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The concept of the Iron Curtain symbolized the ideological and physical boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991. On either side of the Iron Curtain, states developed their own international economic and military alliances:

The Iron Curtain took the shape of border defenses between the countries of Western and Eastern Europe, most notably the Berlin Wallmarker, which served as a longtime symbol of the Curtain as a whole.

Demolition of the Iron Curtain started in Hungarymarker during the summer of 1989 (for example: removal of Hungary's border fence and the Pan-European Picnic) when thousands of East Germansmarker began to emigrate to West Germanymarker via Hungarymarker on September 11, foreshadowing the fall of the Berlin Wallmarker.

Building antagonism between Soviet Union and West

The antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West that led to Churchill's coining of the term 'iron curtain' had various origins.

The United Kingdommarker, Francemarker, Japanmarker, Canadamarker, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 1918–1920 Russian Civil War, and the Soviets had not forgotten the fact.

During the summer of 1939, after conducting negotiations with both a British-French group and Germany regarding potential military and political agreements,the Soviet Union and Germany signed a Commercial Agreement providing for the trade of certain German military and civilian equipment in exchange for Soviet raw materials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, commonly named after the foreign secretaries of the two countries (Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop), which included a secret agreement to split Poland and Eastern Europe between the two states. The Soviets thereafter invaded Eastern Polandmarker, Latviamarker, Lithuaniamarker, northern Romaniamarker, Estoniamarker and eastern Finlandmarker. From August 1939, relations between the West and the Soviets deteriorated further when the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in an extensive economic relationship by which the Soviet Union sent Germany vital oil, rubber, manganese and other material in exchange for German weapons, manufacturing machinery and technology. This ended in June 1941 when Germany broke the Pact and invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the war, Stalin determined to acquire a similar buffer against Germany with pro-Soviet states on its border in an Eastern bloc. Stalin's aims led to strained relations at the Yalta Conferencemarker (February 1945) and the subsequent Potsdam Conference (August 1945).People in the West expressed 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.

Nonetheless, at the Potsdam Conference, the Allies ceded parts of Poland, Finland, Romania, Germany, and the Balkans to Soviet control. In return, Stalin promised the Western Allies that he would allow those territories the right to National Self-Determination. Despite the Soviet cooperation during the war, these concessions left many in the West uneasy. In particular, Churchill feared 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 withdraw from Europe within two years.

The Iron Curtain Speech

Winston Churchill's "Sinews of Peace" address of 5 March 1946, at Westminster Collegemarker in Fulton, Missourimarker, used the term "iron curtain" in the context of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe:


At first, many countries in the West widely condemned the speech. Much of the Western public still regarded the Soviet Union as a close ally in context of the recent defeat of Nazi Germany and Japanmarker. Many saw Churchill's speech as warmongering and unnecessary. In light of the subsequent opening of Soviet archives, some historians have revised their opinions.

Although the phrase was not well received at the time, it gained popularity as a short-hand reference to the division of Europe, as the Cold War strengthened. The Iron Curtain served to keep people in and information out, and people throughout the West eventually came to accept and use the metaphor.

Political, economic and military realities

The Eastern Bloc

While the Iron Curtain remained in place, certain countries of Eastern Europe and many in Central Europe (except West Germanymarker, Liechtensteinmarker, Switzerlandmarker and Austriamarker) found themselves under the control of the Soviet Unionmarker. The Soviet Union annexed several countries as Soviet Socialist Republics within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicsmarker. Many of these were originally countries effectively ceded to it by Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, before Germany invaded the Soviet Union. These later annexed territories include Eastern Polandmarker (incorporated into Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs), Latviamarker (became Latvia SSR), Estoniamarker (became Estonian SSRmarker), Lithuaniamarker (became Lithuania SSR), part of eastern Finlandmarker (became part of the Karelo-Finnish SSR) and northern Romaniamarker (part of which became the Moldavian SSR).

The Soviets and their allies converted other areas into Soviet Satellite states:

Soviet-installed governments ruled the Eastern Bloc countries, with the exception of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker, which retained its full independence.

