A Cold War Memory from the Other Side of the Iron Curtain
A preserved part of the Iron Curtain, known to the Czechoslovak Border Guards as a Signal Wall
In 1945, the war between Nazi Germany and the Allies still raged in Europe. The major leaders of the Allies, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain met in Soviet Yalta in February the same year. They talked about the postwar arrangement of Europe.
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany minister of propaganda, declared that should Germany lose the war, Europe would be divided by an Iron Curtain for the rest of the 20th century. He, of course, quickly added that Germany would not lose the war. However, Germany lost the war a few months later.
Soon after the end of World War II, the former war Allies became enemies. Europe was divided into two blocks, East and West. The Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe while the United States exercised its influence in Western Europe. Czechoslovakia found itself in Eastern Europe. The Cold War began.
Since 1951, the Czechoslovak Border Guard secured the borders with West Germany and Austria. The borders were closed by a system of signal walls known also as the Iron Curtain. No one was to be let through.
Much has been said and written obout the Iron Curtain and the Czechoslovak Border Guard. What was it really like on the sharply watched Western borders of the Eastern Block though?
I had the opportunity to ask a man who served there as an officer of the Czechoslovak Border Guard in 1980s. Here is my interview with Zdenek:
Zdenek, where and when did you serve?
In September 1981, I began my studies at the Specialized Border Guard and Interior Ministry Academy in the town of Holesov. My studies and military training lasted four years.
Zdenek as a young cadet in class (circled in green)
SNB Military Academy in Holesov, contemporary photograph
After graduating from the Academy, I received the rank of a Staff Sergeant (two small silver stars on green shoulder boards). I reported for duty as a squad leader at the 1st Border Guard Company at the Tri-border where the borders of Czechoslovakia, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) met. Our company belonged to the 5th Border Guard Brigade in Cheb and was also identified as Border Guard unit 8842. This was a specific military identification that copied the system of the Czechoslovak People’s Army.
In the years of 1985-1991, I served on the Czechoslovak-West German border. In 1991, the Border Guard was transformed into a professional Federal Border Police. That gave me a chance to serve closer to my home at the Czechoslovak-Polish border in the area of Vávrovice in the region of Opava. I left the service in 1993 when Czechoslovakia was divided into two new countries, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.
The area of my service between 1981-1991
Our daily duties at the 1st Border Guard Company, Zdenek as a young officer (top left photograph, circled in green)
Why did you decide to join the Border Guard?
That is a good question. :-)
As a young man I wanted adventure.
Much more of such shows were then made and I loved them all. That played a great role in my decision to join.
How did you get accepted into the Border Guard?
There were several factors that decided if I would be accepted.
I had to have a security clearance, which in the CSSR meant that none of my family members lived in the West, or God forbid in the Evil Empire, the USA :-)
Also, all of my closest relatives had to have a clean criminal record, clean of convictions for both political and criminal offences. Had I not met these basic conditions, there would have been no point in even trying to join the Border Guard.
Then, I had to undergo really thorough medical examinations. Because I am from the city of Ostrava, I traveled to The Military Hospital in Olomouc. There, my physical and psychological tests took all day. That was a tiresome and very unpleasant day.
Finally, I had to go through admission procedures that took place in the facilities of the SNB Academy in Holesov. SNB, the National Security Corps of Czechoslovakia, was how we called the Police then. The admission tests were tough—the physical part included climbing a rope, push-ups, running, etc. The other tests consisted of general knowledge exams, such as math and the Russian Language, which were mandatory subjects at all schools back then.
I passed all the tests and exams, and one day I received a letter from the Federal Ministry of Interior in Prague. The letter informed me that I was accepted and gave me instructions where and when I was to report to a military school.
What kind of military training did you undergo? Was it difficult?
I must admit that even though I was a young, slim, and a fit man in 1981, I thought of the entire four years in the Military Academy as very demanding.
First, the stress was on physical training. Never before or after, had I run so many kilometers as in the Military Academy. They used to say, “A Border Guard either runs or digs trenches and foxholes.“ That was true, I had my fair share of the field shovel as well.
Stress was also put on military-technical border training. We learned to track traces in the terrain, move in the border area, and also studied military theories and regulations.
Very often, we went to the firing ranges, especially practising to fire Sa Vz. 58 assault rifle, UK Vz. 59 machine gun, smaller caliber weapons, and later Vz. 61 Skorpion machine pistol. This pistol was designed as a personal weapon for Border Guard officers.
Zdenek (left) as a young cadet in 1984 with an Sa vz. 58 assault rifle
We also learned to use RPG-7 a RPG-75 anti-tank grenade launchers and hand grenades.
Was the academic part of the training also demanding?
Certainly, our military training also consisted of academic subjects. Simililar to civilian schools, we studied Math, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Czechoslovak Law, and Russian. In addition, we had a choice between German or English. I chose German.
There were also specialized subjects, such as Intelligence Training. I loved this subject the most. Our instructor was one Colonel Klika. He was an officer of the Czechoslovak Military Intelligence, and an old and very experienced professional. Among his posts of duty was Lebanon. The colonel told us fantastic stories. He also taught us about the police and customs units on the other side of the Western border, as well as about U.S. Army units serving in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
After that, while I was already serving in my Border Guard unit at the Czechoslovak border with West Germany, I attended a two-year Officer Training School in a distant study program. Upon graduation, I became a commissioned officer in the rank of a Liuetenant.
Did you have a chance to chose the place of your assignment?
Yes, in theory. Just in theory :-)
At the end of my training at the Military Academy, I could choose between two or perhaps three military units. I requested the Znojmo Border Guard Brigade or the Cheb Border Brigade. I was posted at the Cheb Brigade.
What was your first assignment like?
I remember that even before I was allowed to go into the border area terrain on my own, our company commander had to show new soldiers most of the area that was under our watch. Several days later, a political officer, the Deputy Commander for Political Affairs, walked me along our border with West Germany.
The first month on patrols, I was always accompanied by an experienced soldier. This was usually a man who was serving his mandatory military service. In Czechoslovakia, every healthy male who reached 18 years of age had to serve in the military for two years.
There was no chance of getting lost to the West while on a patrol. One could not overlook the Signal Wall (the physical Iron Curtain) that stood in front of our border.
Signal Wall on Czechoslovak Western border, contemporary photograph
The Czechoslovak Western border area we guarded
What equipment did you use on duty?
As an officer, I carried a Vz. 61 Skorpion machine pistol, 7.65 mm caliber, loaded with a small magazine containing 10 pistol cartriges. I also carried two larger magazines, each held 20 cartriges.
In the beginning, I had a PR-21Tesla radio station, but later I was issued a very good 1 Watt RF-10 military radio station that worked on a 40 MHz shortwave band.
I also carried RALK-69 police handcuffs, a pack of bandages, and a flash light at night. To connect to the field telephone system, I had a field phone. This was not a classic field phone, there was no need to dial it, but rather to plug it into a connector. Everywhere in the Border Zone terraine and especially near the Signal Wall there were hidden phone connectors. That way I could connect my field phone to any of them and call a station supervising officer on duty.
A Czechoslovak Border Guard using his field phone and connector in the terrain
The men who were serving their two-year mandatory military service carried Sa Vz. 58 assault rifles, caliber 7.62, with folding riffle-butts. I must say that this Czechoslovak version of the Soviet AK-47 was an excellent and extremely reliable weapon. Never do I recall that this weapon failed. The weapon’s maintenance was simple. A truly perfect product. Especially, since, later, I heard complaints from U.S. Army soldiers about their M16 assault rifles jamming.
What were your accommodations like?
That varied greatly, depending on whether our barracks were old buildings or one of the new facilities that were being built in the 1980s. We, soldiers as well as civilians, called the new barracks “Mountain Resorts.“
The new barracks offered comfortable rooms, sleeping approximately eight soldiers, central heating, fitness rooms, billiard salons, libraries, modern kitchens, and spacious mess halls. That was my accommodation at the 1st Border Guard Company in 1985.
I was lucky—had I lived in one of those old barracks that would have been really slumming it.
Our new barracks, known as „A Mountain Resort“
One of the old Border Guard barracks
What was the food like?
In the training facilities or the Border Guard Brigade barracks the food was—let’s say—somewhat of under-average quality. Especially in old facilities that lacked in kitchen equipment.
This was similar in the Holesov Military Academy. Even though the Academy’s kitchen and mess hall were built in 1982, it was not an easy task to prepare three hot meals a day for hundreds of soldiers. On the other hand, I still remember very tasty meals that were very popular amongst soldiers and cadets. For example, Wiener Schnitzel, Hungarian Goulash, Roast Chicken, Fried Cheese (a Czech specialty), or various Czech and Slovak traditional dishes.
Sometimes it happened that the meal was not a success, so we would have some soup, grab some bread, and went to buy food at an ARMA, a small convenience store on the base. Fortunately, this did not happen too often.
When I finally got my first permanent post, the food greatly improved. Our company consisted of approximately 50 soldiers, so the cooks were able to focus more on the preparation of really good meals. The food there tasted just like from my mom. Many soldiers left the service a bit heavier. I myself gained quite a few pounds. Well, who can resist good food?
A Border Guard Company mess hall (left) and Border Guard cooks on duty (right)
What was your duty like, day or night?
I trained new Border Guard soldiers three times a week, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Our company consisted of three platoons.
Often, I pulled a duty as a station supervising officer. This was a 24-hour duty that began at 07:00 in the morning. A station supervising officer oversaw the protection of the border, sent patrols into the terrain, took reports from the soldiers who returned from their duty, and maintained radio and phone connection with the patrols and superior officers. Also, he organized a response action in the case of a Border Alarm, when either someone tried to violate the border zone, or another incident happened. Sometimes this duty was nothing but adrenalin, other times it was very peaceful, if not boring.
As an officer I inspected the patrols in the terrain and at their posts. As a platoon leader, I also oversaw a canine expert activate new service dogs.
My favorite activity was “Demarcation Duty.“ Another soldier and I patroled our border outside the Signal Wall, and watched the territory of the opposing forces. This gave me a chance to meet West German police officers, such as members of Bundesgrenzschutz or Customs officers. I often saw U.S. Army soldiers, especially at the HM 1/1 boundary stone marker, where the borders of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and West Germany met.
I experienced hundreds of such meetings. Sometimes, I talked to West German police officers. Never about our duties, but mostly about life, the quality of beers, weather, or German TV shows (I often watched West German shows on ARD, ZDF and BR TV stations). My knowledge of German came in very handy.
When we saw U.S. Army soldiers, we mostly smiled at each other or saluted each other. We never talked, because that was stricktly forbidden and also because of a language barrier. Back then, an English speaking Czech was a great rarity.
Tri-border area, soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry, U.S. Army.
I never considered the U.S. soldiers on the other side of the border my enemies. Perhaps opponents, but I never felt any hatred toward them. Just like me, most of them were young guys. Fate took them to the West German border, and they were just doing their duty because in the 1980s the world was still divided by the Cold War. I wished I could buy them a beer in a pub. Perhaps, many U.S. soldiers felt the same.
What kind of pay did you get? Did you receive any special benefits, such as more vacation time?
Back then, many Czech civilians thought that military officers were highly paid. Unfortunately, that was a myth.
As a platoon leader my first pay was 2,650 Czechoslovak Crowns (less than $100) a month, and that included extra pay for serving on the border.
To give the reader a better idea—in 1985, a Czechoslovak Skoda car cost about 40,000 Kcs ($2,000), an average beer cost 2 Kcs (10 cents), a can of beans and hot dogs cost 4.70 Kc (20 cents), a black and white portable Tesla Merkur TV cost 3,700 Kcs ($200),and a bottle of Russian Stolichnaya vodka cost 85 Kcs ($4.00) The irony was that some things were very cheap, while others (such as electronics and clothing) were extremely expensive.
True, back then, the living costs, such as rents, energy and water were low. They were minor items in our budgets. This was because the Czechoslovak state subsidized things, such as rents, energy, or staple foods.
We did not get any more paid vacation than the civilians. Soldiers who served their mandatory two-year military service got only 10 days of vacation a year.
Could women serve in the Border Guard?
Yes, they could, but they could not serve in the border terrain. Women in Border Guard uniforms served at Border Guard Brigade Head Quarters, SNB Military Academy, border check points, or at airport passport controls.
What was the commanding structure of the Border Guard?
From the lowest to the highest:
Border Guard Company
Border Guard Battalion
Border Guard Brigade
Border Guard HQs in Prague
They all reported to the Federal Ministry of Interior in Prague.
What type of service dogs did you use? Where did you get them from? How did you train a new dog? How did a dog get used to a new dog handler? How did a new soldier become a dog handler?
We used German Shepherds. Our company used German Shepherd females, while another company next to us used males.
The dog training took place in a specialized Border Guard unit in the town of Libějovice. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the training details.
In our company, a dog handler, usually a man who served his mandatory military service, would gradually hand his dog over to a new dog handler. This took about six months, because the new dog handler and the dog had to get used to each other. This was done by training the dog, feeding the dog by the new handler, etc.
A new soldier become a dog handler very simply, by an order.
Border Guard dog training, certainly not a pleasant duty
How was the border technically secured?
If someone was approaching the border from the Czechoslovak inland, such person would first see warning signs, BEWARE! BORDER ZONE. ENTRY BY PERMIT ONLY.
Various technical devices were installed within the border zone, such as a wire on the ground. If someone tripped over the wire, the device would shoot a flare into the air. The flares had different colors to mark the location. This would start an alarm. An alarm patrol in a UAZ 469 vehicle and a service dog were sent to the location.
