On-line project presents stories of people killed at communist Czechoslovakia’s borders


The Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has launched an on-line research project which will unearth more about the practices of the country’s communist regime. The institute wants to collect and publish the personal histories of all those who were killed trying to flee communist Czechoslovakia.

Then seventeen-year-old Václav Krbeček attempted to cross the border to West Germany in July, 1953. Today, he says he’s lucky to be alive – he spent several months in hospital after the border patrol fired 48 bullets at him, leaving him severely wounded. Hundreds of others were less lucky. The Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has now launched a project to document at least 288 cases of people who were killed trying to escape to the West between 1948 and 1989. The institute’s Vojtěch Ripka explains why.

“It’s considered by the institute, other researchers as well as the whole academic community to be one of the most severe criminal activities of the communist regime. Their number is bigger than even the number of people killed for political reasons in political trials. It’s over 288 people, who have been identified until now, who were killed at the borders.”

Until now, 13 such cases have been document and posted on line. These include six Polish citizens as well as a Soviet national, who were shot dead at the border or died at the high-voltage fences erected along communist Czechoslovakia’s frontiers.

The institute’s researches examine border guards’ documents and other official sources. But these were often manipulated by the authorities. The institute is therefore trying to contact the victims’ families to get the other side of the story, which can be a long and difficult search.

“Sometimes we haven’t been able to find anyone. We try to use a variety of sources, not just the papers from border guards – documents from the secret police, and so on. We have gone as far as to go into the archives of firms and companies where the people worked beforehand, and we were successful in approaching the families of some of the people involved.”

The project also presents archive documents, a study on how the border guard system worked, as well as some drastic photographs of people whose dream of living in a free world ended on the Czechoslovak of the Iron Curtain. Vojtěch Ripka of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes says there are still more such cases to be discovered.

“There are at least about 80 other cases, particularly people who drowned in the Danube and other rivers and lakes at the border, and it’s very hard to identify the causes of their deaths, and whether it’s linked to their escape from Czechoslovakia or not.”

You can visit the project’s website at www.ustrcr.cz.