Iron Curtain

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In the summer of 1989, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, ceremonially cut through the border defences separating their countries.
In the summer of 1989, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, ceremonially cut through the border defences separating their countries.
Iron Curtain Germany
Iron Curtain Germany

The Iron Curtain (Eiserner Vorhang in German, Железный занавес (Zhelezniy zanaves) in Russian, Vasfüggöny in Hungarian, Jernteppet in Norwegian, Cortina de fier in Romanian, Желeзна завеса in Bulgarian ) is a Western term referring to the boundary which symbolically, ideologically, and physically divided Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1990.

A variant of the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain, was coined in reference to the People's Republic of China. As the standoff between the West and the countries of the Iron and Bamboo curtains eased with the end of the Cold War, the term fell out of any but historical usage.


Political, economic and military realities

East of the Iron Curtain

While the Iron Curtain was in place, certain countries of Eastern Europe and many in Central Europe (except West Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Austria) were under the political influence of the Soviet Union. Indeed the Central European states to the east of the Curtain were frequently regarded as being part of Eastern Europe, rather than Central Europe.

Many of the states were members of the Soviet Union itself (the Soviet Socialist Republics), while with two exceptions the neighboring countries of the Eastern bloc were ruled by pro-Soviet governments, kept in place by the threat of military force. The two exceptions were Yugoslavia which retained its independence, and Albania which escaped Soviet influence in the 1960s and aligned itself with China, with Albania having a Soviet-like planned economy and Yugoslavia having a Western-like market economy. To the east of the Iron Curtain, the states developed their own international economic and military alliances, COMECON and the Warsaw Pact.

West of the Iron Curtain

To the west of the Iron Curtain, the countries of Western Europe and Southern Europe, along with Austria, West Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, operated market economies. With the exception of a period of fascism in Spain and Portugal and military dictatorship in Greece, these countries were ruled by democratic governments.

Most states to the west of the Iron Curtain - with the exception of neutral Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Ireland - were allied with the United States within NATO. Economically, the European Community and the European Free Trade Association were the Western counterparts to COMECON.

The Iron Curtain as a physical entity

The Iron Curtain took physical form in the shape of border defences between the countries of the western and eastern blocs. These were some of the most heavily militarised areas in the world, particularly the so-called "inner German border" – commonly known simply as die Grenze in German – between East and West Germany. The inner German border was marked in rural areas by double fences made of steel mesh with sharp edges, while near urban areas a high concrete barrier similar to the Berlin Wall was built. The barrier was always a short distance inside East German territory to avoid any intrusion into Western territory. The actual borderline was marked by posts and signs and was overlooked by numerous watchtowers set behind the barrier. In some places a "death strip" was constructed on the East German side of the barrier, in which unauthorized access would be met with bullets. The strip of land on the West German side of the barrier – between the actual borderline and the barrier – was readily accessible but only at considerable personal risk, as it was patrolled by both East and West German border guards. Shooting incidents were not uncommon, and a total of 28 East German border guards were killed between 1948-1990 (some may have been victims of "friendly fire" by their own side).

For more on this topic, see the GDR border system article.

Elsewhere, the border defences between west and east were much lighter. The border between Hungary and neutral Austria, for instance, was marked by a simple chain link fence which was easily removed when it became the first part of the Iron Curtain to be dismantled in 1989.

The term "Iron Curtain" was only used for the fortified borders in central Europe; it was never used for similar borders in Asia between communist and capitalist states. The border between North Korea and South Korea is very comparable to the former inner German border, particularly in its degree of militarisation, but it has never conventionally been considered part of the Iron Curtain.

Origins of the Iron Curtain

Winston Churchill popularized the term "Iron Curtain".
Winston Churchill popularized the term "Iron Curtain".

The term "Iron Curtain" was first coined in February 1945 by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and later used by Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk in the last days of World War II; however, its use was popularized by the former British leader Winston Churchill, who used it in his "Sinews of Peace" address March 5, 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an "iron curtain" has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.

Churchill made his speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. After its fall, a section of the Berlin Wall was transported to and erected at Westminster College. Although the phrase was not well received at the time, as the Cold War strengthened it gained popularity as a short-hand reference to the division of Europe. The Iron Curtain served to keep people in and information out, and the metaphor eventually enjoyed wide acceptance in the West.

