Bulgaria's Southern border was the deadliest Cold War fortification, a German TV show reveals
Issue 4, January 2007
by Stilijan Maximoff; photography by Elena Filipova
Under Communism, more East German citizens were killed at the Bulgarian border while attempting to escape abroad than in all the other Eastern European countries put together. This is the dramatic conclusion that was recently drawn by political scientist Stefan Appelius on the German TV channel NDR. There have long been rumours circulating in Bulgaria about such tragic incidents, but until now no definite details were known about them. The documentary broadcast by the German channel tells the story of Frank Meyer, an 18-year-old German boy who tried to cross the Bulgarian-Greek border into Western Europe illegally, in 1983, encouraged by speculations that Bulgarian borders were not as strictly guarded as those in his country, and the Berlin Wall in particular. He was arrested and, after two unbearable weeks in custody, sent back to the German Democratic Republic, where he was imprisoned for attempted defection. Frank Meyer still shudders at the recollection of what he experienced at that time.
According to Stefan Appelius, Frank Meyer was incredibly lucky. The German scientist's investigations show that the German boy could have disappeared without a trace in one of the numerous nameless graves along the Bulgarian border. A lot of East Germans were shot while attempting to cross the border illegally. Three years ago, Mr Appelius, who is an associate professor at the university in Oldenburg, established that his colleagues had completely neglected this issue and that the general public was totally unaware of it.
He began his investigations in the Federal STASI Records Office, met and interviewed witnesses and received information from Bulgaria via various channels. His findings are summarised in Dead in Bulgaria, a book which is to be published in Germany in a few months. A TV documentary about the East German victims shot dead at the Bulgarian border is also planned.
Like its East European counterparts, the regime in the GDR did not allow its citizens to travel outside what at the time was known as the Socialist Camp. Stefan Appelius says that in East Germany people used to believe that Bulgaria barely guarded its borders and that the country was so poor that it couldn't even afford to buy ammunition for its border guards' guns. So, many East Germans believed this to be an easy option for escape. The reality was often much harsher and the Bulgarian guards and plainclothes acolytes of the authorities showed the fugitives no mercy.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers