The Fulda Gap

It’s a very good thing that there is so much going on on this trip that I’ve fallen behind on updates – but now it’s time to play some catch-up!

Yesterday, two German friends and I made our way to “Point Alpha” (Observation Post Alpha) on the former inner-German border of Hessen. It was near this place that DDR border captain Rudi Arnstadt was shot and killed by a West German border guard in 1962, a dramatic moment early in the Cold War. His killer, Hans Plüschke, was deemed by German courts to have acted in self-defense. The incident has never been fully explained. Plüschke stepped out of anonymity in 1997, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances a year later.

Construction of the Observation Post began in 1965. The observation tower which can be seen today was built in 1985 and replaced an earlier wooden one. From the tower, it is readily apparent why this place was chosen to survey the famous “Fulda Gap,” the place where NATO leadership anticipated a Soviet invasion if the Cold War ever turned hot in Europe.

The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border.
The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border. In the foreground are the former East German defenses.

Observation Post Alpha consists of three barracks and several support buildings. It was totally self-sufficient, with its own plumbing network, generator, and even a gas station for vehicles. To help the roughly 50 soldiers posted here pass the time, the post also included an outdoor brick grill, a horseshoes stake, a basketball hoop, a small sauna, and ping-pong tables. A bright red line in the middle of the camp marked the “Sperrlinie,” the line across which no tanks or heavy vehicles were allowed to cross – any crossing would have been perceived as provocation. The fence on the eastern border of the observation post was also the border of West Germany. East German border guards regularly patrolled right outside this fence, keeping a close watch on their counterparts (and their grill, presumably). Tellingly, the East German defenses were directed East as well. For more than a decade, anti-personnel proximity mines were mounted to the fence to dissuade would-be refugees from attempting to cross.

The nearby Point Alpha Museum tells the story of the Cold War in Hessen with numerous placards, strategic maps, videos, and artifacts like a military Trabant vehicle and original border defense mines. The museum also incorporates the stories of eye witnesses in a novel way – a video booth in the exhibition hall is available for visitors to tell their stories. The room contains multiple video screens to view the most interesting ones. The eye witnesses include former mayors of the area, attempted refugees from the DDR, US soldiers, and former border guards. A special exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the infamous East German women’s prison at Hoheneck, contextualized with many moving accounts of former inmates.

The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.
The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.

The towns around Observation Post Alpha, on both sides of the former border, refer to themselves as “Point Alpha communities.” They regularly cater to tourists traveling to this important strategic post, and likely appreciate more than most that it never had to report the beginning of a new war in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the post has hosted many reunions of US soldiers posted here, as well as symbolic meetings of former enemies, such as that between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

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