In the Soviet Union, the speech was seen by Stalin as reinforcing his view that a future conflict with the West was inevitable. Over the following months, through a mixture of persuasion and purges of those holding contrary views, the Soviet Union did indeed come to see the West as a threat, rather than the ally they had been during World War II. The Cold War had begun in earnest.

Antagonism between East and West

The antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West that led to Churchill's speech had various origins.

Britain, France, Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 19181920 Russian Civil War, and the fact hadn't been forgotten by the Soviets. In the build up to World War II and in the face of the Western appeasement of Hitler the Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, one of the intentions being to divide the border states between them to form a buffer zone. Following the war Stalin was determined to acquire a similar buffer against the West with pro-Soviet states on its border, leading to strained relations at the Yalta Conference (February 1945) and the subsequent Potsdam Conference (August 1945).

In the West, there was not only opposition to Soviet domination over the buffer states, but the fear grew that the Soviets were building an empire that might be a threat to them and their interests. And, in particular, Churchill was concerned that the United States might return to its pre-war isolationism, leaving the exhausted European states unable to resist Soviet demands. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had announced at Yalta that after the defeat of Germany, US forces would be withdrawn from Europe within two years (Antony Beevor Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p80).

See also Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins

Earlier usages of the term

There are various earlier usages of the term "Iron Curtain" pre-dating Churchill. Some suggest the term may have first been coined by Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians1 after World War I to describe the political situation between Belgium and Germany, in 1914. An iron curtain, or eisener Vorhang, was an obligatory precaution in all German theaters to prevent the possibility of fire from spreading from the stage to the rest of the theater. Such fires were rather common as the decor often was very flammable. In case of fire a metal wall would separate the stage from the theater, secluding the flames to be extinguished by firefighters. Douglas Reed used this metaphor in his book Disgrace Abounding (Jonathan Cape, 1939, page 129): "The bitter strife [in Yugoslavia between Serb unionists and Croat federalists] had only been hidden by the iron safety-curtain of the King's dictatorship."

On February 25, 1945 Joseph Goebbels wrote of an "iron curtain" in his weekly newspaper Das Reich:

If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain [ein eiserner Vorhang] would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered. The Jewish press in London and New York would probably still be applauding.

"The Year 2000"

The first oral mention of an Iron Curtain was in a broadcast by Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk to the German people on May 2, 1945:

In the East the iron curtain behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on, is moving steadily forward.

The first recorded occasion on which Churchill used the term "iron curtain" was in a May 12, 1945 telegram he sent to US President Harry S. Truman:

I am profoundly concerned about the European situation. ... 3. An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind. There seems little doubt that the whole of the regions east of Lübeck-Trieste-Corfu will soon be completely in their hands. To this must be added the further enormous area conquered by the American armies between Eisenach and the Elbe, which will, I suppose, in a few weeks be occupied, when the Americans retreat, by the Russian power. All kinds of arrangements will have to be made by General Eisenhower to prevent another immense flight of the German population westward as this enormous Muscovite advance towards the centre of Europe takes place. And then the curtain will descend again to a very large extent, if not entirely. Thus a broad land of many hundreds of miles of Russian-occupied territory will isolate us from Poland. ...

(US Dept of State, Foreign Relations of the US, The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. 1, p. 9)

Churchill repeated the words in a further telegram to Truman on June 4, 1945 in which he protested against such a US retreat to what was earlier designated as, and ultimately became, the US occupation zone, saying the military withdrawal would bring

Soviet power into the heart of Western Europe and the descent of an iron curtain between us and everything to the eastward.

(Ibid., p. 92)

At the Potsdam Conference, Churchill complained to Stalin about an "iron fence" coming down upon the British Mission in Bucharest.

Allen Dulles used the term in a speech on December 3, 1945, referring to only Germany:

It is difficult to say what is going on, but in general the Russians are acting little better than thugs. They have wiped out all the liquid assets. No food cards are issued to Germans, who are forced to travel on foot into the Russian zone, often more dead than alive. An iron curtain has descended over the fate of these people and very likely conditions are truly terrible. The promises at Yalta to the contrary, probably 8 to 10 million people are being enslaved.
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