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Cold War tourism at Fulda Gap

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

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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