Throughout the 20th century, industrial agriculture, city development, and the construction of highways forced numerous plant and animal species out of their habitats. Additionally, World Wars I and II caused significant destruction of natural areas in many parts of Europe. However, many species have proved their resilience, specifically along the Cold War-era border from the northern tip of Finland to the Mediterranean Sea. Craters made by detonated landmines make ponds for black storks to wade in, ditches dug to prevent vehicles from crossing are now creeks that house European otters, and Balkan lynx roam freely in the untouched forests in Albania. This region, which used to represent death and division during the Cold War, is now a wildlife refuge that has brought new life and unity to the Eastern and Western Blocs of Europe.
In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech in Fulton, Missouri where he proclaimed “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” The newly coined “Iron Curtain” was a political and ideological barrier dividing East and West Europe to prevent contact between the communist states and their capitalist rivals during the Cold War. Eventually, chain-link fences and landmines were placed along certain stretches of the border, making the Iron Curtain a partially physical entity as well.
With heavily increased security around the border and the dangers associated with crossing it, people relocated from surrounding villages and rarely came within three to ten miles of the border. Some villages, such as Erlebach, Germany, were even leveled for being too close to the border. Since the heavily fortified area deterred human activity, the land itself remained untouched and protected from industrial-era agricultural practices, which included stripping natural ecosystems and planting monocultures of domesticated crops. From 1952, when the border was sealed, to 1990, when it was dismantled, the land gradually became a natural refuge to over 1,200 threatened species of plants and animals. The 68 square miles that were once covered by the Iron Curtain have thus been given a new name—the Green Belt.
The biodiversity in this area inspired an ecological conservation movement called the European Green Belt Initiative. The Initiative was officially endorsed in 2002 by former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev when he gave money to the German environmental group Friends of the Earth to purchase land to be protected. During the 8th Pan-European Green Belt Conference in September of 2014, the European Green Belt Association was established with support from 23 governmental and non-governmental organizations across 14 different countries. The Association has made significant progress toward the conservation of natural areas across Europe since the Green Belt entered the political sphere. They have also expanded the Initiative to include other natural spaces, not just the area previously occupied by the Iron Curtain.
The Green Belt currently serves as a natural tribute to European history. Hiking trails have been implemented into several stretches of the land where citizens can walk past preserved parts of the Iron Curtain border and learn about the land’s past. The Borderland Museum Eichsfeld in Central Germany educates visitors about the Cold War, the original purpose of the border, and the Green Belt. Such attractions allow the Belt to be more than just a conservation project; it unites people with the land and their shared history.
As an ideological symbol, the Green Belt represents the reunification of East and West Germany, and the end of the Cold War. The area which was commonly referred to as the “Death Strip” by Eastern and Western Germans now represents healing and life. Additionally, joint international efforts to increase conservation have connected countries in the fight against climate change. Since the Belt itself stretches from the northernmost tip of the East Finnish border with Russia to the Greece-Albania border, it connects sixteen countries in the European Union (EU), five EU candidate countries, one potential EU candidate, and two countries not in the European Union. The Initiative unites these countries in trans-border cooperation over regional conservation and proves to be an effective economic stimulus due to ecotourism.
The mission of the European Green Belt Association is to ensure a long-term collaboration between countries to incorporate more sustainable practices and effectively protect the Green Belt. They also intend to create a harmonious relationship between European citizens and their environment. The establishment of the European Green Belt Association has made each of these goals far more attainable and has committed each member country on continued conservation efforts, yet some critics hesitate to fully support the movement.
In 2005, Chancellor Angela Merkel led a newly-reunited German government in giving full support to the Green Belt Initiative. Merkel transferred ownership of certain portions of the Belt from the federal government to state governments to allow them to spearhead conservation efforts. Officials designated groups to take care of the land and began to generate income opportunities for people living nearby. Economic prospects were becoming more accessible and conservation efforts were gathering momentum, but the government still wanted to formally close off protected areas and shrink gaps in the Green Belt. Locals expressed concern that closing gaps in the Green Belt would seal it off as another border with restricted areas reminiscent of the Iron Curtain. Specifically in Germany, this would be an issue since the Green Belt runs directly through the country, separating East from West. The federal government has responded by proposing bypass options that will meet the needs of local communities as well as fulfill their own environmental aspirations.
The blooming Green Belt has brought life back to the former “Death Strip” and has reignited cooperation between Eastern and Western European countries following the Cold War. As a wildlife refuge, it benefits the European environment and has generated income through ecotourism. The historical significance of the area also gives it cultural appeal and reminds citizens of their shared past. With the Iron Curtain long gone, the European Green Belt represents a new environmental and diplomatic future for its neighboring countries in Central Europe.
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