The tank outside the window looks even eerier in the soft moonlight. Behind it, the barrel of an artillery gun is pointed at the sky, while owls perched in the trees screech in the darkness. To add to the sense of foreboding, there is a sign at some distance from the camp that is still surprisingly legible in the darkness: “Attention 50 Meters to Border.” It isn’t easy to fall asleep quickly in this unusual place in the middle of Germany, a place that is bound to stir up all kinds of anxious thoughts. The former U.S. Observation Point Alpha, or OP Alpha, above the town of Geisa, is located at what is now an almost meaningless border between the states of Thuringia, in the former East Germany, and Hesse, in the former West. It is one of many reminders of a divided Germany, and yet this one is very different.
Anyone can spend the night in the sturdily built barracks of the former American observation post.
The barracks at OP Alpha are more like a youth hostel than luxury accommodation. Visitors have to bring their own sheets to sleep in the bunk beds, there are communal toilets and showers in the hall, and the room doesn’t have a TV set. “But you will be sleeping in the hottest location of the Cold War,” says Volker Bausch, director of the memorial site, which is maintained by a foundation. “There is no other place along the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) border where East Germany protruded so far into the West as it did here.”
“There is no other place along the 1,400-kilometer border where East Germany protruded so far into the West.”
That was why NATO expected the area to be the most likely site of an attack from the East. “Military maps at the time referred to it as the so-called Fulda Gap.” As senior officers with the East German military confirmed after German reunification in 1990, the Eastern Bloc aimed to enter West Germany near Fulda and advance to the Frankfurt airport 100 kilometers away, occupy the airport and then divide West Germany into a northern and southern part. The U.S. Armed Forces established many observation posts along the border between East and West Germany to be prepared for exactly this threat. OP Alpha, where 80 to 200 soldiers were once stationed, is the only observation post that has been preserved.
The site, which is somewhat hidden, hasn’t been exposed to the substantial amount of vandalism to be found elsewhere. Even a piece of the expanded metal fence, which served as the front line of the East German border, was preserved at the outpost in the Rhön Mountains region, although not all of it is original.
U.S. soldiers never slept in the beds in the current hostel, and the cupboards are also replacements. “Unfortunately, many things were lost after the Americans withdrew from Point Alpha in the spring of 1991 and after they closed the barracks in Fulda,” says the man responsible for the current memorial site, Berthold Dücker, who managed to cross the border fence nearby and reach the West German state of Hesse as a teenager. “The state government in Hesse at the time was determined to demolish this camp, after it had housed asylum applicants in this remote and poorly accessible region.”
After a change in the state government from a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens to the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 1999, the demolition plans were abandoned. Now there was funding available to expand the former observation post into a memorial and learning center. Politicians from many countries visited the site, including former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2005. The camp feels very authentic, and not just because of an exhibition depicting the daily lives of U.S. soldiers in one of the barracks, along with the surrounding display of tanks, jeeps and helicopters.
Former soldiers and officers often return to the site from the United States to show their wives, children and grandchildren the former Cold War hot spot. In 1953, tents, which had been the standard housing for US soldiers until then, were replaced with solid buildings. There are many photos on the Internet, in the memorial archive and in the new permanent exhibition that depict East German soldiers standing in front of or behind the front fence. The soldiers are depicted in many positions, sometimes seated in or standing next to Trabant cars or the “Robar,” the term the U.S. military mistakenly used to describe the Robur truck manufactured in the East German town of Zittau.
The view of a tank outside the window isn’t the only reason we won’t forget our night in this dark and gloomy place. The next morning, everyone was in high spirits – like in any other youth hostel.
This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. Claus-Dieter Steyer reports from Berlin for the newspaper. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.