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Schifflersgrund border museum

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -

One of the several border museums on the former Cold War era, Iron-Curtain division line between East and West Germany (GDR and FRG). In fact, this was the first to open – as early as 1991, on the first anniversary of German reunification on 3 October. The memorial site is still in flux and its look will most likely change a bit over the coming years – so the following is more an interim report.   

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

For background info see Hötensleben, Mödlareuth, Point Alpha, also Berlin Wall, and other border museums/Iron Curtain sites.
 
 
What there is to see: Schifflersgrund is one of the more comprehensive and popular sites of its type. Its main attraction is not only the preserved border stretch itself or the collection of border-related artefacts but also the big exhibits that military enthusiast will love: several helicopters and armoured vehicles are on display, one you can even enter.
 
Topically, however, it is the border relics that are the core of this memorial site, of course. Here the border fortifications primarily had the form of a metal fence – i.e. it was literally an "Iron Curtain". A fairly long stretch (ca. 600m) of the original border fence has been preserved together with the patrol track behind it, giving a good impression of what the former border looked like, cutting through the forested land like a wide oblong clearing ... albeit only on the Eastern side of the fence – the western side is now for the most part densely forested.
 
At the museum proper, located at the crest of a hillside just behind (or in front of?) the border strip, an original tall grey watchtower has been preserved too and is now the museum's main landmark. You can peak inside and up the ladders, but you can't actually go up since the bottom part of the ladder has been truncated.
 
Various objects have been collected and put together by the fence and gate to the complex – amongst these are search lights, field telephones, a small observation bunker, and border marker poles. It's all a bit crammed and not quite representative of what the border really looked like, but it makes the individual items more accessible, so it cuts both ways. Attached to the fence are a couple of rather rusty and dilapidated looking specimens of the infamous SM-70 spring guns (cf. Checkpoint Charlie, Point Alpha).
 
More moveable large exhibits include a Soviet-built MiL Mi-24 combat helicopter, as well as a transport helicopter MiL Mi-8. The latter you can even enter, take a look in the cockpit and have a seat in the cargo compartment to get a feel for this mode of transport. There are also a couple of smaller helicopters, a US M-41 tank, a Soviet "Ural" truck with radar equipment on top, yet more assorted armoured vehicles as well as regular police cars from the East and West, and, perhaps most sobering: the front end loader tractor that was used by the East German builder Heinz-Josef Große in 1982 to break through the border.
 
This case is in a way the historical heart of the whole museum: Große's attempt to flee across the border to the West was as nearly successful as it could get. He drove his tractor right up to the border fence and used the tractor's raised shovel as a "stepping stone" to climb over the fence without triggering the spring guns. But as he then ascended the hillside beyond the border fence, he was shot at by GDR border guards, only metres away from safety (i.e. from the FRG). From the other side, West German customs officers had to watch Große bleed to death on the slope – as this was still part of GDR territory, so they couldn't intervene … Not only would they have risked their own lives, because the GDR border guards could even legitimately have shot at them too, it would also have been a dangerous political provocation in the climate of the Cold War for Western forces to go "trespassing" onto Eastern Bloc territory.
 
The tragic spot is now marked by a cross. At the museum, the front-loader tractor, recently re-painted, stands against a reconstructed segment of border fence with the tractor's shovel reaching right over the top, above the spring gun mounted at the crest of the fence – just as it was found by the GDR border guards.
 
In a set of pavilions (some original border troop sheds), several smaller indoor exhibitions document the history of the border in photos, texts and artefacts such as assorted border warning signs. There are also small reconstructed model "border ensembles", some complete with mannequins in border guard uniforms – one even has a dog mannequin on a leash. Such dummy installations always tend to look a bit cheesy, and these are no exception. But some of the artefacts included are still interesting.
 
The historical coverage has two specially emphasized topics: one is the story of Heinz-Josef Große, including the post-reunification trial against the border soldiers who fired the fatal shots at him (they were sentenced to short prison terms, on probation, and only for manslaughter … and of course their superiors got away with it altogether).
 
The other focus is on the historical agreement called "Wanfrieder Abkommen", by which the USA and the Soviet Union re-drew the border between their occupational zones in this area in September 1945. On the US side the motivation was securing the train line which up to then had to pass through a part of the Soviet Zone. In the Soviets' interest, in turn, was making the Werra river part of the border and thus gaining a more natural bulwark. In the end an exchange of territories was agreed by which several villages also passed from one side to the other. As you can imagine, this was bad news for the formerly Western villages which suddenly found themselves under Soviet administration and later became part of restricted border area on the GDR side … Cold-War-type "collateral damage"! The two generals who drew up the agreement congratulated each other with an exchange of gifts: namely bottles of the respective national tipples – hence the result also became known as the Whiskey-Vodka-Line.
 
