends out from the Steinach River. Kai points to the white house where Gunter’s Aunt Nelli, who died a decade after reunification, used to live. Beyond the house stands a row of trees, the former borderline, nearly a kilometer in the distance. There, Kai says, “You could see green or red flares from East German border troops looking for refugees.” On quiet nights he could hear the barking of German shepherds as they patrolled the border.
A few kilometers north along the border, two dirt roads intersect in a field of wheat. Liebau, a 700-year-old farming village was once there. Now only a stone monument remains. Liebau once stood at the center of a narrow peninsula of East Germany, surrounded by the West on three sides. Starting in the 1950s, residents of the village began crossing the border into West Germany. Unable to stop the flow, the East German government relocated the remaining villagers further east, away from the border. And when Kai was sixteen, they tore Liebau down. He watched from the West as heavy machinery slowly leveled the village. “There was no possibility to say ‘stop,’” he says. “All we could do was shake our heads.”
Kai married Heide, a fellow conservationist from the former East Germany, in 2001. He often brings Lea, their thirteen year-old daughter—and a promising birder in her own right—to what’s left of Liebau, where he struggles to describe the past.
“It’s hard to explain to a young child what it was like,” he says. “Today there are no fences, no border, only a green strip.”
Only a green strip. That, at least, is the goal of the European Green Belt. And along much of its route, the goal has been achieved.
Gorbachev’s involvement, though largely symbolic, gave the project a tremendous boost. In 2003, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, joined the group’s organizing body and has helped guide the initiative ever since.
Today, the European Green Belt stretches 12,500 kilometers from north to south. Bears, lynx, and wolves find refuge in its forests, meadows, and marshlands. The eco corridor connects forty national parks across twenty-four countries like a “string of pearls,” a “backbone with ribs,” a “ribbon of life,” and, no doubt, dozens of other metaphors that proponents have used to describe it in other languages.
To see what Kai and the others had achieved, I visit Harz, a recently formed national park along the former Iron Curtain halfway between Bonn and Berlin. Ole Anders, a biologist, leads me down a snow-covered mountain slope to a bloody pile of fur and bones, a powerful indicator that the forests of central Europe are reawakening. After a nearly 200-year absence, lynx, including the one that killed the young elk before us, were recently reintroduced here.
The few dozen wild cats in these woods thrive for the moment, but in coming years they will have to find and mate with others elsewhere in Europe to avoid inbreeding. This is where the Green Belt, this thin string of overgrowth that connects the larger pearls like Harz, is so critical.
Several of the Harz lynx recently settled in a small, forested area 110 kilometers south of the park. One of the first to relocate was wearing a satellite transmitter that recorded his every move. “It was astonishing to see how close to the Green Belt this animal was moving,” Anders says. “He followed the stepping stones available to him, and that was definitely the Green Belt, where there is a lot of forest left over.”
Some sections of the Green Belt, however, are more equal than others. Two thousand kilometers south along the Belt in Albania, wolves, bears, and lynx remain, but their days are likely numbered. During the Cold War, a no-man’s-land 100 times wider than the one between East and West Germany created a vast haven for wilderness that encircled the country. But when Albania’s borders’ finally opened, in 1992, people began clearing the forests and trapping the animals. Tragically, the best places to see wolves and bears now are in cramped cages outside the café’s and restaurants of Tirana, the nation’s capital.
While the Green Belt struggles to gain traction in Albania, it is perhaps best off far to the north, where few people live and fewer still know of its existence. North of the Arctic Circle, along the Norway-Russia border, biologists and park officials I spoke to have only a fuzzy understanding of the Green Belt. Russia maintains a kilometers-wide no-man’s-land so strictly enforced that no one I spoke to on the Norwegian side had ever stepped foot inside. The possibility of there someday being an open border seemed so remote to them that protecting the Green Belt wasn’t even a concern.
Traveling on, Kai and I stopped at the edge of a wood where he used to look for nightjars. The Stasi’s secret tunnel is nowhere to be seen, replaced long ago by a narrow country lane. Next to the road, a deer crossing sign marks the space that once divided East and West.
Kai has spent much of the past quarter century trying to claw back sections of the Green Belt that were lost to agriculture and development in the months and years immediately following the Iron Curtain’s collapse. Knowing how hard it has been to recover land lost to development in Germany, he can’t help but worry about threatened sections of the Green Belt in other parts of Europe.
The once carefree boy who strolled along the border zone is now the “father of the Green Belt.” He is flattered by the recognition, but the responsibility clearly weighs on him. He spends most of his days overseeing Green Belt initiatives, attending conferences, and calling on government officials for support. “I often have to think politically about what we have to do, and who our enemies are,” Kai says.
One of the Green Belt’s biggest enemies is large-scale agriculture. Little by little, however, conservation efforts are succeeding. A recent study showed that 87 percent of the German Green Belt has been conserved, up from 85 percent in 2001. One of BUND’s main focuses now—in partnership with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and others—is filling in the remaining gaps.
Still, the slow pace often discourages Kai. “Since 1989, 14,000 kilometers of new roads between East and West, and within the former East Germany, have been built,” he says, “and within these twenty-five years it hasn’t been possible to fully conserve 1,400 kilometers of the German Green Belt.”
When the responsibilities of overseeing such a vast project get to be too much, Kai likes to return here, to the Steinach Valley, to reconnect with Gunter and visit the borderlands they explored as teenagers.
Soon we arrive at Gunter’s childhood home, where he lives with Anne and their two children. Gunter’s mother, Erika, still lives upstairs. She shakes my hand for what seems like an eternity. The warmth she extended to Kai so many years ago now radiates through me.
But her son Gunter is nowhere to be seen. I had spoken to him only once, more than a year before, on the other end of a phone line from across the Atlantic. There were language barriers to be sure. Still, I didn’t need an interpreter to understand that Gunter had little interest in talking about the past.
We continued on to our final stop—a field of waist-high grass near the Föritz, a narrow, tree-lined stream halfway between the two men’s childhood homes.
It is largely through his friend’s quiet efforts, Kai tells me, that the region boasts one of the most intact, well-protected, and widely supported sections of the Green Belt along its entire path.
As we walk deeper into the meadow, signposts warn of landmines that may still linger from decades past. Here, where the shifting banks of the Föritz could still unearth live mines, Kai pays at least some heed. Yet if anyone should feel safe walking along these banks, it is Kai.
He first started coming here as a child in the years after his first border crossing. The stream was part of a narrow finger of East Germany that protruded into the West. Neither fully East nor West, this section of the river was never channeled into a cement-lined canal as it had been both upstream and down. East German border guards rarely ventured into this area. If they had, they likely would have seen a young Kai Frobel walking barefoot in the streambed digging for freshwater mussels with his toes.
In 2000, the state of Thuringia, acting in part on Gunter’s suggestion, purchased an additional 2.5-kilometer section of the channeled riverway on the East German side of the former border. Using a map of the region from the early 1900s, they dredged the streambed so it would flow as it had before its meanders were straightened. “You’d never know it was a new river,” Kai says. “It looks like it had always been this way.” He stops to smoke a cigarette as a dragonfly makes its way along the stream’s sandy banks.
The contrasting conditions of the resurgent Föritz and the depleted forests of Albania are a microcosm of the planet. We are living in the Anthropocene, a time when human activity, more than anything else, shapes the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Our hunting, fishing, deforestation, overgrazing, and pollution have created a period of mass extinction the likes of which haven’t occurred since the dinosaurs. E. O. Wilson, the preeminent biologist and conservationist, predicts we could lose half of all species on the earth by the end of this century.
But might we also be in a period of “re-wilding,” a time of ecological restoration and the return of species that had previously been exterminated?
In New England, where I live, the countryside was so denuded in the early twentieth century that scarcely a tree remained. Reforestation over the past eighty years has been so extensive that British author Nigel Williams was only half joking when he wrote of the region’s “tree epidemic.”
Similarly, forest cover in Europe has increased by more than 70 percent since 1960, as generations of young people moved to cities. Despite subsidies that encourage European farmers to stay put, they will vacate 30 million hectares of marginal farmland, an area the size of Poland, by 2030.
As forests and open meadows return, so too have the creatures that once inhabited them. European bison, nearly one-ton beasts that bear a striking resemblance to their North American cousins, were extinct in the wild a century ago. The only remaining individuals lived in captivity. Now, through breeding programs and reintroductions, they number several thousand in the wild.
Wolves, which were extirpated from Germany more than a century ago, hunt on the outskirts of Berlin. Golden jackals, whose cousins run with the wildebeest on the Serengeti, have been spotted in Austria and Italy, places they may not have been since the Iron Age. Beavers, once nearly wiped off the continent, number some 700,000. Moose, ibex, feral horses, griffon vultures, and white storks—the list goes on. And this may only be the beginning.
Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, Kai and Gunter, with their early conservation efforts on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, were pioneers in a movement that is spreading, like so many furry creatures, across Europe.
Proponents of new parks and re-wilding schemes met in October, 2013 in the medieval city of Salamanca, Spain for something called the World Wilderness Congress. At the meeting, conservationists and government officials recited the usual tropes for conservation. They spoke of a need for biodiversity, stopping the illegal wildlife trade, stimulating local economies, and providing “ecosystem services,” a fancy way of saying clean air and clean drinking water.
Then they went further, into squishy realms where secular biologists and officials don’t often go. In their “Statement from Salamanca” they wrote that wildlife is essential to culture, identity, and spiritual wellbeing. They called for a new development paradigm that takes into account the “beauty, mystery, and magic of wild nature.”
Having had a taste of wildlife’s return, Europeans want more, if for no other reason than it makes them feel good. As if to underscore the point, a flash mob broke out one evening during the conference in the city’s centuries-old Baroque plaza. Entering the square from the narrow alleyways that surround it, participants raised their heads to the sky and let out a collective howl.
Before the conference’s closing, George Monbiot, the British author and environmental pot stirrer of note, took the concept of re-wilding one step further. He reminded conference attendees that Europe’s trees and shrubs, like the blackthorn that Kai observed in the no-man’s-land as a child, evolved to withstand “great beasts” such as elephants, rhinos, and hippos. All of these creatures, lived, along with lions, in Europe some 30,000 years ago. We often associate such animals exclusively with the tropics where they still live today. Monbiot, however, was quick to point out that they once ranged much further, across Europe’s temperate zone.
Perhaps more importantly, Europe’s former megafauna, or closely related species, can still be found elsewhere on the earth. Compared to ongoing “de-extinction” efforts to bring back the wooly mammoth, re-introducing elephants, hippos, and rhinos to Europe would be relatively easy. Monbiot argued that Europe not only could but should bring back these animals, forging a Serengeti on the continent.
Why, you might ask, should Europe create such a wilderness? His explanation seemed strikingly similar to the sentiments of a couple of young German boys who, decades ago, set out to protect a narrow strip of green. “Because,” Monbiot told the audience, “it is bloody wonderful.”
On a cold January evening, Kai and Gunter enter a tavern on the edge of a quiet, tree-lined park in Sonneberg’s town center. A crowd of men and women, patiently sipping their Pils, gathered in the dining hall.
Gunter, tall and trim with deep-set eyes, his curly blond hair no longer as thick as it once was, escorts Kai into the hall. Walking up to the nearest table, Gunter raps his knuckles on the tabletop before greeting all who sit around it. Approaching each table in turn, he repeats the performance, giving two solid raps before saying his hellos. When I later ask him what all the knocking was about, he seems surprised. “It’s how we say hello to each other,” he says. “If you come into a restaurant and see people you know, you knock on their table.” Gunter, it seems, knows everyone in attendance.
I’d spent the afternoon with Gunter at his house, poring over his old Stasi files, as Kai served as our interpreter. Our initial plan was to talk briefly before the two men took me birding along the Green Belt. Yet, after nearly two years of what seemed to be willful avoidance, Gunter’s wall had fallen.
As the winter sun sank low over the former inter-German border a short distance to the west, Gunter pulled out binder after binder that meticulously documented his oft-tormented childhood. One set of papers included a report branding him “negative and decadent,” thereby ruining his chances at higher education. Another, lovingly preserved, held his middle school study: Roost Observations of Rooks in Sonneberg. A third included copies of letters the boys had exchanged. The Stasi’s record keeping was so meticulous it not only included photocopies of the envelopes the boys used, but a ruler next to each envelope to show its exact dimensions.
As Gunter flips through the pages, he and Kai laugh at the ridiculous nature of it all. Gunter’s wife, Anne, serves coffee and a peach tart. Their son, Julian, who commutes by train each day to work in what was once West Germany, stops by to say hi as he makes himself a sandwich.
But behind his outwardly jovial nature, Gunter still seems haunted by his past. Behind his chair in a small glass cage near the window, a plump hamster named Natasha burrows into a pile of wood chips. “She is a special breed, from Russia,” he says.
And as we make our way to the tavern that evening, Kai seems nervous. He came to Sonneberg, the source of his childhood nightmares, at his friend’s request. He was to give a talk about the European Greenbelt. What if no one came? What if the opposition, farmers who oppose his work, showed up?
Yet by the time Kai’s talk begins, there is standing room only. The crowd, a diverse mix of farmers, foresters, hunters, and conservationists came to hear Kai, though without Gunter, they likely wouldn’t have known of the talk, and, probably wouldn’t have cared.
Like any good marriage, the two men fill complementary roles. As Kai courts government officials and travels to international conferences to build support for the European Green Belt, Gunter has remained in Sonneberg, transforming their vision into reality.
As the crowd dwindles, Gunter bids goodnight to Anne and accompanies Kai and me back to our hotel for a nightcap. The bar is filled with old stuffed toys that harken back to the pre-war years, when Sonneberg was the toymaking capital of the world. Garish streamers hang in preparation for Fasching, the pre-Lenten carnival in parts of Germany.
Following my hosts’ lead, I order, in my best, broken German, a large beer. The innkeeper returns with pints for my companions before setting a giant glass stein filled with nearly a gallon of beer for me. As the aquarium-sized drinking vessel touches down on the table in front of me I’m suddenly struck by the absurdity of the situation.
For months I’d needlessly sweated whether or not I’d ever get to speak with Gunter. Gunter in turn likely avoided me so as not to have to think about his past. Yet that past, despite its hardships, was bringing back fond memories of a lifelong friendship and a shared love for birds. Kai for his part had spent the day worried, like he does about so many aspects of the Green Belt, about his talk, which turned out to be a tremendous success.
Now the three of us are sitting down at the end of a long day in a quiet inn with enough beer to keep us drinking, and talking, till morning. Looking up from my giant glass, I turn to Kai and Gunter, who have been doing their best to hold back a smile. And the three of us burst into laughter.
My thoughts drift to what Gunter told Kai the first time they met so many years ago. Es geht seinen Gang.
It takes its course.