Germany's Healing Scar A Photographer's Hike Along the Death Strip

In the 1980s, Jürgen Ritter spent all his spare time photographing the East German border. Years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to the same sites, camera in hand. He has shared some of his then and now photos with SPIEGEL ONLINE.


It kept on nagging me. I had kept trying to think of something that I could do to protest against this border. In early March 1981, I had an idea. I bought two shortwave radios, got myself detailed maps and got my wife to drop me off near the small city of Schnackenburg in Lower Saxony, near the border (separating East and West Germany). From there I set off, heading south, along the border stones and white stakes that marked out the western side of the border with East Germany. I had my camera with me.

Over the 32 years of my life until then, I had kept confronting this border -- as a student, as a soldier and in almost every political discussion. The line that divided my country was on my mind almost every day. Now I was determined to walk the entire length of it. From morning until night I would have time to confront it. It was just me and the border -- without anyone interrupting my thoughts.

The Word 'Freedom' Was Fascinating

I had already about the division of Germany with a few people who belonged to my political party. In the early 1970s I had become a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany because it felt like a good fit for me politically. At that time we still had the Godesberger Program (editor's note: a party manifesto in which the Social Democrats foreswore Marxism for the first time). The word "freedom" appeared in it more than 30 times. And that fascinated me. But when I wanted to read from the document at a party meeting my comrades discouraged me. "We know all that already," they said. "Those ideas are old." And the only thing that we could do for "that lot over there" was to talk to them. But for me, that just sounded like "we can't do anything about this."

I had heard this before. I was born in 1949 in Uelzen in the state of Lower Saxony, about 16 kilometers from the East German border. As a youngster I would often cycle around. And naturally I was drawn to the border. I wanted to go there despite -- or maybe because -- of the fact that my parents always told me: "Don't go there. It's too dangerous, they shoot people there."

From then on a question had always remained: why are they shooting at people there? The separation of Germany, I was told, was linked to the war Germany had lost. It was "big politics," world politics. "That's just the way it is."

I Wondered: Why Are They Shooting At Their Own People?

But the "why" continued to occupy my thoughts -- and it also occupied me when I went into the army. That was around the time of the Prague Spring (editor's note: the period between January and August in 1968 when the politics in the former Czechoslovakia became more liberal, allowing for more freedoms -- the liberalization was halted by a Soviet military occupation that then lasted until 1990). And I wondered: Why are they shooting at their own people when all they actually want is to be free?

So, the border. On my hiking trips I wanted to come as close as possible. I was definitely a little bit uneasy about it. Before leaving I had called the customs office (their offices were located along the border), told them of my plans and asked whether it would be OK to contact them should anything untoward happen to me. I carried one of the shortwave radios and I gave my wife the other one. I copied the maps I had and marked various points with numbers. Approximately every half an hour I would report in using the radio and let my wife know where I was, using the numbered locations like a code -- I assumed someone in the East might be listening in. If my wife did not hear from me then she would let the customs authorities know. And because of the numbered locations, she would be able to tell them where she had last heard from me.

From The Baltic Sea To The Czech Border In Two Years

It worked perfectly. Word of my border tour had made its way quickly around the people at the various customs offices. And whenever I left one customs territory and reached the next, I would already be expected by staff there. One customs officer even asked if he could accompany me. The customs officers knew their three to five kilometers of territory very well and many told me about their own experiences with the border area. Everywhere we went, we kept stopping so I could take pictures of the border -- and of anything else I thought was important.

Most of the time I hiked along the border on the weekends, or during the week if I had time off. Depending on the weather and the terrain I might cover between 20 and 30 kilometers a day. I would stay overnight in youth hostels and every day I would start my walk exactly where I had left off the previous day. I hiked through forests and moors, through heather and swamps, alongside slopes and down small paths overgrown with stinging nettles. I climbed over fences and trudged through mud that stuck to my shoes. And after two years I had finally done it: from the Baltic Sea right to the Czech border. What an amazing feeling!

The following year I also walked right around the Berlin Wall and I photographed some spots several times. I presented the results of my work in various exhibitions but I really only became well-known as a photographer after an incident in Hamburg in 1983 that made it into the press.

Latent Censorship During Exhibitions In the '80s

By then my pictures of the German border -- photos of divided streets, rivers and train lines, of houses and churches behind fences, of mine fields and border guards -- had already been exhibited in 15 cities and almost 85,000 visitors had seen them. In a play on the German acronym for East Germany, DDR, I had called my exhibition "DeutschDeutsche Realität" (or German-German Reality). One of the visitors to the exhibition was a local politician who then suggested to the mayor of Hamburg that they should put my exhibition on in the town hall too.

But the exhibition could not be the same one. They wanted fewer pictures, bigger ones, and other scenes. I wasn't keen on this. Nonetheless after several months of discussion, the exhibition did take place -- but without any fanfare, without an opening ceremony and without any press releases. Nor was there a foreword from the former mayor, who had written something especially for the exhibition. The name of the exhibition was changed too. Now it was: "The Wound Known As Germany."

At the time I considered this a kind of latent censorship. Attitudes toward the East were becoming more relaxed and the maxim "change through rapprochement" was gaining currency. I had yet to learn what this would mean for my photography. Now people demonstrated outside my exhibitions -- but they were demonstrating against my pictures. For many from the left wing, East Germany was seen as better than the West.

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