Marienborn border crossing memorial site
- darkometer rating: 6 -
Helmstedt-Marienborn was the largest of the border crossing complexes of the GDR
(East Germany) on the border with the FRG
(West Germany), the most sinister stretch of the Cold War
era "Iron Curtain
" that divided Germany
for ca. 40 years. Today it's one of the prime national monuments commemorating that time (together with the associated border memorial at Hötensleben
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
in addition to being a major border crossing point for entering the GDR
, Marienborn was also the entry point for the principal special "transit route" West Germans could take to drive to West Berlin
(see Checkpoint Bravo/Dreilinden-Drewitz
) without properly/officially entering GDR territory, a scheme devised as part of the policies of easing East-West relations in the early 1970s.
The checkpoint (code-named “Alpha” – cf. Charlie
) on the western side of the border was (naturally) a fairly modest affair, but the one in the GDR became a real monster, esp. in the 1970s when the vast complex of over 80 acres in area was built, whose core now is the memorial site. Some 1000 border guards, customs and border police and other personnel worked here – including Stasi
secret service officers – until the border crossing became redundant with the collapse of the GDR (and the Eastern Bloc as a whole) in 1990.
Only after this, did the full details of the inner workings of the GDR
border crossing "security" system emerge. One particularly scary aspect of this was the practice of secretly X-raying vehicles with string gamma ray installations, which were hidden overhead and underground and which all cars passed through as they slowly moved along the queue at the checkpoint. The reason this was done was obviously to check for people trying to get out of the GDR hidden e.g. under the back seats of cars or in lorry petrol tanks (I once met a girl who managed to get out in that latter way!). What's so despicable about this secretly scanning people with powerful X-rays is of course the medical implications – they put the health of e.g. pregnant women and their babies at risk; it's also likely that people who had to cross the border regularly over a long period of time (transit lorry drivers in particular) could have suffered late/lasting damage to their health.
But even just the normal proceedings were scary enough – and treatment by the GDR border staff was, though not necessarily "rough", always stern and deadly serious (not a single smile was ever smiled here!). In addition to the bureaucratic hassle and paperwork, there was always the risk of being singled out for thorough inspection. And that could mean hours of searching through luggage and the vehicle (just short of dismantling it).
Anyone who ever had to go through this will remember this strange and stifling feeling when arriving at the GDR
border crossing. Even though you quite innocently wanted nothing more than to just cross the border (no smuggling goods in or people out) you were still made to feel irrationally "guilty" and breathed a sigh of relief when it was over …
What there is to see:
today, what is left of the former GDR
border crossing complex at Marienborn is listed as a monument of national heritage. Though parts have been demolished (esp. all of the former western border crossing installations), it is by far the single largest relic from the era of the inner-German border – hence it has been designated the national memorial to the division of Germany
Original buildings/components include the former passport control points for passenger cars, customs station/checkpoint for lorries, light masts (the whole complex was lit up at night in a way that allowed for no dark corners or shadows), administration offices (also for the Stasi
), veterinary station and even a morgue ... where deceased who were to be transferred to the FRG
would be checked too. The central watchtower is also still in place.
You can walk around the complex freely – what a contrast to the stifling feeling of restriction and arbitrary imposition of bureaucracy and all that back then … Most of the buildings and other structures simply stand there oozing their strange sinister atmosphere.
The commodification of the site is still undergoing developments. But there are already several exhibitions complementing the sheer eerie sited-ness of the place. The core of these is a documentation centre in the former passport check building complex. Here videos about the border crossing are shown too, but mostly the exhibition consists of interpretative text panels, documents and a few original artefacts. Amongst the latter are a model of one of those deadly spring guns used on the border (cf. Checkpoint Charlie
), propaganda material, electronic equipment (now looking really ancient), and all manner of border guard paraphernalia.
The permanent exhibition is ordered primarily in chronological fashion, i.e. following history from the end of WWII
and the occupied zones all the way to the "fall" of the Wall and German reunification ... and extending beyond to the issue of commemoration of the era since then. There's also a thematic structure – and one aspect that is rarely included at such sites is the fact that the border also sliced right through the coal mining operations in the area. The documented efforts of a joint use of these pits, requiring extra security measures on the GDR
side, are quite an oddity in the whole story of the Western vs. Eastern Bloc
At the documentation centre's reception desk you can also pick up a free information leaflet (also in English and a number of other languages) to help you navigate your way through the site. However, a range of bilingual (German & English) information panels are dotted around the whole complex so that you can just as well get by without any further material.
One thing that wasn't yet functioning, however, was what was clearly intended to be some sort of interactive computer station near the entrance to the site from the motorway service station. Instead of a screen however, there was just a gaping hole. Maybe one day it will be filled with equipment that actually works.
Already in place, on the other hand, are a few extra exhibitions, such as the former currency exchange bureau, a collection of listening equipment on display in a separate hut, or the customs complex. The latter is especially intriguing. For instance you can see the moveable mirrors used by the border guards to check under vehicles, or the kind of mobile 'endoscope' equipment used for checking otherwise inaccessible cavities of vehicles. Especially eerie is also the booth for 'full-body' checks or the interrogation room, complete with one of those obligatory pictures of Erich Honecker
on the wall.
Of the open air components of the complex, the central watchtower (the command centre) stands out the most – literally as well as in its contribution to the general oppressive atmosphere (which was surely part of its role). The interior of the tower, however, is only accessible as part of a guided tour (see under access
). Access to the steps leading up to the observation bridge over the road is completely blocked off. But otherwise you are quite free to roam amongst the former checkpoint booths and so on.
Note the little separate booth at the former entrance for cars coming from the West – here, passports had to be handed in which were then committed to a conveyor belt leading straight into the interior of the main checkpoint buildings. So you had to watch your passport/identity being almost literally swallowed by this mechanized piece of intimidation machinery. Indeed, all this was intentional – and termed "operational psychology" in GDR border security lingo.
Also note the massive steel barrier near the access path to the watchtower – this was one of those mechanically extendable barriers that provided a last resort means of stopping vehicles trying to break through the checkpoint. It was used on several occasions and ended such attempts ... and in a few occasions it even ended lives!
Right in the back of the complex, several further buildings (all not accessible inside) form a kind of ghost-town-like ensemble – empty, partly boarded up, and dilapidated. For lovers (such as myself) of ghost towns and of the "beauty of decay" in general, this is an extra bonus. Here and there you can peek in to see either empty rooms or pieces of all manner of equipment, gas pipes, generators, etc.
To sum up: for me, this particular site is more impressive than any of those border museums along the former Iron Curtain
. OK, there are no walls or electric fences or such stuff here – as the cliché would normally make you expect. But this is more than made up for by this site offering such a unique insight into the inner workings and the ideological and psychological underpinnings of the whole paranoid border security system of the former GDR
. Anyone wanting to understand this side of history really should not give Marienborn a miss. Highly recommended!
In addition, there's all that cool, somewhat morbid, dilapidated ghost-town feeling of an abandoned place that makes this site so unique. In fact, it's amazing that – luckily – this site has been preserved so (largely) intact while most others have vanished completely. It is to be hoped that this can continue and that the site will be conserved for the benefit of future generations of visitors.
Note that the border memorial Hötensleben
is not only administratively part of the Marienborn memorial, it is also perfectly complements it by being the best example of the actual border fortifications along that Iron Curtain line – see under 'combinations
In the middle of Germany
, right by the main A2 motorway (connecting Hanover, Braunschweig Magdeburg and Berlin
), some three to four miles (5-6 km) east of Helmstedt, just behind today's motorway service station Marienborn.
Google maps locator: [52.2145,11.0832
Access and costs:
a bit remote but easy to reach by car; free.
to get to the Marienborn memorial site is easiest by car. Coming from the west along the A2 motorway heading towards Magdeburg and Berlin
, you can simply use the exit for the service station (ESSO) that occupies part of the former border crossing complex – it's about a mile and a half (2½ km) past the exit for "Helmstedt Ost" (exit 63). You can't drive onto the memorial complex's grounds from there, though, access is only on foot. Alternatively you can approach the site from the back (south), where there is a designated car park – to get there use the B1 road from Morsleben to Helmstedt (or vice versa) and follow the signs for "Gedenkstätte". Coming from the east on the A2 you can get to the B1 from exit 64 at Alleringersleben. Coming from the south (e.g. from Hötensleben
) on the B245 proceed along the B245a and in Harbke turn right onto Morslebener Straße (L1373) and follow the signs – or carry on and take the B1 as described above.