To the east of the Iron Curtain, the majority of European states developed their own international economic and military alliances, such as 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 Austriamarker, West Germanymarker, Liechtensteinmarker and Switzerlandmarker — operated market economies. With the exception of a period of fascism in Spainmarker and Portugalmarker and military dictatorship in Greecemarker, democratic governments ruled these countries.

Most states to the west of the Iron Curtain — with the exception of neutral Switzerlandmarker, Liechtensteinmarker, Austriamarker, Swedenmarker, Finlandmarker and Irelandmarker — allied themselves with the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker within NATOmarker. 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.

Further division in the late 1940s

In January 1947, Truman appointed General George Marshall as Secretary of State, scrapped Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directive 1067, which embodied the Morgenthau Plan and supplanted it with JCS 1779, which decreed that an orderly and prosperous Europe requires the economic contributions of a stable and productive Germany." Administration officials met with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and others to press for an economically self-sufficient Germany, including a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods and infrastructure already removed by the Soviets. After six weeks of negotiations, Molotov refused the demands and the talks were adjourned. Marshall was particularly discouraged after personally meeting with Stalin, who expressed little interest in a solution to German economic problems. The United States concluded that a solution could not wait any longer. In a 5 June 1947 speech, Marshall announced a comprehensive program of American assistance to all European countries wanting to participate, including the Soviet Union and those of Eastern Europe, called the Marshall Plan.

Stalin opposed the Marshall Plan. He had built up the Eastern Bloc protective belt of Soviet controlled nations on his Western border, and wanted to maintain this buffer zone of states combined with a weakened Germany under Soviet control. Fearing American political, cultural and economic penetration, Stalin eventually forbade Soviet Eastern bloc countries of the newly formed Cominform from accepting Marshall Plan aid. In Czechoslovakiamarker, that required a Soviet-backed Czechoslovak coup d'état of 1948, the brutality of which shocked Western powers more than any event so far and set in a motion a brief scare that war would occur and swept away the last vestiges of opposition to the Marshall Plan in the United States Congress.

Relations further deteriorated when, in January 1948, the U.S.marker State Departmentmarker also published a collection of documents titled Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939–1941: Documents from the Archives of The German Foreign Office, which contained documents recovered from the Foreign Office of Nazi Germany revealing Soviet conversations with Germany regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, including its secret protocol dividing eastern Europe, the1939 German-Soviet Commercial Agreement, and discussions of the Soviet Union potentially becoming the fourth Axis Power. In response, one month later, the Soviet Union published Falsifiers of History, a Stalin edited and partially re-written book attacking the West.

After the Marshall Plan, the introduction of a new currency to Western Germany to replace the debased Reichsmark and massive electoral losses for communist parties, in June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off surface road access to Berlinmarker, initiating the Berlin Blockade, which cut off all non-Soviet food, water and other supplies for the citizens of the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin. Because Berlin was located within the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, the only available methods of supplying the city were three limited air corridors. A massive aerial supply campaign was initiated by the United States, Britain, France and other countries, the success of which caused the Soviets to lift their blockade in May 1949.

Emigration restrictions

Migration from east to west of the Iron Curtain, except under limited circumstances, was effectively halted after 1950. Before 1950, over 15 million people emigrated from Soviet-occupied eastern European countries to the west in the five years immediately following World War II. However, restrictions implemented during the Cold War stopped most East-West migration, with only 13.3 million migrations westward between 1950 and 1990. More than 75% of those emigrating from Eastern Bloc countries between 1950 and 1990 did so under bilateral agreements for "ethnic migration." About 10% were refugees permitted to emigrate under the Geneva Convention of 1951. Most Soviets allowed to leave during this time period were ethnic Jews permitted to emigrate to Israel after a series of embarrassing defections in 1970 caused the Soviets to open very limited ethnic emigrations. The fall of the Iron Curtain was accompanied by a massive rise in European East-West migration.

As a physical entity

The Iron Curtain took physical shape in the form of border defences 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 Wallmarker 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 (i.e. at the Western borders of Czechoslovakia and Hungary), the border defences between West and East were similar to the German version. During the Cold War, in Hungary the border zone started 15 kilometers from the border inside the country and citizens could only enter it if they lived in the zone or had a passport valid for traveling out. Traffic control points and patrols enforced this regulation.

