Historic part of Czech ‘Maginot line’ fortress opening to the public

Na Mýtině section of Hanička Fortress, photo: Jana Házová / Czech Radio

Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933, Czechoslovakia began planning in earnest to build massive fortifications along the border, akin to the French Maginot Line, to sustain any first onslaught. Among the most famous is the Hanička Fortress in the Orlický Mountains. An imposing section of that fortress – code named Na Mýtině (“at the clearing”) – will soon open to the public for the first time in nearly five decades.

“Czechoslovakia is prepared to defend her territory and will not voluntarily give up any part of it.”

A pre-war radio announcement by Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš, there — in English and meant for foreign consumption — in which he promises the country will not allow territory to be ceded to Nazi Germany without a fight.

Na Mýtině section of Hanička Fortress, photo: Jana Házová / Czech Radio

The prospect of war with Germany came as no surprise to the Czechoslovak government of the 1930s. By some estimates, over half of government spending from 1936 to 1938 was for military purposes, the bulk of it on defence in the Sudetenland border region.

Decades after the war, the Ministry of Interior rebuilt one of them, the Hanička Fortress, into a nuclear fall-out shelter for the top brass and political elite. Never completed, it now houses a museum popular among military history buffs. This year, it plans to add a new attraction, a fully restored artillery cabin, closed to the public since 1975.

Hanička Fortress Museum director Pavel Minář took Czech Radio along for a guided tour of the site, built in 1938, where some repairs are still underway.

“We’ve slid the bolt back and are now entering the corridor, which is a bit flooded at the moment because it’s raining and our sewers are clogged. But that will be resolved shortly. And here’s the 30 millimetre thick armoured door, which takes us to the emergency exit…”

By the time of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Czechoslovakia had built 264 such heavy small forts and strongholds along with 10,014 light pillboxes meant to deter and repel sudden attacks in key areas.

After the Sudeten Crisis, the entire network fell into the hands of the German Wehrmacht, which used them to practise tactics eventually employed against the Maginot Line and Belgium’s forts, to devastating effect. The German forces also dismantled much of what they called the “Beneš Wall”, removing elements for eventual use in the Atlantic Wall.

Na Mýtině section of Hanička Fortress, photo: Jana Házová / Czech Radio

“… And now we are at the foot of the stairs leading from the lower floor. If you look down, you will see a relatively deep shaft. Each level is 3.8 metres high, and it is 34 metres deep, so there are quite a lot of floors, and 191 steps in total. The tour starts from the bottom, so visitors may say, ‘Mama mia, that’s a climb!’ But they have nowhere to go but up.”

Hanička Fortress and other such Czechoslovak fortifications never served their original purpose – to defend the country from German forces until its Allies, chiefly the British and French brought in reinforcements. The “Munich betrayal” saw to that. But, ironically, German forces did use parts of the “Beneš Wall” to fend off Soviet troops.

These days, Hanička Fortress Museum director Pavel Minář says, the only battle being waged is to defend the historic site from the elements and ravages of time.