On a grey and misting November day, I first looked across what generations of German and American soldiers knew as “No Man’s Land,” and it moved me in a way reading a history book never could.
All these years after the Cold War, I could still see the barbed, jagged scar of a country torn apart. I could taste the bitterness of shattered dreams. I could hear the anguished cries of those who perished in a desperate bid for freedom; I felt the burden of fear and threats that have cursed all civilizations.
“History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard. It is a poem with events as verses,” wrote Charles Angoff, and a visit to Point Alpha and the Fulda Gap in Germany profoundly illustrates this.
If you are visiting Kassel this year to take in the art show dOCUMENTA 13, stay a little longer to take in this extraordinary experience. Point Alpha is situated between the former East German community of Geisa, Thuringia and the former West Germany village of Rasdorf, Hess. It is an easy afternoon visit from Kassel.
Space was considered likely locale for Soviet attack
The area where the Point Alpha museum is now located was nicknamed the “Fulda Gap.” Its historical significance is that it was a route that NATO officials concluded the Soviets might use if they were to attack West Germany.
The possibility of a tank invasion along the Fulda Gap was a great cause for concern for the Allies during the Cold War. They worried that the invaders would head for nearby Frankfurt, the financial heart of West Germany, and for two large airfields.
During this 40-year period in history, Americans were posted at Point Alpha to keep watch for signs of any pending attack. Under normal circumstances there was a contingent of about 40 soldiers stationed there, but when threat risks were deemed more acute, the number would increase to 200.
On the other side, facing them, soldiers from East Germany stared back across the concrete, barbed wire, land mines and fierce dogs. Each side had its own watch tower and facilities.
No Man’s Land still stretched between outposts
A little strip of land between them was No Man’s Land, where only the desperate ventured, and generally did not make it to safety.
Today visitors from all over the world visit this site and stare with amazement at the remains of the fences and barbed wire that remain. At the front of the museum, you can even see and touch a section of the Berlin Wall, painted bright blue.
You can walk all along the gap and tour the barracks where the American soldiers were housed. You can sip a coffee or a beer in their mess hall, and view some of the tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles in use at the time.
The museum offers touching stories of people who tried to scale No Man’s Land, excerpts of diaries, and factual accounts of life in both camps.
Portion of fence shows formidable construction
There are excellent photo displays, as well as collections of uniforms, tools and equipment used by both the Germans and the Americans. Most interesting is a reconstruction of the border fence, allowing you to see up close how formidable a creation it was.
An emotion-evoking exhibit features old video clips showing the exuberance of people lining up to cross the border from East Germany to West Germany when the wall came down. The story is told in detail, and illustrated with film and photos, and this period of history suddenly becomes dramatically alive.
One of the most exciting experiences is to climb the tower and check out precisely the view that the American soldiers saw every day that they did their duty there.
Freedom’s frontier stirs memories
While I was walking away from the tower, I saw an elderly gentleman moved to tears, his son trying to confront him. I could overhear enough to understand that his brother had been a member of the 11th Cavalry Regiment, an American unit that patrolled the border near Fulda. He had heard the stories of what it felt like to stand at freedom’s frontier, and he was overwhelmed to see it firsthand.
Point Alpha was one of four American observation posts along the Hessian German domestic border. The name OP Alpha is because it was the first such point, as well as the place where Communist radio traffic was being monitored.
Incidentally, had the Russian tanks ever appeared, the plan was not to do battle there. The soldiers would have withdrawn to the actual planned battlefields, a couple of kilometers to the west.
With the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Fulda Gap lost its strategic importance.
Landscape shows beauty of unified country
In the midst of the emotion and the history, I was surprised to discover that I was also appreciative of the amazingly beautiful scenery visible in this part of Germany. Looking over this land, unified once again, I understood why the German people themselves had fought to keep this memorial alive.
After reunification, a guide told me, the post was supposed to be removed with the other observation posts along the German border. But citizens of the area got together and fought to prevent its destruction. They created an association, Rhon Point Alpha, got the site placed under historical protection, and began to collect the material and build the museum that keeps the story alive for the entire world to see today.
As a visitor, I am grateful for their vision. For North American visitors like myself, it is an eloquent history lesson about the Cold War that sets the scene far better than any words could ever do. (Edith Robb)
About the author: Edith Robb is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in travel and culture. Canadian by birth, shenow lives half of each year in the United States and travels extensively, including making several trips to Germany in preparation for dOCUMENTA13. She has worked on many travel publications, including Back Roads and Getaway Places for Reader’s Digest and Guide to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada for Fodor’s Travel Guides. She has a Master of Arts degree with a major in cultural studies.