Even living inside the border zone, people needed special permissions to enter the next strip (5 kilometers from the border). The border was very difficult to approach but nevertheless it was heavily fortified. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a double barbed-wire fence installed some 50 meters from the border and between them there was a strip full of landmines. Later the minefield was replaced with an electric signal fence (about 1 kilometer from the border) and a barbed wire fence, complete with guard towers and sand strip for border violation tracking. Regular patrols (even cars and mounted units), guards and K-9 units were watching the border 24/7 and were ready to prevent any escape attempt, even using their weapons to stop escapees. The outer wire fence was carefully and irregularly (i.e not parallel) placed far from the actual border (which was marked by border stones only), thus an escapee sometimes had to run 400 meters or more in the right direction to reach and cross the actual border. Not knowing this, several attempts failed as being stopped after crossing the outer fence.

The outer fence became the first part of the Iron Curtain to be dismantled in 1989. On 27 June 1989, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, ceremonially cut through the border defences separating their countries. (The border fortifications actually were dismantled earlier already at the ceremonial place so the border authorities had to reinstall a section of the fence to be cut through.)

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 area along the Iron Curtain's former route.

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.

Fall of the Iron Curtain

Following a period of economic and political stagnation, the Soviet Union decreased intervention in Eastern Bloc politics. Mikhail Gorbachev decreased adherence to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that if socialism were threatened in any state then other socialist governments had an obligation to intervene to preserve it, in favor of the "Sinatra Doctrine." He also initiated the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). A wave of Revolutions occurred throughout the Eastern Bloc.

Major reforms occurred in the People's Republic of Hungary in 1988. In April 1989, the Solidarity organization was legalized in the People's Republic of Poland and captured 99% of available parliamentary seats. In November 1989, following mass protests in East Germanymarker and the relaxing of border restrictions in Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of East Berliners flooded checkpoints along the Berlin Wallmarker, crossing into West Berlin. In the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the day after the mass crossings across the Berlin Wall, leader Todor Zhivkov was ousted. In the Czechoslovak Socialist Republicmarker, following protests of an estimated half-million Czechs, the government permitted travel to the west and abolished provisions guaranteeing the ruling Communist party its leading role, preceding the Velvet Revolution. In the Socialist Republic of Romania, the Romanian military sided with protesters and turned on Communist ruler Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was executed after a brief trial three days later. In the People's Socialist Republic of Albania, a new package of regulations went into effect on 3 July 1990 entitling all Albanians over the age of 16 to own a passport for foreign travel. Meanwhile, hundreds of Albanian citizens gathered around foreign embassies to seek political assylum and flee the country.

The Berlin Wall officially remained guarded after 9 November 1989, although the inter-German border had become effectively meaningless. The official dismantling of the Wall by the East German military did not begin until June 1990. In July 1990, the day East Germany adopted the West German currency, all border controls ceased and West Germanmarker Chancellor Helmut Kohl convinced Gorbachev to drop Soviet objections to a reunited Germany within NATO in return for substantial German economic aid to the Soviet Union.

Earlier uses of the term

Swedish book "Behind Russia's iron curtain" from 1923
There are various earlier usages of the term "iron curtain" ( ; ; ; ; , ) pre-dating Churchill. The usage of the term goes back to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota 38b, which refers to a "mechitza shel barzel," an iron barrier or divider: "אפילו מחיצה של ברזל אינה מפסקת בין ישראל לאביהם שבשמים" (Even an iron barrier cannot separate [the people of] Israel from their heavenly father).

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 Belgiummarker and Germanymarker, in 1914. 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.

The term also appears in the 1933 satirical novel England, Their England; used there to describe the way an artillery barrage protected the infantry from an enemy assault: "...the western sky was a blaze of yellow flame. The iron curtain was down."

An iron curtain, or eiserner Vorhang, was an obligatory precaution in all German theatres 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." The German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote in his weekly newspaper Das Reich of a Soviet-formed "iron curtain" that would arise because of agreements made by Stalin, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conferencemarker: "An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered." It was later used by Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk in the last days of the war.

