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Cold War tourism at Fulda Gap

Visiting Point Alpha, where East faced off against West in Germany.

During the Cold War, Western forces worried the Soviet Union would invade via Fulda Gap in East Germany. (Sumi Somaskanda/GlobalPost)

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.”