The rest of the exhibition space, which appears a little bit cobbled together, presents various documents, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. from the early days of the end of WWII all the way through the Cold War era and to its eventual end and the dissolution of the border and the GDR. There are some curious images here, such as that of a shrunken head made at Buchenwald concentration camp found by the Allied liberators, or a photo of a sign that still labelled Germany as an "enemy country – keep alert" (which looks funny, because it wasn't much later that West Germany became part of NATO and thus one of the USA's closest allies).
  
What I found most impressive, personally, was the photo collection in the first pavilion. Here you got the best reminder of what an eerie and bizarre-looking thing the Iron Curtain was, and within Germany in particular. It can still give you the creeps.
 
Those photos are also the part that least requires a good knowledge of German – unlike the rest of the exhibitions. As most documents and almost all the explanatory texts and labels are in German only, you won't get all that much information out of these without at least a halfway decent grasp of the language. Only a few general panels in the outdoor space have a few lines translated into English and French. There are said to be audio guides available as well, and this may well include an English version – but I have not been able to find any definitive information on this.
 
At the time of my visit there was also a separate exhibition about the West German side's border patrol force, the Bundesgrenzschutz (BGS). I couldn't quite make out whether this was only a temporary exhibition or whether it's going to be a permanent feature. A sign by a collection of BGS vehicles/helicopters, on the other hand, clearly indicated that these would soon be moved to a new location on the Hesse side of the border.
 
There may be more changes afoot. Apparently a new plan for a significant reconstruction of the site has recently been adopted. Over the years, the border strip and the museum part shall become more distinct sites, with the former, the actual border and the watchtower site, made to look more like they did back in the 1980s, while the collection of vehicles is to be housed in a new hangar/museum building in a more separate location. One exception may be the tractor that Heinz-Josef Große drove to the border fence. Allegedly it is to be placed back at the very spot it was found in in 1982 just before the shots were fired – the idea seems to be to make it part of a memorial to the victims of the inner-German border in general. We'll see what will actually happen. It's certainly a site I will have to keep monitoring …  
 
As it is now, at the time of writing (summer 2012), it is already to be seen as one of the better border museums – even if the museum part is indeed a bit disorganized and some of the collected border artefacts could be arranged in a more authentic fashion. As long as the changes go some way to improve the latter aspects, then the plans can be welcomed. Hopefully, such improvements will not be echoed by detraction in other areas … (e.g. with regard to the collection of large objects such as those helicopters).
 
 
Location: remotely tucked away in the landscape between Hesse and Thuringia east of Kassel, in central Germany, a few miles east of Bad Sooden-Allendorf in Hesse, and just west of the tiny hamlet of Asbach-Sickenberg in Thuringia.
 
Google maps locator:[51.2848,9.9954]
  
 
Access and costs: remote but not too difficult to find; inexpensive.
 
Details: To get to this remote spot it is easiest to drive. From the A7 or A4 motorway, take the B7 or B80 and then B27 routes towards Bad Sooden-Allendorf, cross the Werra river and then head for Sickenberg; the museum is signposted as "Grenzmuseum". Pay good attention to the signs in the valley – I missed one and got lost first time around and only by chance ended up on the correct road again. As you drive out of the village the road becomes narrower and narrower as it winds up the forested hillside. But do keep going. Drive straight past the first car park you get to on the right (it's more for hikers) and only then turn off to the left at the memorial museum site proper. Parking is free for normal vehicles – camper vans/RVs can overnight here too – for a fee (including electricity and water).
 
The official address of the border museum is at "Platz der Wiedervereinigung" ('reunification square'), but you won't find this on maps or SatNavs/GPS systems (at least it wasn't recognized on mine – so I just entered a random street, Dorfstraße, in the village of Sickenberg further down the road; once you drive past the museum site you can't miss it).
 
Theoretically, you can get a train to Bad Sooden-Allendorf, which is on the line between Göttingen, Bebra and Fulda, though there aren't that many connections a day (ca. two-hourly) to make this really viable for most visitors. Also, from the station you'd then need to walk a sizeable distance to the border memorial (even though the uphill hike is quite scenic much of the way), which a sign by the museum said would take 45 minutes. There are also bicycle routes.
 
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March to October, November to February only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, and only from 11 a.m. at weekends, closed Mondays.
 
