5) Iron Curtain Museum documents the Cold War era, towards breaking down barriers

The tiny Czech village of Rozvadov is a stone’s throw from the border with Germany. Before the fall of communism, however, the Bavarian town of Waidhaus, a hundred metres or so west along the D5 motorway, was a world apart. Today, the pre-war customhouse at the Rozvadov/Waidhaus border crossing is home to the Iron Curtain Museum. Its co-founder, Václav Vítovec, gave us a guided tour, highlighting some of the most unique Cold War-era artefacts packed into the once notorious space.

“We are now at the most-frequented border crossing between the East and the West. On the German side is the village called Waidhaus, and on the Czech side is Rozvadov.

“Exactly here, were we are now at the Iron Curtain Museum, was the duty control and passport control station – and counter-espionage, which tracked everybody who wanted to go to the West.

“And you can still see some fence that guarded against Czech people escaping to the West – 50 metres from here, you can see it.

Iron Curtain Museum | Photo: Milan Linhart

“The guard towers were 2 or 3 kilometres back and here was the last fence against the ‘bloody imperialists’ and the possibility to escape. And beyond that fence, you were in the free world.”

Could you describe the buildings around us now and what purpose they each served?

“At that time, this was the last building in the Czech lands before the border. In another 100 m etres, you would be in West Germany.

“It was built in the year 1933, and we have a photo of the Hitlerjugend (an SS division for Nazi Party youth). After the war, it was used only by the Communist authorities to control people who got permission to go to the West, and who wanted to come here from there.”

After the Velvet Revolution, although Czechs could travel to Germany, border passport checks remained in place until the end of 2007, with the signing of the Schengen Agreement.

Iron Curtain | Photo: Jan Rosenauer,  Czech Radio

Five years later, Václav Vítovec and his good friend Milan Linhart, a photographer, opened the Iron Curtain Museum doors, after having spent a year amassing hundreds of artefacts. Each item has a story, often a personal one, connected with its donor. We began the tour in what was once a garage for servicing border guards’ vehicles.

So, we’re here in the museum reception area and gift shop, and on the wall are nine clocks…

“Yes, there are nine clocks, symbolically from the 1970s, telling the time in New Zealand, Canada, United States, Great Britain, Australia – they decided to destroy communism, and organised a highly sophisticated system to listen in on communist communications.

“After the reception, is the first exhibition, with several very unique documents, for example, a copy of the Munich Agreement, which was signed by Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini, and allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia.

Václav Vítovec | Photo:  Lukáš Milota,  Czech Radio

“But, symbolically, this is deeply connected with the Iron Curtain, because we think the first step came with the First World War, which finished but the problems weren’t solved. Most countries involved in the First World War were involved in the Second World War.”

So, you feel that the Iron Curtain started to be built starting with the First World War.

“Exactly. And as we go chronologically, you can see the results of the Second World War, when Stalin, Churchill and Truman met in Potsdam, when the Soviet Army liberated part of Czechoslovakia, and part was liberated by the US Army – here’s General Patton, the Nurnberg trials, and the result you know – the Communists built the Iron Curtain.

“The Cold War, I think, was the most stupid project of the last century, which must never happen again. It cost billions and billions, on both side, and the result was zero. How many stadiums, cultural museums and so on could we have built from that money spent or armament? If it had been used for children, we could live like in heaven.

Photo: Milan Linhart

“Lots of interesting people have visited here – George Patton Waters, the grandson of the famous general, was here. And for example, Gary Powers Jr., the son of the American pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, and later exchanged for William Fisher, the KGB colonel who collected information about the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb.”

How long did it take you to get all this material together?

“One year. We collected for one year.”

And you announced your plans and sent out an appeal of sorts?

“But most was through friends, through bazars, but, for example, Gary Powers Jr. offered part of his collection, from his museum in Richmond, in the United States – but we don’t have the space.”

Photo: Milan Linhart

“Here, by our Gary Powers exhibit, you see the Berlin Wall, and the famous statement by JFK – ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’…

“Here’s the famous American hero, [the US Air Force pilot] Gail Halvorsen, who made the most flights to deliver food to the East Germans. I met him – a very positive, nice man.

“And in this part of our exhibition, you can see symbols of some of the most famous stories of the Cold War time, and on the other side, you can see how the Communist regime behaved against people who believed in god.

“Here is a painting given to us by a man who was a part of the liquidation of the castle not so far from here. This painting was destroyed by knives, by stones, and– unfortunately, but it’s a fact– also by excrement, which you can still see today...

“Here, are shoes given to us by a man who was imprisoned for 10 years [and did forced labour at the uranium mines] of Jachymov.

Photo: Milan Linhart

I’m starting to see just how many ordinary looking objects here have deep meanings, stories behind them.

“Yes, yes. For example, that briefcase is a story of my grandfather . He worked with a group against the Nazis, passing information, in the year 1942.

Through the museum exhibits, Václav Vítovec says, he wants visitors to realise that the Cold War was in fact a succession of conflicts: the Korean War in the 1950s; in uprising in East Germany in 1953, the Budapest Uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968 – and the 10,000 day Vietnam War.

“Here, are photos from the Vietnam War – I remember it very well from when I was a young man. One million Vietnamese were killed, and almost 60,000 young Americans.

And of course, that was a proxy war, part of the Cold War.

Photo: Milan Linhart

“Exactly. Never in the Cold War were the American soldiers fighting the Soviets directly. Never. The same with the Korean War….”

“And here, symbolically, is the beginning of Communism. You can see Lenin, Stalin, Fidel Castro, the Czech leader Klement Gottwald… and the invasion of 1968, when the Soviets came by tanks to occupy Czechoslovakia.

To make the most of a visit to the Iron Curtain Museum, one should take a guided tour, as the significance of some artefacts could be lost on the casual visitor. For example, in one display is a seemingly ordinary phone, apart from the Soviet emblem in the middle of the dial.

“In this part, you can see absolutely unique artefacts – one is the telephone used by Gustáv Husák, the First Secretary of the Communist Party. In Czechoslovakia, there were only five telephones like this which were impossible to monitor.”

Photo: Milan Linhart

So, this is one of only five telephones in Communist-era Czechoslovakia that were absolutely secure lines?

“Yes. And directly connected to the Soviet leadership.

And you believe he used this very telephone?

“Sure. One hundred percent.”

And how did you get it?

“It’s a good story. A man came saying he had something unique for us – a phone directly from Prague Castle. I said, okay, and how much will it cost? He said nothing – it’s for the people, for history. This man had to have had access to the highest positions in the Communist Party.”

Photo: Milan Linhart

Although the Iron Curtain divided Europe, some people could cross it regularly – for example, the Czech pop singer Karel Gott and astronaut Vladimír Remek. These are among the stories the unique photos from the Rozvadov-Waidhaus crossing tell.

But the story that Václav Vítovec really wants to tell – the message of the Iron Curtain Museum is universal.

“The last information in the exhibition is that people, mankind, are unteachable. We have learned nothing from the First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War…

“Still, we are operating lots of ‘iron curtains’, between North Korea and South Korea; now our American friends have a wall between Mexico and the United States – and not an ideological wall, but an economic one. We are now in Europe building new fences against migrants

”The results are not that different. We will not be able to solve our problems with walls.”

Indeed, one of the mottos of the Iron Curtain Foundation is a quote from Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” And it is this quote that features prominently in the last part of the museum – the “meditation room”.

Author: Brian Kenety