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Top secret highway bridge

Manfred Kaiser
Manfred Kaiser

With trembling hands and a beating heart, Manfred Kaiser mounts the telephoto lens of his SLR camera. Hidden in the bushes, he focuses on his subject several hundred meters away with a focal length of 600 millimeters: a huge HOCHTIEF bridge construction site in the Werratal. What he is doing is strictly forbidden. And what is being built there, something of a state secret.

It is 1981 and Germany is still a divided country. The A4 between Obersuhl in the west and Eisenach in the east is affected by the motorway construction work that was stopped during the Second World War. What remains is a bottleneck for transit traffic. Therefore, the GDR government gives the order to build a new motorway bridge across the Werratal. And awards the job to the then "class enemy" in the Federal Republic of Germany – HOCHTIEF.

Presumably, that was the reason why not only photography was prohibited. Overall, the GDR went to great lengths to keep the project secret. The construction site is secured by a metal fence, observation towers, barriers, traffic lights and cameras. People's Police and border guards patrol the area.

To keep the construction site secret, the HOCHTIEF workers lived in specially built dormitories on eastern territory near the bridge. There was a specially built inter-shop with western goods, because the bridge builders were only allowed to go home at weekends. They were given permanent visas and banned from contacting GDR citizens like Manfred Kaiser. Neither television nor newspapers reported at the time. Amateur photographer Kaiser, however, did not allow himself to be patronised: "I was interested in recording the construction progress as well as possible." Again and again he crept up and photographed the construction of the largest bridge in the GDR, 732 meters long.

And Kaiser still remembers one exceptional Thursday. Normally, blasting took place regularly on Thursdays, which was necessary to connect the motorway route with the bridge. "Only on Thursday, 21 April 1983, there were no blasts," Kaiser wondered at the time. As it turned out, Erich Honecker was visiting Eisenach and Wartburg Castle on that day. No bang was supposed to disturb him. All hunters had to hand in their weapons on that day, as well.

Hidden from public view, the bridge grew over the Werratal for three years until it was opened on 15 December 1984 without any celebration. Incidentally, the Federal Republic of Germany paid the bill for 186 million marks.