In Reunited Germany, One Town Remains Divided

‘Little Berlin’ Kept Its Wall as Memorial, to Dismay of Some Who See Old Divisions Persisting

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Nov. 9 marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But in a 50-inhabitant hamlet straddling the border between Bavaria and Thuringia, a different event is celebrated this time of year: the fall of the Mödlareuth Wall.


MÖDLAREUTH, Germany—As the country celebrates its reunification this weekend, a tiny village divided by the Iron Curtain for four decades continues to live its division, complete with wall, death strip and watchtowers.

Mödlareuth was known as “the village at the end of the world” and “Little Berlin” during the Cold War due to its precarious location straddling Communist East and capitalist West.

Residents broke through their wall on Dec 9, 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall fell.
Residents broke through their wall on Dec 9, 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall fell.  German-German Museum Mödlareuth

Today, it is the only German community still divided by a wall—a preservationist move that seemed like a good decision at the time, but one that some locals have come to regret for reasons both practical and psychological.

While the bulk of the Berlin Wall has long been built over, Mödlareuth, population 50, kept its 11-foot-high, half-mile long concrete wall, barbed-wire fence, shoot-to-kill death strip and two watchtowers as an outdoor memorial.  More than 65,000 people, including tour groups from as far as South Korea, flock here each year to sample its Cold War heritage.

“It is irksome for the community,” says Dieter Rebelein, head of the far-left Die Linke party in the local district assembly, said of the crowds.

“Every year the camera teams show up and ask the same questions,” says a local woman at the village’s only pub.  “At some point people don’t want to discuss it anymore.  These aren’t always pleasant stories.”

It hasn’t helped that the tourists have brought familiar disturbances but leave little wealth behind in what basically remains a farming community.  Apart from the one pub, there are few facilities for the tens of thousands of people who visit each year:  no hotel, no souvenir shops, no candy stores for the hordes of schoolchildren.

A few people have suggested getting rid of the relics, but having been transformed into a publicly funded museum and memorial, dismantling them now would be politically explosive.

Meanwhile, the perennially divided Mödlareuth remains stuck in its Cold War time-warp, split between the states of Bavaria, which fell under U.S. control after World War II, and Thuringia in the Soviet sector.

While the border patrols, barking guard dogs, and secret police are gone, east and west Mödlareuthians have their own mayors, speak with different accents, dial different area codes and sport separate license plates on their cars.

“It isn’t yet so homogenous, even with young people, the language outs them immediately,” says a middle-aged receptionist at the Hotel am Maxplatz, in Hof, a nearby town on the Bavarian side.

Similarly, struggling Thuringia and wealthy Bavaria remain worlds apart.

Bavaria’s 4% unemployment rate is half Thuringia’s.  Thuringia’s population has shrunk by 500,000 since 1989, while Bavaria’s has swollen by 1.4 million.

At some point people don’t want to discuss it anymore.  These aren’t always pleasant stories.

—A resident of Mödlareuth

Bavarians have re-elected conservative-led governments for the past six decades.  Thuringia is expected to get the first state premier from the successor party to the once-ruling, now-defunct East German Socialists, following elections last month.

Locals say visitors from distant places tend to underestimate the depth of the trauma left by four decades of separation.  The Mödlareuth Wall may have been short by Berlin standards, but in such a small community, it was perhaps a more overwhelming presence.

Outside of town, the wall became a fence, but one lined with minefields and automatic shotguns securing a no-man’s-land of about 50 feet.

East-Mödlareuthians were forbidden from communicating or even waving to people across the wall.  There was no crossing nearby, so people who got a visitor permit had a trip of around three hours to get to the other side of town—a stone’s throw away.

It never got dark nor completely silent in Mödlareuth, as floodlights illuminated the wall 24 hours a day, to the dull buzz of an electricity generator.

“Back then, seeing armed guards emerge from the mist, I can barely describe that feeling of insecurity,” said Horst Zippel, who often takes groups to Mödlareuth, where he used to carry out pest-control duties.

Resting on a shady bench next to Mödlareuth’s duck pond, Martin Wiesend, an educator from nearby Bayreuth in Bavaria, says that for those who grew up post-reunification, “attitudes toward life have aligned.”  Aside from different accents, “there are barely any differences anymore,” he says.

Karin Mergner, a retired farmworker, says “we are one village,” echoing the “we are one people” motto of the peaceful uprising in East Germany 25 years ago.  For many residents, however, the phrase feels more like a wish than an accurate description.

Klaus Grünzner, the mayor of the village’s western side, says “the equalization process,” as he calls it, has been far slower than reunification was.

This strip of wall has been kept as an outdoor memorial and museum in Mödlareuth.
This strip of wall has been kept as an outdoor memorial and museum in Mödlareuth.  Harriet Torry/The Wall Street Journal


Write to Harriet Torry at harriet.torry@wsj.com