Killings on Czechoslovak border during Communist era examined in new report

During the four decades Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain, hundreds if not thousands of people tried to make their way to freedom across the country's heavily guarded borders. Many died in the process, with 282 definite cases and up to 40 more probable killings. Of the certified cases, 145 people were shot trying to cross the border, and almost 100 were electrocuted, with the others dying in a variety of ways, such as drowning. Those figures come from a report out this week by Martin Pulec from the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. I spoke to Mr Pulec earlier, and he first told me something about the people who guarded the Czechoslovak border.

"The commanders were career soldiers, although to be precise they worked for the Interior Ministry. But the ordinary guards were regular soldiers doing their military service, and most of them were 18 or 19. They were told that armed people were trying to violate the border and if they didn't shoot them they themselves could be killed. They were perfectly politically and psychologically primed to shoot at would be escapees."

And if they did kill escapees, says Martin Pulec, the border guards did not go unrewarded.

"They either got promoted or some kind of non-financial rewards, or holiday time. But I know from speaking to former guards that they sometimes deliberately missed when they shot at escapees. So not all of them tried to kill people - some of them just shot into the air."

Given that some 96 people were electrocuted trying to find cross the border to freedom, I was curious how much of the border was electrified.

"The electric fence was along the borders with West Germany and Austria, which was around 900 kilometres in total. The fences didn't follow every turn in the border, so they weren't quite so long. The fact there were electric fences was a secret in Czechoslovakia, but some people knew about it from foreign radio stations like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America."

Not all of the people killed on the border during the Communist era were actually from Czechoslovakia, and Martin Pulec's new report also includes a breakdown of the nationalities of the victims, including - interestingly - one man from France, and a Moroccan citizen.

"As well as the Frenchman and the Moroccan, there were Hungarians, Jugoslavs, citizens of the GDR and Poles. The French citizen and the Moroccan man had been on holiday in Austria or West Germany and had come too close to the border to take a look at it, as tourists. They wanted to see the Iron Curtain and just didn't realise how dangerous it was."