As I’ve often done in the past, every time I visit Austria, I return to Guglwald, a sleepy 50-soul community amidst the rolling hills of Upper Austria along the Austrian/Czech border. My love for Guglwald goes way back to my childhood years when our family spent summers at the border. Until history changed the course of time in 1989, this pristine landscape of lush meadows and pine forests dotted with whitewashed farmhouses marked the end of the Western world, the free world. Because of my Dad’s high government position, back in the sixties, we had privileged access to a vacation flat at the Zollhaus, quite a regal residencec housing the families of the border patrol officers. During those lazy summer days, I learned early about the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, the reasons for watchtowers and barbwire fences. I couldn’t forget the many tales locals shared around kitchen tables; stories of desperate people reaching safety, gunshots ringing in the dead of night. And walking along the border, we knew exactly where Austria ended and the forbidden land began. Being at the border Times have changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The Iron Curtain is history and a memorial on the nearby hillside still keeps reminding mankind of the Cold War era and the importance of living in peace. So this time, during my wellness retreat at the Hotel Guglwald, http://www.guglwald.at,I ventured up the hill to visit the memorial.Here a brief history lesson for those of you unfamiliar with the Iron Curtain. This political boundary was drawn after World War II in 1945, cutting across the European continent from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. This East-West division brought about the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and divided Europe according democratic systems and communist dictatorships. Countries east of the Iron Curtain were controlled by Soviet ideology and denied contact to the free world of the West. Countries west of the Iron Curtain enjoyed democratic leadership, freedom and alliance to the United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Curtain Prior to the erection of the Iron Curtain, the Czech/Austrian border region was a prosperous farming region where people lived and moved freely between the two countries as they had done so for centuries. Even after the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Habsburg was dissolved in 1918, life along the border remained unchanged. But the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 heralded a dramatic change. The rise of nationalism and the ensuing harsh national laws divided the nation. The German speaking population, Sudeten Germans, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudeten_Germans living along the vast border region, called Sudetenland, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudetenland were targeted and persecuted. Facing either imprisonment or death, these Germans escaped, losing everything. This humanitarian crisis exploded after World War II. Between 1945 and 1948, refugees flooded neighboring Austria and Germany, hoping to survive amidst the war rubble. After 1948 the abandoned German towns were eventually destroyed. With the establishment of the iron curtain and the allegiance to the Russian communist regime, the producing border farmland became a death zone: a 15-kilometer wide stretch of barbed wires, bunkers, guards, and watchtowers. These installations along a well-maintained network of roads and pathways made a continuous supervision of the border possible. Escaping into freedom seemed an almost impossible task. Crossing the death zone meant the following:
Crossing the death zone meant the following:
- Getting past a barbwire fence (the first marking the entrance to the death zone)
- Crossing an active mine field.
- Crossing a stretch of prepared soil for easy footprint exposure
- Stepping over a tangled web ground barbwire
- Passing through the final barbwire wall.
Despite these terrible roadblocks, some courageous souls dared the almost impossible journey. Risking their lives, they moved by night and were lucky enough to reach the safety of Austria unscathed.
The communist regime did not succeed fully in suppressing the Czech people. From time to time people in several communist countries revolted to regain their God given freedom. In 1956, the street of Hungary exploded in a national revolt. Change came to Czechoslovakia in January 1968 when Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Dubček. A period of national reforms and political liberalization followed yet again in August 1968, the Soviet Union intervened. Their tanks rolled into the streets of Prague, crushing the promising movement, known as the “Prague Spring.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Spring resulting in countless casualties, unimaginable misery, and waves of refugees.
In May 1989 Hungary made the first step, starting to tear down the iron curtain on the Austrian border. Czechoslovakia followed suit and with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the freedom movement accelerated. Soon, Austrian, Hungarian, andCzech politicians actively joined the effort, manually cutting the barbwire. By December 1989, the border installations were completely removed, borders opened and the region’s natural beauty and freedom was restored once again. Even after the removal of the Iron curtain, it’s forty-year existence stands as a stark warning against dictatorship, persecution, surveillance, and humanitarian crisis. It stands as a symbol of the forty years long division of Europe. All citizens of Europe are encouraged to foster mutual understanding across national borders and to foster freedom and regional security for life in peace and prosperity for generations to come.