Protection of Czechoslovak borders during the Cold War
The protection of borders between the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (CSSR) and Capitalist countries of Western Europe, namely with West Germany and Austria, in the Cold War era and especially after 1951, was provided by special troops of the Pohraniční Stráž (English: the Border Guard) and system of engineer equipment which created the real "Iron Curtain". The purpose was to prevent citizens of the Eastern Bloc escaping to the West, although official reports stated it was to keep the enemy's spies and saboteurs out of Czechoslovakia. The border system of Czechoslovakia was not as elaborate and fortified as that of the Inner German border or the Berlin Wall, but it was considered difficult to cross the border undetected.
History and development
After World War II and liberation of country the original borders of Czechoslovakia were restored and special units of police (SNB) were to protect the borders together with the army. Following the communist takover in the government, thousands of opponents of the communist regime tried to escape the country. For individuals or small groups it was quite easy to avoid the guards and cross the borders, though it was dangerous if they were spotted, as the guards were allowed to shoot the intruders on sight. About 10,000 people including 50 prominent politicians crossed the borders in the first year after the political change.
Consequently, the independent HQ of Border Guard was created but the number of crew was nearly the same (about 6000 men) as the detection of potential emigrants by regular police was preferred.:19 The so-called "forbidden zone" was established up to 2 km from the border in which no civilians could reside. A wider region, so called "border zone" also existed, up to 12 km from the border, in which no "disloyal" or "suspect" civilians could reside or work. For example, the entire Aš-Bulge creating the most problematic part of the border territory fell within the border zone.
Substantial changes occurred by the end of 1951, after several successful attempts of mass-escape. The number of men increased to 17,000. The Border Guard was reorganised into two brigades with headquarters in Cheb and Znojmo. Finally, the real iron containment by means of engineer equipment was built. From 1951 onwards, this area was designated by a signal fence some kilometres inside the border, while the border itself was secured by a guarded strip with a single barbed wire fence. This fence, originally an electric fence with a voltage of 5000 V, was replaced starting in 1968 by a double wire mesh fence similar to that used on the Inner German border. In addition, the Czechs fitted their border with watch towers. In contrast with the concrete towers of the East Germans, these towers were usually made of wood or steel framework. In some areas various types of land mines were used, notably PP Mi-Ba, PP Mi-D and PP Mi.
The barrier typically lay around 100 metres (330 ft) inside the actual boundary line. As the fence was not visible from there at some places, it repeatedly occurred that curious or careless West German strollers overlooked border markers and mistakenly entered Czechoslovak territory, which could lead to their arrest.
The Czechs witnessed the drama in West Germany's embassy in Prague, where thousands of East Germans were hiding. This wore down the patience of the Czechoslovakian authorities, who eventually gave in, letting all East Germans travel directly to West Germany from 3 November 1989, thus breaking the Iron Curtain.
On 17 November 1989, the Velvet Revolution succeeded. The barbed wire on the borders with East Germany and Austria was removed from 5 December onwards, and from 11 December the Czechoslovak fortifications on the West German border were dismantled.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, and Austria are now all part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows border crossing without identity checks.
- Czechoslovak border fortifications during the Cold War
- Velvet Revolution: key events of the following weeks.
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