Into the Cold - 60 years since Churchill's Iron Curtain speech

Winston Churchill in Fulton

The Cold War held the political world on edge until its end in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. This significant rift in international relations overshadowed world politics for over 45 years. Now, 60 years have passed since Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the Cold War. Chris Jarrett takes a look at the impact of the Iron Curtain on Czechoslovak borders.

Winston Churchill in Fulton
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe."

With these words, the world first heard the term "the Iron Curtain" as Winston Churchill delivered his "Sinews of Peace" speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5th, 1946. He referred to the divide in Europe between the self-governing nations of the West and those in Eastern Europe under Soviet Communist control. The speech is viewed by many historians as marking the beginning of the Cold War, the economic and ideological struggle which would dominate international politics for the next 45 years. Jan Srb, spokesman for the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism:

"After the Communist putsch in Czechoslovakia in 1948 the state borders with Western Europe were gradually cutoff - that means with Austria and West Germany. Following February 1948 border units were reinforced after people began fleeing to the west and from 1952 we saw the "real" Iron Curtain - that means barbed wire, electrified barriers and also landmines. That was the situation until 1965, when the West pressured Czechoslovakia to remove the electric fences. But of course the borders remained heavily guarded for the whole period of Communist Czechoslovakia, right up until November 1989."

But Czechoslovaks were not the only ones to suffer from the Iron Curtain in the country. A number of foreigners also fell victim to the 650 guards who defended the border, as the recent book "Organisation and activity of armed border forces" issued by the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, reveals. It was discovered that over 280 civilians, including 70 from outside Czechoslovakia perished trying to escape the country. Jan Srb explains:

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
"There were of course citizens of Czechoslovakia, but among them there were also citizens of Austria, Poland, East and West Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary and so on. The circumstances of their deaths were also surveyed and divided according to who was - that's more than 140, and who died on the electric fences - that's around 95. Some people died from stepping on land mines or drowned in the rivers along the border."

But the book estimates the death toll may in fact have been much higher. Jan Srb again:

"With regard to the number of dead at the borders at the time, the figure is not complete and probably never will be. We of course have information from the archives, but a good many people at the beginning of the 50's vanished without a trace. They may have ended up in secret mass graves. There are many dead without names."