The Grenztruppen der DDR or Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic were a military force of East Germany tasked with guarding the Berlin Wall and the border areas between East and West Germany. The Border Troops numbered at their peak approximately 47,000 troops. Other than the Soviet Union, no other Warsaw Pact country had such a large border guard force. Its main mission was to prevent East German citizens and government officials, including military personnel from escaping from East Germany. Its secondary role was to serve as part of the primary line of assault forces in the event of an attack from the West.
The Grenztruppen often nicknamed 'Grenzers' by allied forces in the west, were responsible for many deaths along the Berlin Wall and frontier areas as well as suffering from numerous casualties of their own in the line of duty.
By December 1945 within six months of the end of the Second World War each of the five states in the Soviet zone of occupation had a central police force. This mobilization of police forces was seen as a clear violation of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. In early January of 1946, the term Volkspolizei or the People's Police was applied publicly to the new police forces in eastern Germany, and in August of the same year these forces were placed under the central control of the newly created German Administration of the Interior commanded by Erich Reschke. In November 1946, the Sowjetische Militäradministration in Deutschland (SMAD), the Soviet Military Administration in Germany directed the organization of the Deutsche Grenzpolizei, the German Border Police actually formed on 1 December 1946. The initial 3,000 recruits were organized and trained from Volkspolizei resources and by April 1948 the branch numbered 10,000 strong, the total reaching 18,000 soldiers by 1950. The Grenzpolizei were armed and organized along the lines of a police force and were subordinate to the Main Administration of the Border Police and Alert Units of the German Administration of the Interior. Eventually, the East German regime demanded a reorganization of the force along military lines, similar to their Soviet counterparts, the USSR Border Troops. In 1961, the Grenzpolizei were reorganized and renamed as the Grenztruppen der DDR, the Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic. As part of the reorganization, the Grenztruppen der DDR was moved from the control of the East German Ministry of the Interior to the control of the Ministry of National Defense. Although the Border Troops were originally part of the Nationale Volksarmee, in 1973 they were separated from NVA control and reported thereafter directly to the Ministry of National Defense.
While they wore standard NVA uniforms, members of the Grenztruppen had their own dark green branch of service color, and their service and dress uniforms bore a green cuff title with white lettering reading 'Grenztruppen der DDR' on the left arm. From 1973 onward service in the Grenztruppen der DDR was voluntary. No draftees involuntarily served in its ranks after 1973 as opposed to the mandatory service obligations of the Nationale Volksarmee. In contrast to the massive efforts along the borders with the West, there were only about 600 members of the Grenztruppen assigned to guard East Germany’s borders with neighboring Czechoslovakia and Poland. On 1 July 1990, the border control regime along the borders with West Germany and West Berlin were effectively ended. In September 1990 shortly before the reunification of Germany, the Grenztruppen der DDR was disbanded and its border patrol duties along united Germany's eastern frontiers were assumed by the former West German Bundesgrenzschutz.
For most visitors to East Berlin and East Germany, including persons who utilized the land transit routes both roadways and railways between West Germany and West Berlin, their exposure to the Grenztruppen der DDR consisted of dealing with the members of the Pass and Control Units known officially as the Paß- und Kontrolleinheiten. They processed travelers passing through East Germany's Grenzübergangsstellen the numerous border crossing points. Although they wore Grenztruppen uniforms, the members of the Paß- und Kontrolleinheiten were essentially members of the 6th Main Department of Hauptabteilung VI assigned to the East German Ministry of State Security officially known as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit der DDR or more notably the ‘Stasi’.
The units of the Grenztruppen der DDR were essentially organized in the same manner as ordinary Landstreitkräfte der NVA units.
The Grenztruppen der DDR was organized as such:
- The headquarters of the Grenztruppen der DDR was located at Pätz, a small village southeast of Berlin in the present-day state of Brandenburg, near Königswusterhausen.
- The Grenzkommando Nord or Border Command North was headquarters at Stendal in the present-day state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was responsible for the northern sector of the East German border. The GKN consisted of six frontier troop regiments, two training regiments, a helicopter flight and several smaller support units.
- The Grenzkommando Süd or Border Command South was headquarters at Erfurt. It guarded the southern border sector of East Germany. The organizational structure of the GKS was similar to that of the GKN, with six frontier troop regiments, two training regiments, a helicopter flight and several smaller support units.
- The Grenzkommando Mitte or Border Command Center was headquarters at Berlin-Karlshorst. This unit manned the crossing points into West Berlin and guarded the entire border perimeter surrounding West Berlin. The GKM consisted of six frontier troop regiments, one border crossing point regiment, two training regiments, an artillery regiment and several smaller support units.
- The Grenzkommando Küste or Coastal Border Command was headquarters at Rostock. It deployed a coastal brigade known as the Grenzbrigade Küste consisting of twelve marine battalions and several maritime battalions and companies to guard East Germany's relatively small coastline along the Baltic Sea. For command and control purposes, the GKK was incorporated into the East German Volksmarine.
