Welcoming Europe at the Border Museum Schifflersgrund

by | 14. July 2021

Border Museum Schifflersgrund | Driving up a long and windy road through the beautiful scenery near the exact geographical middle of Germany, we arrived with our dome at the border museum Schifflersgrund. It is called the border museum because it lies at the exact spot where the border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic once was. The museum can easily be spotted by a former watchtower, which looms over the natural ditch that marks the Schifflersgrund. Kim Graves shares her impressions of the first stop of the Remember Tour.

Excited to arrive and to meet our contact person Anne Vaupel-Meier, we parked our van and took in the enchanting but at the same time gloomy atmosphere. Enchanting because of the endless hills and forests surrounding us and oppressing because of the dark weather and of the watchtower, the visible remains of the border fence and the knowledge that a piece of dark German history happened exactly here.  Anne gave us a quick tour around the facilities and showed us the designated space for the dome. 

We lost no time and started building the dome. After we test built the dome a few weeks earlier, we constructed it in record time, just in time in fact, before it started to rain. Together with help from the museum staff, we hoisted the rain cover over the dome and tied it to the poles, so the strong winds wouldn’t blow it away. We arranged the details for our first dome talk the next day, we headed back down to our hotel in Bad Sooden-Allendorf and fell into bed after a long day of construction and travel. 

Our second Dome Talk at the Border Museum Schifflersgrund

The notion of freedom – a truly central one at the former inner-German border

“Democratic processes and structures should not be taught, but experienced. We need to foster political participation in young people, not prevent it.”

Anne Vaupel-Meier

Head of Education and Communication at the Border Museum Schifflersgrund

Early the next day we packed our bags and headed back to the museum. Unfortunately the weather forecast was right and it would be rainy and cold all day. Rather than sit in the cold and wet for the duration of the dome talk, we decided to ditch the dome and to hold our discussion in an exhibition hall. We provided Corona-Tests, enough distance between the participants and with everyone wearing a mask, nobody was in danger of catching any illnesses. 

Our participants were local democracy activists and school social workers, as well as staff of extracurricular places of learning such as the border museum itself. Prior to our discussion round we were told that there were hardly any connections between organisations and institutions, so we hoped our invitation would start a closer network. Further there were representatives of a local foundation and members of youth institutions and aid organisations for aslyum seekers. Without much moderation a lively discussion took place about the current state of democracy in the region, youth participation options and institutional financial frameworks that made this kind of work possible.

There was agreement on a lot of topics but also respectful and constructive disagreement on other issues. We collected the wishes for the region and formulated the demands we would put forth in our second discussion round with the local politicians. In the end everybody was happy to meet again and expressed their expectations of the second round two days later. 

After the participants had left, we tidied up the room and collected participants’ wishes and demands. We as organisers reviewed the discussion and came to the same conclusion the participants: this was a great discussion and the seed for further close contact between the activists was sowed.

On Friday the weather still didn’t look any brighter, but nonetheless our spirits were still high from the success of the last day.

Back at the museum we split up in two teams, Edda our camera woman would interview contemporary witnesses, who experienced the inner-german border first-hand and the rest would plan the next day’s dome talk with Anne. A part of the discussion would be a literal red thread which we spun around our dome and around the neighbouring trees. This is the literal and metaphorical (red) thread, collecting the central ideas that would follow the project “Summer of Democracy” at the border museum. Every week there would be a new question pegged on the thread which visitors of the museum can answer and also pin on the threat. The first question was “What do you associate with Europe?”. Additionally, we put the wishes and demands collected in the first discussion on the thread for everyone to see.

Later, we joined Edda in the interviews and talked to some people that experienced life in a german village just next to the border. Mostly they were from villages on the GDR side and told us about the strict rules they had to follow. They were not allowed to visit the neighbouring village only a few kilometers away. They always had to carry around identification and were arrested and brought to the station without hesitation if they couldn’t show identification.

One man told us about an acquaintance of his, who sat in a bar one day, got drunk and left with the words “I’m off”. This was brought to the attention of officials which promptly suspected that we would try to cross the border and flee to West Germany. He was put into prison and after his release was banned from his home village located next to the border. Listening to these accounts made all of us speechless. Nearly all of us listening were born after the german reunion and have a hard time to imagine what it was like to live in a totalitarian state that would imprison you for a thoughtless comment made drunkenly in a bar. 

Lost in thought we returned to our hotel and got some food. In the evening Edda interviewed Anne, from the museum and our Anne, from DI in the museum about the projects and ideas of our tour. 

On Saturday we headed up to the museum one last time and prepared the second discussion talk. Luckily the sky finally cleared up and we arranged the seats in a circle in front of our dome. There were too many people to fit inside but the famous dome-feeling was maintained by the dome in the background.

We welcomed many participants from our first round, some contemporary witnesses, museum staff members and politicians from the Hessian and Thuringian Parliament, a member of the national parliament and even a member of a European Parliament.

Activists among themselves on 1 July in the exhibition hall of the Border Museum. Despite the bad weather, at least some parts of the dome were with us.

Our second Dome Talk at the Border Museum Schifflersgrund

To break the ice Anne (from the museum) introduced everyone and we asked everyone to pick one or two demands or wishes from the first round we previously pegged on the red thread. Additionally, we had pegged answers to the “Summer of Democracy” question and quotes from the first round on the thread. 

The talk was kicked off by a contemporary witness (which we interviewed the previous day) showing us he picked the word “freedom” off the line. Through his accounts on the lack of freedom and democracy in East Germany, everybody held the challenges and accomplishments of the last decades in mind while discussing the problems we face today. Once again we discussed freedom of speech, citizens’ and youth participation. This time we formulated concrete, realistic ways of improving the current state. Time flew by and suddenly we had to come to an end. After the official end of the event many participants stayed behind and continued talking with each other, while in the background our team collected and packed everything in the van. 

The dome will stand at the border museum until September when the “Summer of Democracy” ends. With mixed feelings we left, on the one hand enjoying the energetic and constructive space we had helped open at the museum, and on the other hand tired and happy that our first stop of the Remember-Tour was such a success!

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Some impressions of our event: