The Iron Curtain and How Escape Was Nearly Impossible
The following pictures are intended to accompany the book Abandoned by the Vatican, My Clandestine Journey to Support Secret Priests Behind the Iron Curtain.
The Iron Curtain was not an “imaginary” boundary dividing Europe into the communist bloc countries in the East and the free world in the West.
Winston Churchill certainly spoke of an imaginary barrier when in 1946 he said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘Iron Curtain’ has descended across the continent.” But as the years went on and Communism denied freedom of speech and religion, brought economic disaster, and the lack of basic essentials for living, the oppressed people fled to the West. Physical barriers had to be erected to stop the brain drain and keep workers locked within the communist bloc to toil in the factories. Watchtowers, barbed-wire fences, dog patrol units, guards with orders to shoot anyone attempting to escape, and minefields began appearing along the border with the West. The Iron Curtain became real and dangerous.
The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain have often been erroneously considered as the same. Berlin, the capital of Germany, was divided among its conquerors after the Second ‘World War. West Berlin was occupied by American, Canadian, and French soldiers. East Berlin went to the Russians. The whole city of Berlin was within the Iron Curtain. By the time the wall was erected in 1961 an estimated 3.5 million East Germans had defected to freedom through West Berlin. So to stop the people of communist East Germany from fleeing to freedom in the West, East German communist rulers erected a wall around West Berlin.
After the 87 mile wall was erected, about 5000 East Germans still managed to escape. 136 were killed trying to escape. The wall, now dubbed the “Wall of Shame”, was from year to year gruesomely made more horrific. The wide “death strip” before the wall on the East Germany side contained fencing, anti-vehicle barriers and trenches, 116 watchtowers, but no landmines. The final version of the wall was 12 feet tall with the top lined with a smooth pipe to make it more difficult to scale.
The Impossible Dream – Escaping through the Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain cut a swath through the forests of East Germany outside of Berlin and through other Soviet Bloc countries. The following pictures were taken by the author as he drove on the road over the Iron Curtain at a border crossing between West Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The road beyond the Czechoslovak border control station ran through the no-man’s land that made up the physical Iron curtain. Here the Iron Curtain is seen to the right cutting its swath through the forests along the border.
This road itself was well patrolled and fenced off from the mine fields and traps of the no-man’s land. The Iron Curtain differed from mile to mile and country to country. It was one half mile to three miles wide at places and was an almost inescapable jail.
The Iron Curtain, the no-man’s-land, was a stretch of communist territory that ran along the border with the West to make up the physical “Iron Curtain.” It was a dangerous open strip of land, totally hostile to man, animal, and machinery. It hid the minefields, the trip wires and the alarms. The fences were electrified and booby-trapped, and ran parallel to the anti-vehicle trenches and the paths used by the guard dogs and the soldiers who patrolled on foot and in jeeps. Lampposts and searchlights stood ready for night duty. Those desperate enough to attempt an escape would be silhouetted against the open fields and appear in the sights of sharpshooters in the guard towers. No-man’s-land was hidden by dense forests (left in picture).
One escaping from a communist country like Czechoslovakia to the West would enter the Czech forest before the no man’s land, where he would see the warning signs in Czech and German: “Attention! Mine Fields!” The actual or physical Iron Curtain started at an alarm fence with trip wires to set off flares or a signal. Then came a patrol road for the guards in jeeps or on foot with or without dogs. They were monitoring the soil for footprints of escapees. There were hidden underground bunkers strategically placed for soldiers to rest and stand guard. Running parallel to the patrol road were deep trenches to stop cars and trucks attempting to speed across no man’s land.
Guards were not allowed to patrol alone. They could not be trusted. Some guards would never shoot to kill their own countrymen. On the other hand, many of these young soldiers would escape to a new life in the West, if they spotted the slightest opportunity.
Beyond the patrol road came the death strip, the open land, the mine field. It served as a shooting range for the guards in towers and in bunkers. Easy targets…Escapees silhouetted against a stretch of clear land. If an escapee got about half way across, he would come up to a fence, either electrified or booby-trapped to blow shrapnel at the feet of climbers. He’d be killed or have his feet blown off. Very few reached the end of no man’s land and walked into the Bavarian Forest and freedom.
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