Then, there was the “ZTZ Line.“ This zone consisted of plowed ground that would show any footsteps in front of the Signal Wall. The Signal Wall was made of T-shaped wooden stilts and barbed wire. The wire was charged by 12 V or 24 V electricity. Cutting the wire caused a short-circuit, which triggered an alarm on the Station Signal Device—red diodes flashed; a signal sounded, and the device also showed the exact location of the violated wire.
A border alarm was immediately declared and an alarm patrol with a service dog was sent to the location. The alarm patrol was followed by a “Cover Squad.“ This squad consisted of 10 or 12 Border Guard soldiers. They drove to the location in a Praga V3S truck and formed a type of phalanx outside of the Signal Wall to prevent anyone from penetrating the border.
Then, a search party with a service dog searched the inside border zone. This was just in case the border violators changed their minds and tried to return to inland.
In most cases, the violators were apprehended. In some cases with a bit of luck, a few were able to overcome the border and make it to West Germany or Austria.
Czechoslovak border barrier system
How did you get along with the local civilians?
Now, that really varied. Depending on where and when.
In the harsh climate of Sumava, the Border Guards and the locals had a very close relationship. The people helped each other. For example, during snow calamities, the Border Guard often functioned as the first aid to the locals, whether it concerned bringing food supplies or dealing with medical emergencies.
This was different and much worse elsewhere. Much depended on the Border Guard unit commander. If the commander was a reasonable guy, he would tolerate the mushroom-picking locals who sometimes wandered into the Border Zone, or he would buy the locals a beer in a local pub. Then, it was all good. However, if the commander was an idiot who treated the locals poorly, then it was all bad.
I met both good and bad commanders.
Zdenek, did you ever have problems with your your superior officers? Or perhaps with the Czechoslovak Military Counter-Intelligence?
I was afraid you would ask that :-)
But here it comes. As a young officer and full of myself, I had little respect for military discipline and regulations. I gave one too many of my commanders gray hair.
And yes, I experienced a few interrogations by the Czechoslovak Military Counter-Intelligence. Not because of any politics, but because of my disciplinary sins and not respecting military authorities enough.
To this very day, I still wonder why they did not kick me out of the Border Guard. Perhaps, because the time was the late 1980s, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Big changes were coming straight from the Soviet Union, and perhaps that was why my commanders and the Czechoslovak Military Counter-Intelligence gave me a break.
Is it true that all Border Guard officers had to be members of the then-ruling Communist Party?
That is another myth. Back then, many people in Czechoslovakia thought that every Czechoslovak Border Guard officer was a Communist. That was just not true. I, for one, was never a member of that party. Only the Company Commander and the Deputy Commander for Political Affairs had to be members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
In the 1980s, the only Border Guard soldiers who joined the Communist Party were those who hoped to make a big career. I think that there were not too many of those who really believed this ideology. Though, I am not saying there were not any. There were even some idiots who joined that party in November 1989 when the Communist Party lost all its power in Czechoslovakia.
Is it true that you had orders to fire at anyone who tried to penetrate the border?
Yes, that is true.
If anyone attempted to penetrate our Western border, we had orders to use a weapon. However, the Standard Operating Procedure was that first we had to give such person a verbal warning. Then, we would shoot in the air as another warning. If both warnings failed, we had orders to fire at the border violators to stop them.
I know this is a very controversial issue, and I thank to God that I never had to use my weapon against anyone.
Of course, there were a few cases when Border Guard patrol was attacked by an armed border violator. Then we could use our weapons without any warning—shoot or be shot. It was that simple.
So, Zdenek you served at the Tri-Border where the borders of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany met. Were there any differences between the Czechoslovak and East German border guards? Such as the way each of them secured the borders? What was your relationship with your East German colleagues?
What you say, it’s true. We also guarded our border with East Germany. That went as far as the 13/9 po HM 1/1 border landmark, where the borders of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and West Germany met.
On the the Czechoslovak-East German border, there was only an unsecured simple metal fence. It went from the HM 13/9 border landmark from the town of Hranice to the HM12 border landmark. It ended after about 100 meters. To get a better idea, this was where the East German town of Pabstleithen (Vogtland) was.
The East German / West German border was very strictly watched. To overcome that border was practically impossible. Technically and logistically the East German border security was perfect. Whether it was between East and West Berlin or between East and West Germany. That was why many East Germans tried to flee to the West via Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, or through other countries. With a bit of courage and luck they sometimes managed to do just that.
East German / West German border in the 1980s
Our relationship with the East German Border Guards was always excellent, we were buddies.
