Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain

The "Iron Curtain" was the symbolic, ideological, and physical boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1991. At both sides of the Iron Curtain, the states developed their own international economic and military alliances, COMECON with the Warsaw Pact on the east side with the USSR as most important member, and the NATO and the European Community on the west side, with the United States.

The Iron Curtain took the shape of border defenses between the countries of Western and Eastern Europe, most notably the Berlin Wall, which served as a longtime symbol of the Iron Curtain altogether. [ [,9171,959058,00.html Freedom! - TIME ] ]

The term was first used by German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in a manifesto he published in the German newspaper "Das Reich" in February 1945, ["A New Look at the Iron Curtain", Ignace Feuerlicht, "American Speech," Vol. 30, No. 3 (Oct., 1955), p. 186–189.] but was popularised by Winston Churchill's "" held on March 5, 1946. [ Sinews of Peace]

Political, economic and military realities

Eastern Europe

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 control 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. It became common in the West to refer to former East Germany and Czechoslovakia as part of Eastern Europe. However, East Germany, the Czech Republic and large parts of Poland are further west than much of Austria, with Prague considerably further west than Vienna. Much of the physical Iron Curtain divided Czechoslovakia from Austria to the South.

Many of the states were members of the Soviet Union (the Soviet Socialist Republics), while, with two exceptions, the neighboring countries of the Eastern bloc were ruled by Soviet installed governments. The two exceptions were Yugoslavia which retained its full independence, and Albania which escaped Soviet influence in the 1960s and aligned itself with China; both Albania and Yugoslavia were Communist states.

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, Northern 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 and Canada within NATO. Economically, the European Community and the European Free Trade Association were the Western counterparts to COMECON, though even the nominally neutral states were economically closer to the United States than they were to the Warsaw Pact.

As a physical entity

The Iron Curtain took physical shape in the form of border defenses between the countries of the western and eastern Europe. These were some of the most heavily militarized areas in the world, particularly the so-called "inner German border"—commonly known 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 (expanded metal) 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. 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, because 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 and several hundred civilians were killed between 1948–1981 (some may have been victims of "friendly fire" by their own side).

Elsewhere, the border defenses 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. On June 27, 1989, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, ceremonially cut through the border defenses separating their countries.

In parts of Czechoslovakia the border strip became hundreds of meters wide, and an area of increasing restrictions was defined as the border was approached. Only people with the appropriate government permissions were allowed to get close to the border.

The creation of these highly militarized no-man's lands led to "de facto" nature reserves and created a wildlife corridor across Europe; this helped the spread of several species to new territories. Since the fall of the iron curtain several initiatives are pursuing the creation of a European Green Belt nature preserve compound.

The term "Iron Curtain" was only used for the fortified borders in central Europe; it was not used for similar borders in Asia between communist and capitalist states (these were, for a time, dubbed the Bamboo Curtain. The border between North Korea and South Korea is very comparable to the former inner German border, particularly in its degree of militarization, but it has never conventionally been considered part of the Iron Curtain.


The first recorded use of the term "iron curtain" was derived from the safety curtain used in theatres and first applied to the border of communist Russia as "an impenetrable barrier" in 1920 by Ethel Snowden, in her book "Through Bolshevik Russia". [cite book
last =Cohen
first =J. M. and M. J.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations
publisher =Penguin Books
year =1996
location =
pages =726
id =ISBN 0-14-051244-6
] It was used during World War II by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and later Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk in the last days of the war. The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used the phrase in telegrams to President Truman on 1945 May 12 and 1945 June 4. [cite book
last =Churchill
first =Winston S.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =The Second World War, Triumph and Tragedy,
publisher =Bantam
year =1962
location =Book 2, Chapter 15
pages =489 and 514
id =
] However, its use was not popularized until Churchill used it in his "Sinews of Peace" address March 5, 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:


At first, many countries in the West widely condemned the speech. Much of the Western public still regarded the Soviet Union as close allies, in context of the recent defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan. Many saw Churchill's speech as warmongering and unnecessary. In light of the now public Soviet archives, many historians have now revised their opinions. [John Lewis Gaddis "We Now Know 1997"]

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 was widely accepted throughout the West.

Antagonism between Soviet Union and West

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

The United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 1918–1920 Russian Civil War, and the fact had not been forgotten by the Soviets. In the build up to World War II and in the face of the Western appeasement of Adolf 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 Germany 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 opposition to Soviet domination over the buffer states, and 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, U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Europe within two years. [Antony Beevor "Berlin: The Downfall 1945", p80]

Earlier uses 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 Belgians after World War I to describe the political situation between Belgium and Germany, in 1914. [L'Album de la Guerre - Ed. L'Illustration - Paris - 1923 - p. 33 - Queen Elisabeth to author Pierre Loti in 1915] An iron curtain, or "eiserner 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 because 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." Joseph Goebbels wrote of an "iron curtain" in his weekly newspaper "Das Reich": : [ The Year 2000]