Admission: 3.50 EUR (2.50 concession); guided tours in English (or French, Spanish or Russian) can be arranged for groups (cost: 30 EUR) by prior appointment; contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
 
 
Time required: depends quite crucially on whether you can read German – if so, then there is plenty of material to keep you reading for a good three hours or so. Otherwise, the exhibits and photos will still be enough to warrant at least a full hour, possibly more. Allow extra time for a walk along the preserved border strip.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: There are quite a few further border memorial sites/museums in the area. The closest to Schifflersgrund are Eichsfeld, Sorge and Bad Sachsa to the north and Point Apha to the south. Also within reach, an good two or three hour's drive further to the north, are two of the most impressive monuments of the former inner-German border: Hötensleben with its long stretch of Berlin-Wall-like fortifications, and Marienborn, formerly the largest of the border crossing checkpoints in the GDR, now a large-scale memorial site and museum.
 
Those with a wide scope of dark tourism interest can also consider going further east and e.g. visit the significant concentration camp memorial sites of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora near Weimar and Nordhausen, respectively.
 
Only about an hour's drive west from Schifflersgrund, the Hessean city of Kassel sports a unique sepulchral museum, a kind of funeral museum, but with a wide scope of topics revolving around death and dying beyond just funeral culture.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The former border strip has become know as the "Grünes Band" ('green belt'), now functioning as a kind of nature reserve along the former border, which naturally had also been a reserve for rare flora and fauna in the years when it was no-mans land and no-go area. An effort has been made by environmentalists to preserve at least a part of this haven function of the ex border. From Schifflersgrund you can explore it in both directions for miles. Information panels provide details about the wildlife and plants along the way.
 
Bad Sooden-Allendorf is also a small-scale spa town, and its half-timbered buildings fit the "typically German" cliché relatively well too. A couple of picturesque castle ruins in the area hit the same spot. Otherwise there isn't an awful lot in the way of prime tourist attractions about in the more immediate vicinity. But given the location close to the geographical centre of Germany, it can serve as a starting point as good as can be for exploring the country in any direction.
 
 
 
  • Schifflersgrund 01 - entranceSchifflersgrund 01 - entrance
  • Schifflersgrund 02 - signSchifflersgrund 02 - sign
  • Schifflersgrund 03 - fenceSchifflersgrund 03 - fence
  • Schifflersgrund 04 - border security systemSchifflersgrund 04 - border security system
  • Schifflersgrund 05 - old spring gunSchifflersgrund 05 - old spring gun
  • Schifflersgrund 06 - observation bunkerSchifflersgrund 06 - observation bunker
  • Schifflersgrund 07 - inside the bunkerSchifflersgrund 07 - inside the bunker
  • Schifflersgrund 08 - border marker polesSchifflersgrund 08 - border marker poles
  • Schifflersgrund 09 - searchlightSchifflersgrund 09 - searchlight
  • Schifflersgrund 10 - telephoneSchifflersgrund 10 - telephone
  • Schifflersgrund 11 - watchtowerSchifflersgrund 11 - watchtower
  • Schifflersgrund 12 - inside the watchtowerSchifflersgrund 12 - inside the watchtower
  • Schifflersgrund 13 - Germany at the end of WWIISchifflersgrund 13 - Germany at the end of WWII
  • Schifflersgrund 14 - photos from the GDR eraSchifflersgrund 14 - photos from the GDR era
  • Schifflersgrund 15 - exhibitsSchifflersgrund 15 - exhibits
  • Schifflersgrund 16 - medalSchifflersgrund 16 - medal
  • Schifflersgrund 17 - exhibition roomSchifflersgrund 17 - exhibition room
  • Schifflersgrund 18 - border reconstructionSchifflersgrund 18 - border reconstruction
  • Schifflersgrund 19 - ensemble with mannequinsSchifflersgrund 19 - ensemble with mannequins
  • Schifflersgrund 20 - lots of extra info materialSchifflersgrund 20 - lots of extra info material
  • Schifflersgrund 21 - US military presenceSchifflersgrund 21 - US military presence
  • Schifflersgrund 22 - Warsaw Pact military presenceSchifflersgrund 22 - Warsaw Pact military presence
  • Schifflersgrund 23 - Soviet MiL-Mi 24 combat helicopterSchifflersgrund 23 - Soviet MiL-Mi 24 combat helicopter
  • Schifflersgrund 24 - heavy gearSchifflersgrund 24 - heavy gear
  • Schifflersgrund 25 -Trabbi transport chopperSchifflersgrund 25 -Trabbi transport chopper
  • Schifflersgrund 26 - helicopter interiorSchifflersgrund 26 - helicopter interior
  • Schifflersgrund 27 - GDR symbolSchifflersgrund 27 - GDR symbol
  • Schifflersgrund 28 - tractor used in an attempt to break through the borderSchifflersgrund 28 - tractor used in an attempt to break through the border
  • Schifflersgrund 29 - GDR police vehiclesSchifflersgrund 29 - GDR police vehicles
  • Schifflersgrund 30 - the borderSchifflersgrund 30 - the border
  • Schifflersgrund 31 - looking through the fenceSchifflersgrund 31 - looking through the fence
  

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