The actual village of Marienborn also has a train station (hourly or two-hourly connections from Helmstedt in only seven minutes) but it's quite a bit of a walk to the memorial site from the station (a couple of miles – partly through the woods …!).
Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
. However, audio guides in English (as well as a couple of other languages) are available for hire at short notice and at all times at the documentation centre.
Time required: hard to say – depends on how much you want to linger and simply take in the strange and creepy atmosphere. I'd say about an hour or two should be allocated at least, preferably more, especially if you want to make use of all the informational services on offer too (films, audio guide, tours, etc.).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Germany
– in the nearby town of Helmstedt, there's another border museum called "Zonengrenz-Museum Helmstedt", which may be a worth considering as an addition to visiting the border checkpoint complex. (Address: Südertor 6, 38350 Helmstedt, on the B1, opening times 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays also between 10 a.m. and noon, Thursdays open until 6:30 p.m. and at weekends between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., closed Mondays; admission free).
The nearby border memorial at Hötensleben
naturally makes the best combination, in particular as it contrasts with and complements the border crossing point by showing how insurmountable the GDR
border was as such, i.e. outside the official border crossing points. At Hötensleben the border fortifications even take the form and structure of the border within Berlin
, i.e. it looks more like the Berlin Wall
than other stretches of the former inner-German border (but also see Mödlareuth
Those other forms can be experienced at some of the border museums or open-air memorials further away: such as Schifflersgrund
, or Point Alpha
. The latter also has two museums, one of them about the American perspective, i.e. the Cold War
role of the border in a wider strategic sense.
Not related to the border, but a site whose name has a very dark ring to it too (at least in Germany
) is Morsleben, just north of Marienborn on the B1 main road. Here the GDR used an old deep salt mine for storing radioactive waste. The site is now officially closed, but the waste in it still poses a major problem as the shafts' stability is deteriorating. It's naturally not a tourist site as such, but – remarkably! – you can actually visit the place and even go on underground tours of the former mine; see under Asse II
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
other than lots of forest nothing particularly special, at least not in the immediate vicinity – in general see Germany
- Marienborn 01 - former border checkpoint
- Marienborn 02 - lanes for lorries
- Marienborn 03 - lamp posts upright and toppled
- Marienborn 04 - mirrors overhead
- Marienborn 05 - passenger car lane
- Marienborn 06 - no longer staffed
- Marienborn 07 - passport collection booth
- Marienborn 08 - passport conveyor belt system
- Marienborn 09 - special checkpoints and customs
- Marienborn 10 - expansive area
- Marienborn 11 - listening technology exhibition
- Marienborn 12 - present-day facilities in the background
- Marienborn 13 - old technology no longer functional
- Marienborn 14 - new technology not yet functional
- Marienborn 15 - closed
- Marienborn 16 - behind the window
- Marienborn 17 - view through the slit
- Marienborn 18 - special thorough checking garage
- Marienborn 19 - mobile mirror
- Marienborn 20 - full body check booth
- Marienborn 21 - open your suitcase please
- Marienborn 22 - interrogation room with obligatory Honecker portrait on the wall
- Marienborn 23 - the usual three too
- Marienborn 24 - main exhibition
- Marienborn 25 - GDR border guard manual
- Marienborn 26 - valuta generating
- Marienborn 27 - border security - observation periscope and spring gun
- Marienborn 28 - bike and mines
- Marienborn 29 - vintage electronics
- Marienborn 30 - Party symbol
- Marienborn 31 - stuffy office
- Marienborn 32 - evidence that the border was a tourist attraction in the West
- Marienborn 33 - last resort roadblock
- Marienborn 34 - the road to Berlin
- Marienborn 35 - central watchtower
- Marienborn 36 - good views
- Marienborn 37 - gamma cannon
- Marienborn 38 - hatch
- Marienborn 39 - cables
- Marienborn 40 - rusty mirror
- Marienborn 41 - typical lamp post
- Marienborn 42 - perimeter checkpoint booth
- Marienborn 43 - sculpture made with a Berlin Wall segment
- Marienborn 44 - ancillary buildings
- Marienborn 45 - crumbling
- Marienborn 46 - ancient
- Marienborn 47 - boarded-up ghost-town-like
- Marienborn 48 - dereliction