Grenzerfahrungen: Along the Iron Curtain (Video)
Grenzerfahrungen (Borderline Experiences), a new film from Edinburgh-based filmmaker and adventurer Markus Stitz, documents his journey along the European Green Belt while scouting the Iron Curtain Gravel Trail route. Watch it here…
Grenzerfahrungen is the latest project from Edinburgh-based filmmaker Markus Stitz, who has contributed several different films and routes to the site over the years. The film documents his self-supported cycling journey along the European Green Belt, the former Iron Curtain, shortly after the 30th anniversary of German reunification. The Iron Curtain Gravel Trail spans 687 kilometers from the Dreiländerstein to the Dreiländereck, packing in 11,300 meters of elevation.
Watch the film below (with optional English and German subtitles), then continue on for a reflection and photos from Markus. Following the film premiere, Markus will be joined Martin Moschek of Bike Tour Global for a live interview.
Words and photos by Markus Stitz (@reizkultur)
Lack of Freedom Then
I was 10 years old when the Iron Curtain fell on the evening of November 9th, 1989. I grew up in the Catholic region of Eichsfeld, which even when the German Democratic Republic still existed, was different from the rest of the country. The church never really backed down, and Eichsfeld was seen as the stronghold of the GDR. The region itself was divided in two by the border, part in Thuringia (East) and the other in Lower Saxony (West). Every time we went to visit my grandparents, we had to pass a checkpoint, as they lived in the 5km zone along the border that was only accessible for residents and their close relatives.
We weren’t allowed to stay overnight, and I remember one particular event in November in the years before 1989 when we returned from my grandmother’s birthday. Although there were several inches of fresh snow and the conditions were treacherous to drive in, we had to return home. With five people in a tiny Trabant with 26 horsepower, getting up a steep hill was a challenge at the best of times, but in snow and ice conditions it was nearly impossible. Jointly with my uncle’s family (in a separate car) we drove back and got stuck around 11 p.m. As my dad had a special permit for work, that night was the only time we drove in an area to which our permit didn’t extend, and there was a lot of tension as my parents didn’t want to risk anything. We finally made it, but I was not allowed to tell anyone about the journey. As a child, I had no idea that the border to the West was so close, or what it looked like. What I knew, though, was that I couldn’t use or wear the toys, sweaters, or shoes that frequently arrived from our relatives in the West anywhere in public or at my grandparents’ place.
How I feel about it
Making the film was quite an emotional journey. I was pretty overwhelmed at times while riding the route, as it brought home to me what a significant event the fall of the Iron Curtain was. I live in Scotland now, and since that day I’ve benefited hugely from having the freedom to travel and work in so many different countries. But, most importantly, I am allowed to express my opinion on things. I would describe myself as not very materialistic, which I think is rooted in the fact that I grew up with all the “things” I needed, but during the GDR times I took for granted that I can’t just buy things. Sometimes I could, but sometimes they were simply not available. Further down the line in my life that has helped me to reduce myself to the bare minimum of things. For example, when I travelled the world, or when I arrived in Scotland with only a backpack. However, freedom has become such an essential part of my life and is reflected hugely in my work.
Over the years I have learned and understood that the freedom I was given on November 9th, 1989, was something others had fought hard for. People, not just in East Germany, were imprisoned or, even worse, lost their lives, but their actions enabled me to have the life I have today, and I am very grateful for that. It’s something I’ll never forget. When I cycled along the former border line, I saw plenty of memorials for people who tried to escape and were killed or severely injured, each of them a personal tragedy. And I often thought what it would be like if I, at the age of 41, would be stuck behind that fence.
Falling of the Iron Curtain
On the night of November 9th, Günter Schabowski, a member of the East German government, gained worldwide fame when he improvised a slightly mistaken answer to a press conference question. Not intentionally, he announced that East Germans were free to travel immediately, which resulted in massive crowds gathering the same night at the Berlin Wall, forcing its opening after 28 years. We watched the events unfolding on television, as we could watch Western television, but it wasn’t like today, where everything happens in real-time. My sister wasn’t home, and my brother had to serve his military service. If things would have escalated, my brother would have been sent to fight, and I guess that explains my parents’ tension at home that night, and in the weeks before. But on November 10th, it was pretty clear that the GDR regime would back down, and no military escalation would happen.
The relief was massive! On November 10th of 1989, we were mostly stuck in a long traffic jam after leaving home around 7 a.m. with thousands of others. The traffic was one-directional, as many East Germans tried to visit West Germany in their Trabants. We didn’t know if the newfound freedom was there to last, so we went while it was possible. We made our way to Duderstadt, the first town in West Germany that would reward us with 100 Deutsche Mark (30 GBP) each as a welcome gift. I remember spending some of the money on a small Mercedes 190 D miniature police car, with the same green roof as our Trabant, but keeping the rest. It was all a bit overwhelming.
Significance of the route
On a personal scale, this route brought me much closer to my dad than I have ever been. He got injured in a bicycle accident when I was cycling around the world and died a few weeks later in the hospital. We have had very different lives, but what connects us is our interest in the history of the Eichsfeld region. My dad had loads of books about the area, as he was travelling around it even when the border existed. To put it in modern terms, he was an essential worker, as he repaired TVs. He knew so many people and had many stories to tell, so in that aspect our lives are similar.
I was also very close to my grandmother, who lived in Schwobfeld with us, and most of my family lives in the area too. So, riding the route was a nice thing. Due to COVID-19 I had to be super careful and couldn’t meet them, which was a shame, but I can still share pictures and video. On a more global level, I think people will have heard of the German Division and the Cold War, and events like World War II that led to it, but I think it’s hard to grasp what it was really like until you have seen the border fortifications and memorials. The route combines bikepacking, wonderful countryside, and an important chapter in history, all while showing you a Germany off the beaten path.
About Markus Stitz
Markus Stitz has made Scotland his home for more than 10 years now, where he develops cycling routes and creative content to encourage people to live more adventurously. He cycled around the world on a singlespeed bike in 2015-16 and now runs BikepackingScotland.com and Dirt Dash events, and works as independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. You can find more of his work on YouTube and Instagram (@reizkultur).
Stay tuned for more information on the Iron Curtain Gravel Trail Route.
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