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

The first recorded occasion on which Churchill used the term "iron curtain" was in a May 12, 1945 telegram he sent to U.S. President Harry S. Truman::(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 President Truman on June 4, 1945, in which he protested against such a U.S. retreat to what was earlier designated as, and ultimately became, the U.S. occupation zone, saying the military withdrawal would bring:(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:


There is an Iron Curtain monument in the southern part of the Czech Republic at approximately coord|48|52|33|N|15|52|25|E. A few hundred meters of the original fence, and one of the guard towers, has remained installed. There are interpretive signs in Czech and English that explain the history and significance of the Iron Curtain. This is the only surviving part of the fence in the Czech Republic (though several guard towers and bunkers can still be seen. Some of these are part of the Communist Era defenses, some are from the never-used Czechoslovak border fortifications in defense against Hitler, and some towers were, or have become, hunting platforms).

Another monument is located in the village of Devín, now part of Bratislava, Slovakia, at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

There are several open air museums in parts of the former inner German border, as for example in Berlin and in Mödlareuth, a village that has been divided for several hundred years. The memory of the division is being kept alive in many other places along the "Grenze".

Analogous terms

Throughout the Cold War the term "curtain" would become a common euphemism for boundaries, physical or ideological, between communist and capitalist states. Other usages of the term can be found elsewhere in the world.

*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.
*The short distance between Russia and the U.S state of Alaska in the Bering Sea became known as the "Ice Curtain" during the Cold War.
*A field of cacti surrounding the U.S. Naval station at Guantanamo Bay planted by Cuba was occasionally termed the "cactus curtain".cite web| url=|title=The History of Guantanamo Bay 1494 -1964: Chapter 18, "Introduction of Part II, 1953 - 1964"| author=M. E. Murphy, Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy| accessdate=2008-03-27] [ [,9171,940656,00.html Yankees Besieged - TIME ] ]
*The Zion Curtain is a joking reference to Utah because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has considerable influence in Utah and often uses the term Zion to describe itself. (See [] )
*See also Tortilla wall
*The term "Orange Curtain" is used by residents of Los Angeles to describe neighbouring Orange County, referring to the urban-suburban divide between the two localities.

Other uses of the term

*In the "" series of video games, the Iron Curtain is a Soviet superweapon which makes vehicles and/or buildings invulnerable to all sorts of damage for a short amount of time, but is lethal to infantry.


External links

* [ Information about the Iron Curtain with a detailed map and how to make it by bike]
* [ Soviet reaction to Churchill's speech]
* [ A streaming online version of the Churchill's speech, with speech notes and other contextual documents]
* [ "Peep under the Iron Curtain", a cartoon first published on March 6, 1946 in Daily Mail]
* [ Field research along the northern sections of the former German-German border, with detailed maps, diagrams, and photos.]
* [ The Lost Border: Photographs of the Iron Curtain]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • iron curtain — The phrase had its origin in the 18c with reference to a safety device lowered in theatres between the stage and the auditorium. Its figurative use referring to any impenetrable barrier evolved in the early 19c and it acquired its classic meaning …   Modern English usage

  • Iron Curtain — n the Iron Curtain the name that was used for the border between the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the rest of Europe …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Iron Curtain — ► NOUN (the Iron Curtain) ▪ a notional barrier separating the former Soviet bloc and the West prior to the decline of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 …   English terms dictionary

  • Iron Curtain — in reference to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, famously coined by Winston Churchill March 5, 1946, in speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, but it had been used earlier in this context (e.g. by U.S. bureaucrat Allen W. Dulles …   Etymology dictionary

  • iron curtain — n. [prob. calque of Ger eiserner vorhang, as used by Joseph Goebbels: popularized by Sir Winston Churchill in a speech (1946)] 1. [often I C ] a barrier of secrecy and censorship regarded as isolating the Soviet Union and other countries in its… …   English World dictionary

  • iron curtain — 1. (sometimes caps.) a barrier to understanding and the exchange of information and ideas created by ideological, political, and military hostility of one country toward another, esp. such a barrier between the Soviet Union and its allies and… …   Universalium

  • Iron Curtain — 1) N PROPER: the N People referred to the border that separated the Soviet Union and the communist countries of Eastern Europe from the Western European countries as the Iron Curtain. The collapse of the Iron Curtain had immediate impact on the… …   English dictionary

  • Iron Curtain —    Following the end of World War II, there was growing fear concerning the domination of Eastern European countries by the Soviet Union (USSR). Speaking in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, British prime minister Winston Churchill warned of the …   Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era

  • iron curtain — noun Date: 1819 1. an impenetrable barrier < the iron curtain between the ego and the unconscious C. J. Rolo > 2. a political, military, and ideological barrier that cuts off and isolates an area; specifically often capitalized one formerly… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Iron Curtain — noun (the Iron Curtain) a notional barrier separating the former Soviet bloc and the West prior to the decline of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 …   English new terms dictionary

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