Looking for a cunning business venture after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Frank Neumann had the foresight to go into fencing — predicting the demand the new free market would create for chic enclosures to cordon off everything from private gardens to sports arenas.
Now, 18 years on, Neumann and his team of workers are putting the finishing touches to their biggest commission yet — a 12km-long, 2,5m-high steel fence topped with barbed wire, video monitors and sensors to detect movement. The daunting construction snakes through fields of rapeseed and contains enough steel — 500 tonnes — to make a ship.
This barrier is transforming the elegant 18th-century beach resort of Heiligendamm on Germany’s Baltic coast into the tightest high-security zone the country has known for the Group of Eight (G8) summit from June 6 to 8. Access through it will be controlled with airport-style X-ray machines and only those with passes will be allowed in.
Building a barrier on such a scale in the former communist part of a country divided by a wall for 28 years was always going to be controversial, although this is either lost on Neumann or he is coyly protecting his lucrative contract to construct what officials call a “temporary protection barrier”, and locals generally refer to as “the fence”.
“The difference is that this fence will be taken down after the summit is over,” he said drily. Rostock Zoo and Hamburg Airport have already put in bids for the second-hand barrier.
To discourage tunnelling protesters, steel grating has been rammed into the ground beneath the fence, so even the most conservative of German papers have compared its sudden appearance to the “preparations for a civil war”.
Local politicians are clearly concerned. The region has the highest unemployment in the country and Heiligendamm, Germany’s oldest Baltic resort, is attempting to reinvigorate its reputation as an elegant holiday destination for the rich and famous, having fallen into a state of neglect since the 1930s.
Its trademark white classical villas, modelled on those of British resorts, once played host to the Russian tsar and his family, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Queen Luise of Prussia and even dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who came here on the advice of their doctors.
But instead of pictures of Heiligendamm’s sweeping sandy beaches, it is the â,¬12-million fence that is likely to go round the world as the summit’s single most powerful image.
“The central government told us it was necessary,” the deputy leader of the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern, Reinhard Meyer, insisted, referring to the fence as a “technical restriction”. “We’ve done our best to explain it to the local people, but they’re understandably frustrated.”
The locals do not seem convinced. Two fishermen on the pier that leads from the Kempinski Grand Hotel — renovated for â,¬200-million to house the likes of George Bush, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin — said the â,¬100-million being spent on security, including 16 000 police officers, was a waste.
“When unemployment in Mecklenburg Vorpommern is so high and social welfare benefits are being cut, why should they be allowed to waste so much money for their fancy knees-up?” said one.
Anti-globalisation protesters have dressed up as bolt-cutters and lined up along the fence, an action that led to several arrests.
“They’re trying to create a democracy-free zone in there and showing a lack of taste by building a barrier like this in a country that had a bad experience with walls,” said Monty SchÃ¤del, of the German Society for Peace. “If these rulers believe that they need a wall to protect themselves and freedom, then freedom doesn’t have a very bright future.”
Conservationists also joined the fray after an 1854 villa — once the summer residence of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I — was torn down to make way for a press centre. Fundus, the investment company behind the demolition, has promised to rebuild an “exact copy” but locals are not impressed.
“We don’t accept that they can just come and tear down a listed building to make way for a three-day meeting,” said Hannes Meyer, co-founder of the citizens’ initiative “Pro Heiligendamm”. Marianne PrÃ¼ter (70), a resident since 1947, said: “What can we glean from this? They’re good at building fences and tearing down historic villas.”
Protesters are expected to gather in their tens of thousands for the G8. A demonstration and pop concert are planned in the nearby port city of Rostock and huge tent parks have been set up.
Even the wall is no guarantee of safety, however, as the discovery of a World War II torpedo found floating in the Baltic Sea close to the resort last week proved. The 1 500kg bomb was detonated safely, but it did show that threats can come in unpredictable forms. — Guardian Unlimited Â