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Grenztruppen der DDR

Brief History of the East German Border Troops

Es war nicht alles schlecht
DDR-Grenzer im Nostalgierausch
27.10.2014 - Es gibt in Deutschland eine Truppe, deren Motivation und Einsatzbereitschaft geradezu vorbildlich ist. Und das, obwohl ihr Oberbefehlshaber schon seit 25 Jahren nichts mehr zu melden hat. Die Rede ist von den DDR-Grenztruppen. Die alten Herren haben sich am Wochenende zu ihrem traditionellen Jahrestreffen versammelt. (26.10.2014)

Not everything was bad
East German border guards in nostalgia exchange
2014-10-27 - There is a troupe in Germany whose motivation and dedication are exemplary. And that, although their Commander-in-Chief has not had anything to report for 25 years. We are talking about the GDR border troops. The old gentlemen gathered at the weekend for their traditional annual meeting.


The East German side of the border was guarded initially by the Border Troops (Pogranichnyie Voiska) of the Soviet NKVD (later the KGB). In 1946, the Soviets established a locally recruited paramilitary force, the German Border Police (Deutsche Grenzpolizei or DGP), under the administration of the Interior Ministry for Security of the State Frontier (Innenministerium zum Schutz der Staatsgrenze). Soviet troops and the DGP shared responsibility for patrolling the border and crossing points until 1955/56, when the Soviets handed over control to the East Germans.

The DGP became increasingly militarized as the East German government decided that protecting the border was a military task. Although it was notionally a police force, it was equipped with heavy weapons, including tanks and self-propelled artillery. In 1961 the DGP was converted into a military force within the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee, NVA). The newly renamed Border Troops of the GDR (Grenztruppen, commonly nicknamed the "Grenzer") came under the NVA's Border Command or Grenzkommando. They were responsible for securing and defending the borders with West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic Sea and West Berlin. At their peak, the Grenztruppen had up to 50,000 personnel.

Around half of the Grenztruppen were conscripts, a lower proportion than in other branches of the East German armed forces. Their political reliability was under especially close scrutiny due to the sensitive nature of their role. They were subjected to intensive ideological indoctrination, which made up as much as 50 per cent of their training time. They were not allowed to serve in areas near their homes. Some categories of individuals were not allowed to serve in the Grenztruppen at all; for instance, if they had close relatives in West Germany, a record of dissent or dissenting family members, or were actively religious. Even if they were accepted for service, trainee border guards who were suspected of political unreliability were weeded out at an early stage. As one later recalled: "At the officers' training school there are always 10 per cent whose loyalty is suspect who are never sent to the border."

The ultimate role of the Grenztruppen was to prevent border escapes by any means necessary, including by shooting escapees. Their marksmanship was expected to be substantially better than that of regular NVA troops; they were required to be able to hit two moving targets at 200 meters (660 ft.) with only four shots, by day or night. Failure to shoot was itself a punishable offence, resulting in severe consequences for a soldier and his family.




The East German regime's distrust of its own citizens extended to its border guards, who were in a better position to defect than almost anyone else in the country. Many did in fact flee across the border; between 1961 and 1989, around 7,000 border guards tried to escape. 2,500 succeeded but 5,500 were caught and imprisoned for up to five years. To prevent such defections, the Stasi secret police kept a close watch on the border guards with agents and informers. A special Stasi unit worked covertly within the Grenztruppen, posing as regular border guards, between 1968 and 1985. The Stasi also maintained a pervasive network of informers within the ranks of the Grenztruppen. One in ten officers and one in thirty enlisted men were said to have been "liaison agents", the euphemism for an informer. The Stasi regularly interviewed and maintained files on every border guard. Stasi operatives were directly responsible for some aspects of border security; passport control stations were entirely manned by Stasi officers wearing Grenztruppen uniforms.

As a further measure to prevent escapes, the patrol patterns of the Grenztruppen were carefully arranged to reduce any chance of a border guard defecting. Patrols, watchtowers and observation posts were always manned by two or three soldiers at a time. They were not allowed to go out of each other’s' sight in any circumstances. When changing the guard in watchtowers, they were under orders to enter and exit the buildings in such a way that there were never fewer than two people on the ground. Duty rosters were organized to prevent friends and roommates being assigned to the same patrols. The pairings were switched (though not randomly) to ensure that the same people did not repeatedly carry out duty together. Individual border guards did not know until the start of their shift with whom they would be working that day. If a guard attempted to escape, his colleagues were under instructions to shoot him without hesitation or prior warning.

Much of the work of the border guards focused on maintaining and scrutinizing the border defenses. This included carrying out repair work, looking for evidence of escape attempts, examining the area for signs of suspicious activities and so on. The patrol times and routes were deliberately varied to ensure that there was no predictability, ensuring that a patrol could potentially appear at any time from either direction. Guards posted in watchtowers played an important role in monitoring the border, though shortages of personnel meant that the watchtowers were not continuously manned. During the final years of the East German state, the lack of manpower was so severe that cardboard cut-outs of guards were placed in towers to present the illusion that they were occupied.

The Grenztruppen also had the task of gathering intelligence on West German and NATO activities across the border line. This task was performed primarily by the Grenzaufklärungszug (GAK), an elite reconnaissance force within the Grenztruppen. These became a familiar sight for Western observers of the border as the GAK troopers, uniquely, were tasked with patrolling the western side of the border fence – i.e. in the outer strip, adjoining the geographical border between the two German states. Not surprisingly, given that they could defect with only a few footsteps in the right direction, the GAKs were drawn from the most politically reliable echelons of the Grenztruppen. They worked closely with the Stasi and were often seen photographing targets across the border. They also guarded work detachments carrying out maintenance work on the western side of the fence. The workers would be covered by machine guns to discourage them from attempting to escape.

To maintain what the East German state called Ordnung und Sicherheit ("order and security") along the border, local civilians were co-opted to assist the border guards and police. A decree of 5 June 1958 spoke of encouraging "the working population in the border districts of the GDR [to express] the desire to help by volunteering to guarantee the inviolability of the border." Civilians living in villages along the border were recruited into the "Border Helpers" (Grenzhelfer) and "People's Police Helpers" (Volkspolizeihelfer). They were tasked with patrolling the strip behind the border defenses, assisting at control checkpoints and reporting any unusual activities or strangers in their area. In one border community, Kella in Thuringia, the mayor boasted in a 1967 speech that nearly two-thirds of arrests on the border that year had been made by local civilians. The locals were, however, kept away from the border strip itself. The border guards were usually recruited from far-away regions of East Germany to ensure that people living near the border would not become familiar with its workings.


Even children were brought into the fold. A "Young Friends of the Border Guards" organization was established for children living in the border region, modeled on a similar Soviet organization. The original Soviet version fostered a cult of the border guards, promoting slogans such as "The frontier runs through people's hearts."

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