A Czechoslovak Border Guard officer (left) consulting his East German colleague
Several times, we got drunk together at either their Gasthaus or at our Cink pub, which was the most western located bar in Czechoslovakia.
Of course, we always drank and talked. I was one of the few Border Guards who spoke German, so often I had to act as an interpreter. One time, I said to the East German Border Guards something about “Your West German colleagues.“ The East German commander protested, “Those are not our colleagues. Those are our enemies, damn it!“
Well, after a few more beers and bottles of Vodka, the same East German Border Guard commander started to yell,“Die Mauer muss weg!“ The (Berlin) Wall must go! We only want one Germany.
Those were strange times.
The commanding officers of the 1st Border Guard Company, 1980s, Zdenek is circled in green
Zdenek, in 1984, I myself emmigrated out of Czechoslovakia illegally via Yugoslavia. What if I had decided to go through your Czechoslovak border zone and got caught? How would you deal with me?
Ok, if you did not offer any armed resistence and surrenderred to our Border Guard patrol, not much would really have happened to you. You would have been arrested and handcuffed. Then, our commander would question you briefly. After that, you would be handed over to the Czechoslovak Military Counter-Intelligence. After an interrogation, those guys woud probably hand you over to a regular prosecutor. You would have been most likely held in a jail custody. In some cases, you might have beeen waiting in jail, in some others you would have been released. In 1984, it all really depended on the mood of the judge and on the performance of your lawyer.
If the prosecutor decided to hold you in a prison custody, you would stay there until your trial. If not, they would let you go home until the trial.
In 1984, things were better. Unless you had a criminal record, you would have probably only received a suspended sentence.
When I lived in Austria, I met two Czechoslovak Border Guards who had deserted and ran to the West. How difficult was that? Did your company have any such cases?
It was a very easy thing for a Czechoslovak Border Guard to flee to the West.
One such case even happened in our Border Guard company at the Tri-Border. Two soldiers served at the Bunker 2 station, at the HM4 Border Landmark, near the German town of Fassmansreuth. One of the two soldiers aimed his rifle at the other soldier, disarmed him, and made him open a pass in the Signal Wall. When they both reached West German territory, the deserter let the other soldier go and asked him if he, too, wanted to desert. The other soldier refused and returned to the Czechoslovak territory.
Of course, the opening of the Signal Wall pass triggered an alarm, but before an alarm patrol reached the location, it was all over. They only met the returning hostage. Because of the incident, the soldier spent a week being questioned by Czechoslovak Military Counter-Intelligence. Then he was able to return to his unit, where he served as a dog handler for the rest of his two-year mandatory service.
When someone made it through the border to the West, were there any consequences for the Border Guards and their commanders?
You better believe that!
When someone penetrated the sharply watched Western border, we called it “a Break-Through“ or “a Hole.“
A thorough investigation followed. If any Border Guard soldiers were found negligent on duty and thus responsible for letting the Break-Through happen, they could receive 21 days in the garrison jail, or even be prosecuted and sent to the Sabinov military prison.
The company commander and the deputy commander were personally dressed down by the battalion commander, by the brigade commander, and often by the HQ inspection from Prague.
If the company held a title of “Exemplary Border Guard Company,“ then this title was taken away. This would have a great impact on the unit commander and other officers. Their promotion points were taken away for years.
For the next six months that unlucky company could look forward to many inspections from the battalion, constantly being yelled at by battalion or brigade officers, and no peace to perform their duty properly.
In 1989, the political system changed in Czechoslovakia. The Communist Party lost all the power. What was happening at your unit? How did you view the changes?
After November 1989, the higher commanders panicked. They kept asking themselves, “What will happen to us now?“
We, the younger Border Guard officers, laughed at them and even wished misfortune to some of the high commanders. I know that was not too nice of us.
Because of the fast political changes, all kinds of rumors spread; no one knew what would happen next.
In 1990 I looked forward to finally being able to travel to the West. I went to the Bavarian town of Selb with only 40 German Marks (approximately $18) in my pocket. But it was beautiful.
Back then, I welcomed the changes. I enjoyed the new freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom to travel anywhere, and many more. I saw the future through rose-colored glasses.
In my opinion, things did not exactly work out great in the end. I think that the world is a worse place to live today than it was in 1989. But that is another story.
What did you do after the Czechoslovak Border Guard was dissolved?
In 1991-1992, I served as a border police officer at the Czechoslovak-Polish border.
After Czechoslovakia was split into two new countries at the end of 1992, I left the service and became a civilian.
Now, I am just a Lieutenant in the reserves. :-)
Zdenek, thank you for the interview!
Interview by Mirek Katzl 2022
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A BATTLE OF NERVES.