The Liquid Wall

Elbe river still divides East and West Germany

The Berlin Wall came down more than 30 years ago. In the very same days, the fence which divided East and West Germany along the river Elbe was demolished as well. The Elbe flows through the Eastern part of Germany, from its border with the Czech Republic to the port of Hamburg and the North Sea shore. Until 30 years ago it incorporated a 100 kilometers-long segment of the Iron Curtain which used to split in two unreachable parts Germany, Europe and the entire world.

Forty years of separation and then, in November 1989, the border was eventually over, making possible again the simple act of boarding a ferry and reaching the fellow Germans on the other side of the river. Between 1961 and 1989, 49 people died along this liquid wall while trying to escape from the DDR. They drowned in the river’s water, freezed in the cold or were killed by the border policemen. The very few who succeded to escape recall their heroic enterprise, while the ones who used to live close to the river tell about the villages which were destroyed, and the many families who were deported in order to clear the restricted area from “dubious elements”.

And yet the euphoria associated with the reunification has long been over. Nowadays the same river’s stretch symbolizes all new divisions between East and West: in many people’s view the Elbe has never stopped to be a border, even if a mental one. The Eastern shore is being abandoned by its inhabitants, both in the villages as well as in the major towns: one third of the young people has already gone, and the older ones are increasingly holding a grudge against the so-called “Western system”, and harboring a kind of nostalgia for the former communist society.

It’s no coincidence that in thirty years only one bridge has been built along the 100 kilometers-long former border. Commuters must rely on ferries, which stop working at 9 PM. As if the border would rise again when the sun sets. The only positive legacy of the decades-long forced separation of the two shores is to be noticed in the natural ecosystem: the huge biodiversity and the staggering beauty of the former no man’s land are attracting many tourists and a growing number of pensioners from Hamburg, Berlin and other big cities.

( 2019 )