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Vennbahn: The Railway That Created a Peculiar Border Problem

Vennbahn

Germany and Belgium’s border problem. Photo: gunnsteinlye/Flickr

Along the German-Belgian border runs an old disused railway track, the Vennbahn. It passes through three countries, starting at the German town of Aachen, goes through Belgian territory and ends in Troisvierges in northern Luxembourg. Along the way it snakes in and out of Germany and Belgium creating a very odd border situation in the region.

This area originally belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia, which became part of the German Empire in 1871. Construction of the railway started in 1882 to help integrate the region better into the newly unified German state. But mostly, it was built to carry coal from the mines in Aachen to power the expanding steel industry in Luxembourg and Lorraine.

After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Germany was required to give away vast swaths of land to other European nations, countries that suffered heavily in the war. The international border was pushed eastwards, and many former German territories became part of Belgium, including those through which the Vennbahn passed.

Germany insisted that the Vennbahn should remain German property because it was built by the German people. Belgium protested that the region was ceded to them, and therefore they have the sovereign right to all infrastructure that stood on the region’s land. They went further and claimed sovereignty over the entire trackbed of the Vennbahn, even though parts of the line still went through German territory. The Belgians pleaded that the line was an essential communication route for the eastern territory given to them by the Treaty of Versailles, and therefore should be Belgian property. The international commission appointed by the Treaty of Versailles to oversee the fixing of the exact frontiers, agreed and the trackbed was awarded to Belgium.

The Vennbahn thus became a Belgian railway running through German territory. This created a peculiar border situation, because wherever the railway tracks left Belgian territory and entered German’s, it split the German territories into exclaves of Belgium.

Vennbahn

A section of the German-Belgium border highlighting the odd borders. The areas in yellow are German territory. The light areas are Belgium territory, including the narrow serpentine Vennbahn.

The Vennbahn created seven German exclaves and one Belgian. One German exclave was ceded entirely to Belgium and ceased to exit. Two merged together to become one. Currently, the number of German exclaves is five. From from north to south, these exclaves are: Munsterbildchen, Rotgener Wald, Ruckschlag, Mutzenich and Ruitzhof. These regions are separated from mainland Germany by the trackbed of the Vennbahn, a narrow strip of land less than 20 meters across. The smallest of these exclaves, Rückschlag, is only 1.6 hectares and contains a single house with a garden.

Vennbahn

The northern section of the Vennbahn with the 5 German exclaves shown.

Belgian operated five stations in various German exclaves, serving citizens of a foreign country. For the smooth operation of the railway, some unique legal arrangements had to be made, such as passengers on the line could use both German and Belgian currency to pay fares or freight charges. German public venturing on to railway land for railway purposes were exempt from customs control. Similarly, Belgians living on Belgian railway land and working for the railway were exempt from all German laws and taxes.

Traffic on the Vennbahn began to fell by the 1930s, and in 1940, Adolf Hitler once again re-annexed the territory and Vennbahn was returned to service as a wholly German line. The line operated until the 2000s, after which the Vennbahn was abandoned. Barring a few sections, the majority of the tracks were removed and the trackbed was paved over to make a fantastic 125-km-long bicycling path that goes through picturesque landscape with gently rising uplands, narrow ravines and beautiful towns.

Vennbahn

The Vennbahn today near Kornelimünster. Photo: Lewin Bormann/Flickr

Vennbahn

The Vennbahn today, near Monschau. Photo: Lewin Bormann/Flickr

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