This pretty heat-map of pinks and blues shows legal handgun ownership in today’s (well, 2013’s) Germany. What’s interesting is that you can clearly see the inter-German border that existed during the period from 1949-1992, caused when the Soviet Occupation Zone stood up as the Soviet satellite (slave) state of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and the three Western Allies’ (FR, UK, US) Occupation Zones joined as the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1989 the Soviets lost control of their East German subjects and the long process of German reunification began. Here’s the map, from a feature on the lasting divisions in unified Germany in the newspaper Die Zeit.
In the former East Germany, even though the gun laws originally followed those of East Germany, replacing the Soviet-era complete handgun ban, the limited gun culture of West Germany has not taken root. This is not entirely surprising, as many of the more malleable youth of the eastern Bundesländer have migrated West in search of jobs and adventure, and the East is heavily populated by older residents who grew up under the Hammer-and-Dividers symbol of the East German Communist party, the SED.
One wonders what happened to the inter-German border, which as late as the 1980s was characterized by guard towers, dog runs, plowed earthen areas to expose any footprints, free-fire zones, and several types of land mines (on the inner-German border only; they were removed from the Berlin Wall by 1980).
All East Germans living within a certain distance of the wall (100 meters, in Berlin) had to register with the Volkspolizei, and were subject to removal if background checks showed them to be insufficiently enthused by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolution imposed at the point of Russian bayonets. An intensive network of informants were the Vopo’s eyes and ears. Even the VoPos were kept out of the border zone, though; there were special GrenzPolizei, Border Police, selected for political reliability — and absence of any personal connection to the West or to the borderlands. Maps of the DDR were blank on the BRD side, and were even blank on the DDR side, for the last 5 kilometers from the border.1
Mines deployed along the border included a variety of Russian military types (most lifted by 1985) and a home-grown Claymore equivalent, the Splittermine 1970 or SM-70.2 A German legend attributed the design of the SM-70 to an SS officer intent on securing concentration camps. That’s possible, because East Germany was all about giving brutal Nazis a second chance as brutal Communists, but doesn’t seem to have documentary support.
The SM-70 contained a hollow charge of TNT, but where a typical hollow-charge weapon like an RPG’s PG-7 warhead would be lined with a copper, aluminum alloy or exotic-metal alloy lining to explosively-form a plasma armor-penetrating projectile, the SM-70’s cone comprised preformed metallic fragments. It could be fired by electrical command wire, tripwire, or both. (Tripwire installations were most common). The mines were monitored; if an SM-70 fired, a display panel would inform the guard force where to collect the dead or wounded would-be escapee.
The SM-70 was installed on the DDR side of the border fences. At least 60,000 SM-70s were deployed, 13,000 of them in a single 40-km long field. When the mines were tested in 1970, wildlife that were collaterally killed by the machines were left lying in the border strip as a warning to would-be “Border violators.”
The end of life of the SM-70 is to a degree uncertain. Officially, they were all removed by the end of 1984, but some seem to have persisted longer. Reportedly, they were replaced by monitoring systems that led to response by human and canine patrols. Had East Germany continued, its border authorities planned an even richer sensor environment. Given their political reliability problems with their police and military, the more they could automate the Wall, the better.
So we wondered, what has become of that death zone, that grim barrier that in practice turned an entire nation into a concentration camp? As it happens, the Germans wasted no time tearing it down, and now there is barely any remnant of it left to memorialize the hazards and the many victims of Communism’s need for captive populations.
The inter-German border was the strongest and most sophisticated of these Cold War fortifications, but some version of it did indeed extend “from Stettin on the Baltic, to Trieste on the Adriatic.” (The most futile and least well-imagined of them was further East, in Communist but anti-Soviet Albania). But they couldn’t, in the end, keep the people in and freedom out. In the end, like the Maginot Line, or Hadrian’s Wall for that matter, these walls fell less because of their own weaknesses (they had plenty; US and Allied intelligence agencies and SOF could play them like a Stradivarius), but because of the vulnerabilities in the humans that operated them.
The Die Zeit page has a video; unfortunately we can’t embed it here, but it is a Google Earth flyover of what much of the inner-German border has become: greensward, zigging and zagging along a now-erased border. Now, environmentalists are resisting redevelopment of the area, which has become host to many rare flora and fauna. Quite a remarkable thing, to those of us who looked on it, from whatever side, and expected it to be permanent.
Ozymandias was not available for comment.
1 Rottman, Gordon L. Berlin and the Intra-German Border 1961-89. Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2008. pp. 37-40.
2. Rottman, op.cit., pp. 17-23.
SM-70. Grenades, Mines and Boobytraps website. Retrieved from: http://www.lexpev.nl/minesandcharges/sovietbalkan/germanyddr/sm70.html
DDR Grenzsperranlagen: Grenzzaun u. Selbstschußanlage. Website. Retrieved from: http://www.grenzanlagen.de/05_metallgitterzaun.htm
(the whole Grenzsperranlagen website is good, but it’s all in German).
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.