Cold War tourism at Fulda Gap

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The World

FULDA, Germany — The rusty and paint-chipped guard post might seem out of place among the rolling green hills and tidy villages of Germany’s Rhine region. But the backdrop of concrete barracks and barbed wire hints at what this place, called Point Alpha, really was: Just a few decades ago, this was a crucial border checkpoint between East and West Germany, where American soldiers waited for an imminent Soviet attack that never came.

“This wasn’t a border between two countries,” said Rudolf Kling, a volunteer tour guide at the Point Alpha Memorial. “It was a border between two different worlds: communism and freedom.”

The post at Point Alpha looks out over a broad stretch of lowlands. This strategic corridor, called the Fulda Gap, was a central chess piece in a global battle of American and Soviet wills that ended almost 20 years ago, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. If Soviet troops launched an invasion, American military experts believed it would happen here, 450 kilometers from Berlin.

“The Fulda Gap was an easy path to Fulda, so the troops could march right into it,” said Gunther Teubner, another volunteer tour guide at the Point Alpha Memorial. He pointed to a map and drew a direct line from Fulda through the former West Germany, all the way to the French border. “They would have cut the Federal Republic of Germany in half, and they wouldn’t have stopped there.”

The Fulda Gap’s navigable terrain made it a logical attack point because large masses of men and weapons could move west at a rapid pace. But the land held as much symbolic as strategic significance. A successful Soviet march through the Fulda Gap would have paved an open path to nearby Frankfurt, the financial heart of West Germany and home to the U.S. Army’s V Corps headquarters.

Wolfgang Hamberger, Mayor of Fulda from 1970 to 1998, was in regular contact with Point Alpha regiment commanders and headquarters in Frankfurt, learning of information he couldn’t always relay to his constituents.

“Nobody wanted to spread panic,” Hamberger said of his job. “But the people knew that if push came to shove, Fulda was a risky place to live.”

It isn’t clear how close Soviet leadership came to breaching the Warsaw Pact by striking through the Fulda Gap. But the strip of land remained a tinderbox for decades as American and Soviet forces stood eye-to-eye across mesh-iron fences. If an attack had occurred, the world would likely have witnessed a full-scale war pitting two nuclear powers against one another.

“If they marched in — if there was a siege — we knew we’d be gone,” said Winfried Jaeger, who was born and raised in Fulda.

Yet the looming attack never moved past a battle of intimidation and tension because the Soviet forces were never given the order to strike. “There is believed to be one main reason for that,” explained Gerhardt Wittig, a historian with the Joint Commission of German and Russian Historians. “It was the American presence. If you attacked the Federal Republic of Germany, that meant full-out war with the U.S., and you had to be able to survive that.”

The 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment was the first battalion of Americans to patrol the post at Point Alpha starting in 1951, and the soldiers remained at the site until 1991. Michael Brand, who represents Fulda in the German Parliament, was just 16 years old when the Berlin Wall, and the border between East and West Germany, fell. He still keeps a piece of Point Alpha’s mesh-iron fence in his Berlin office.

“We were grateful that the American troops were stationed [at Point Alpha] at that time, and we still are,” said Brand. “Looking at it now, Point Alpha was a beacon of freedom, and it will be seen that way in the future as well.”

Fulda’s former mayor, Hamberger, said people in his town went about their daily lives. And he pointed to the American presence as a deciding factor. “Our anxiety was tempered by the awareness that the superior American military technique and strategy was protecting our peace and freedom,” he said.

These days, Point Alpha attracts about 100,000 visitors annually who tour the museum and walk through the former American barracks where soldiers once slept, ate and watched. The spot is preserved as a stark reminder of what the East-West divide wrought for all those along its winding path.

“There’s no other place in the country where the role of Americans in defending the country is explained and celebrated like at Point Alpha,” said Michael Brand. “It’s a reminder that peace and freedom need to be protected.”

More on the Cold War:

Pedaling the Iron Curtain

Figure skating: The Cold War is really over

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