In accordance with a June 1989 decision of East Germany’s National Defense Council, the Grenztruppen der DDR were extensively reorganized by 30 November 1989. By 1989, the Grenztruppen der DDR had 44,000 soldiers under arms, a dramatic shift in personnel strength which saw the Grenztruppen reduced by approximately 17 percent. This reduction also changed the number of headquarters units from 50 to 24.
In the place of the previous command structure, six border district commands known as Grenzbezirkskommandos, 16 border county commands or Grenzkreiskommandos and two border training centers or Grenzausbildungszentren were established. The Grenzbezirkskommandos reported directly to the national headquarters.
The two training centers reported directly to the national headquarters, along with the training schools for Grenztruppen officers, officer candidates and non commissioned officers
Upon reunification the Grenztruppen der DDR fell to the control of the Bundeswehr. The Grenztruppen’s numbers were rapidly reduced. Half of its personnel were dismissed within five months of the opening of the border with West Germany. The border itself was transitionally unmanned and the Grenztruppen der DDR was officially deactivated on 1 July 1990. All but 2,000 personnel were dismissed or transferred to other jobs in varying other agencies. The Bundeswehr gave the remaining members of the Grenztruppen and other former Nationale Volksarmee soldiers the task of clearing the border fortifications, which would not be completed until 1994 a testimony to the extensive measures taken by the East German government to prevent defection into the West. The scale of the task was immense, as not only did the fortifications have to be cleared but hundreds of roads and railway lines had to be rebuilt.
Grenztruppen regiments were trained similar to regular infantry of the Landstreitkräfte, but were much more lightly equipped than comparable Landstreitkräfte infantry formations, with the heaviest weapon being the RPG-7 grenade launcher. To increase their capability to search for persons attempting to flee from East Germany into the West, most units employed German Shepherd dogs. Each regiment consisted of around 1,500 men divided into three battalions of four companies each. These regiments also had a subordinate anti-tank battery, a mortar battery and an engineer company. The units comprising of the Grenzkommando Mitte were mechanized equipped with PSzH-IV and FUG armored vehicles.
Training for Grenztruppen soldiers was provided by four training regiments. After the reorganization of 30 November 1989, the four regiments were consolidated into two training centers. Training for noncommissioned officers was held at the Unteroffiziersschule der Grenztruppen der DDR ‘Egon Schultz’ located in Perleberg. Training for dog handlers was conducted in Wilhelmshorst. Grenztruppen officers and officer candidates were trained at the Offiziershochschule der Grenztruppen der DDR ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ in Suhl. This school had been previously located in Plauen.
Undoubtedly the most controversial aspect surrounding the Grenztruppen der DDR concerns those who were killed or wounded while attempting to flee East Germany into the West. Even today, the topic of the "shoot-to-kill order" known officially as Schießbefehl is quite sensitive in Germany, both East and West. According to information released by the " Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13. August e.V. on 13 August 2004, 1065 persons were known to have been killed along East Germany's frontiers and coastline, including 37 Grenztruppen soldiers killed during escape attempts into the West. Many more were wounded or maimed.
The Berlin Public Prosecution Department estimates that about 270 'proven' deaths on the border were due to acts of violence by East German border security guards, including deaths caused by mines and automatic firing devices. However, the Central Assessment Group for Governmental and Organized Crimes, which existed from 1991 to 2000 as a branch of the Berlin Police, registered 421 suspected cases of killings by armed members of the Grenztruppen.
To encourage the troops to carry out their duties, the East German government gave distinctions including extra liberty and premiums to a soldier who had used his gun in earnest at the border. In the event he had killed a refugee attempting to flee into the West, he received a gold watch, but was also transferred to another unit to avoid bullying from others in his unit.
There were 29 confirmed in the line of duty deaths of Grenztruppen agents. The first three deaths occurred at the time of Soviet occupation zone. After the founding of the German Democratic Republic in October 1949 until its end in 1990 there were a further 26 border policemen and border soldiers that were killed. Of these 29 deaths, 20 were killed along the inner-German border, eight were killed in Berlin at the Wall and one was killed on the border with Czechoslovakia. A firm prediction on the individual perpetrators and their motives is not possible for determination in all cases. The perpetrators were from the following classes of persons:
- Deserters of the Grenztruppen, Volkspolizei , Nationale Volksarmee (or their predecessor organizations) and members the Soviet Armed Forces
- Other East Germans attempting to defect into the West
- Citizens of West Berlin and West Germany (generally while serving as escape helpers)
- Members of the West German Bundesgrenzschutz, the West Berlin Police and the United States Army in the line of duty
The Grenztruppen also maintained its own Air Patrol tasked with assisting Grenztruppen ground units with air support, especially airborne surveillance. The approximate size of the unit is unknown but its personnel wore the same uniform as standard Grenztruppen personnel but were distinguished by the wear of green Air Force style collar tabs.