Hiking the German Green Belt (‘Grünes Band’). The former border that separated East and West Germany is nearly 1,400 kilometres long. Thorsten Hoyer did it in one go. And shares his hike through German history in five chapters.
Reaching the three-state-stone (Drei-Freistaaten-Stein), I leave Saxony behind and hike along the border between Bavaria and my adopted home – Thuringia. I arrive in Mödlareuth, a village with just 40 inhabitants, which is well-known because the inner-German border used to run straight through the middle of it.
One half of Mödlareuth is in Thuringia, and the other half is in Bavaria. There used to be a wall running through the middle of the village. It meant that friends and families could not see, let alone visit, each other. As a result, the village was often referred to as ‘Little Berlin’. Its unique story became the subject of the fictional German television series ‘Tannbach’.
Daring tales of escape from the GDR provided plenty of film material. One of the most spectacular, was in a home-made hot air balloon in 1979. News circulated around the world of the incredible escape of the two families, the Wetzels and the Strelzyks, and in 2018 their story was made into a film by Michael ‘Bully’ Herbig. I was eleven years old when they fled, and can still remember watching Jo Brauner, the ‘Tagesschau’ anchor, reporting about it in the news one evening. It was shortly after I had been to visit the GDR for the first time.
But back to the present … In Hirschberg an der Saale, I meet up with Günter Wetzel, who will join me to hike the section of the Green Belt to Blankenstein. He was the one who had the idea of escaping in a hot air balloon and who sewed the huge canvas himself.
Naturally I was curious to find out what made him want to flee the GDR. “There were a number of reasons,” replied Günter. He explained that: “In private, our lives were relatively good. But in public, and in society as a whole, it was a different matter. You were not allowed to express your opinions freely. Your choice of occupation was limited and there was no travel allowed. And I wasn’t prepared to make a deal with the authorities.”
“But how,” I ask, “did you come up with the idea of escaping by hot air balloon?” His reply: “I read an article in a Western magazine about a hot air balloon festival. As I looked at the photos, the idea just came to me – that was our way out, over the border.”
As we follow the trail, looking down over the River Saale, Günter explains that he made the balloon much larger than necessary, which in the end proved a blessing, because it softened the blow of the hard landing. “To prevent drawing attention to ourselves by buying large quantities of cloth, we spread out the purchases throughout the GDR.” It’s hard to imagine what it was like sewing countless smaller lengths of cloth together with an old sewing machine, in the attic of a house, to create a gigantic balloon-shaped bag!
You can find a lot of information about the Green Belt on the BUND website (in German only).
“There were four children with you in the basket, which was just a small sheet of metal with an iron frame around it. Were you scared?” I ask. “I wasn’t scared, but obviously I really hoped that it all went according to plan. We’d already had two failed attempts, so this was our last chance. The Stasi were on our trail. But I was confident that we’d make it.” “And was it everything you’d hoped for once you made it across?” I enquire of him. He looks at me, and without a moment’s hesitation, says, “Yes. Everything turned out exactly as we’d hoped – for me, and my family.”
We arrive in Blankenstein and stand on a footbridge spanning the river Selbitz. The bridge not only links two free states but is also part of a junction that’s unique to Germany – and maybe even Europe or the World: the ‘hiking turnstile’. It marks the start point or finishing point of five long-distance hiking trails in Germany: Rennsteig, Kammweg, Frankenwaldsteig, Fränkischer Gebirgsweg and Frankenweg.
We stand right in the middle of the bridge – so right on the border between Thuringia and Bavaria. Günter glances over at the Bavarian side and mentions, almost in passing, that the landing site of their hot air balloon flight was behind the mountain near Naila. He and his family have lived in the area for decades now. This is home to him. He even describes himself as a Franconian. We say our goodbyes at the turnstile, his parting words to me: “East Germany, West Germany – it’s irrelevant these days.”
I’m grateful to have been accompanied by Günter Wetzel for a section of the route. I can still recall the news report of his escape. I’ve even watched the film about his attempt – but I never dreamed that our paths would cross one day. For me now, the Green Belt leads on through Germany, and I’m excited at the prospect of what lies ahead, and what stories I am yet to hear.
Follow Thorsten Hoyer on his journey – read the next chapter