The first oral intentional mention of an Iron Curtain in the Soviet context was in a broadcast by Schwerin von Krosigk to the German people on 2 May 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 12 May 1945 telegram he sent to U.S. President Harry S. Truman regarding his concern about Soviet actions, stating "[a]n iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind." He was further concerned about "another immense flight of the German population westward as this enormous Muscovite advance towards the center of Europe." Churchill concluded "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."

Churchill repeated the words in a further telegram to President Truman on 4 June 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 "Soviet power into the heart of Western Europe and the descent of an iron curtain between us and everything to the eastward."

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

The first American print reference to the "Iron Curtain" occurred when C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times first used it in a dispatch published on 23 July 1945. He had heard the term used by Vladimir Macek, a Yugoslav opposition leader who had fled his homeland for Paris in May 1945. Macek told Sulzberger, "During the four years while I was interned by the Germans in Croatia I saw how the Partisans were lowering an iron curtain over Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia] so that nobody could know what went on behind it."

The term was first used in the British House of Commons by Churchill on 16 August 1945 when he stated "it is not impossible that tragedy on a prodigious scale is unfolding itself behind the iron curtain which at the moment divides Europe in twain."

Allen Dulles used the term in a speech on 3 December 1945, referring to only Germanymarker, following his conclusion that "in general the Russians are acting little better than thugs", had "wiped out all the liquid assets", and refused to issue food cards to emigrating Germans, leaving them "often more dead than alive." Dulles concluded that "[a]n 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."


There is an Iron Curtain monument in the southern part of the Czech Republic at approximately . 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 defences, some are from the never-used Czechoslovak border fortifications in defence against Hitler, and some towers were, or have become, hunting platforms.

Another monument is located in the village of Devínmarker, now part of Bratislavamarker, Slovakiamarker, 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 Mödlareuthmarker, 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.

  • A variant of the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain, was coined in reference to the People's Republic of Chinamarker. 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 Alaskamarker in the Bering Seamarker became known as the "Ice Curtain" during the Cold War.
  • A field of cacti surrounding the U.S. Naval station at Guantanamo Baymarker planted by Cubamarker was occasionally termed the "cactus curtain".

See also

Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing BRD/DDR



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  2. Day, Alan J.; East, Roger; Thomas, Richard. A Political and Economic Dictionary of Eastern Europe, p. 405.
  3. Antony Beevor Berlin: The building of the Berlin Wall, p. 80
  4. Sinews of Peace
  5. John Lewis Gaddis We Now Know 1997
  6. Authors such as Lewkowicz have underlined the importance played by the treatment of the German Question in the division of the continent into two ideological camps. The German Question and the Origins of the Cold War
  7. Senn, Alfred Erich, Lithuania 1940 : revolution from above, Amsterdam, New York, Rodopi, 2007 ISBN 978-90-420-2225-6
  8. Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline, Stalin's Cold War, New York : Manchester University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-7190-4201-1
  9. Granville, Johanna, The First Domino: International Decision Making during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956, Texas A&M University Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58544-298-4
  10. Marshall, George C, The Marshal Plan Speech, 5 June 1947
  11. Airbridge to Berlin, "Eye of the Storm" chapter
  12. E. Szafarz, "The Legal Framework for Political Cooperation in Europe" in The Changing Political Structure of Europe: Aspects of International Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-1379-8. p.221.
  13. L'Album de la Guerre - Ed. L'Illustration - Paris - 1923 - p. 33 - Queen Elisabeth to author Pierre Loti in 1915
  14. Goebbels, Joseph, " "Das Jahr 2000", Das Reich, 25 February 1945, pp. 1-2.
  15. A New Look at the Iron Curtain, Ignace Feuerlicht, American Speech, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Oct., 1955), pp. 186–189.
  16. US Dept of State, Foreign Relations of the US, The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. 1, p. 9
  17. Weintraub, Stanley, "The Last Great Victory", Truman Talley Books, New York, 1995, p. 184
  18. Hansard House of Commons, c84, 16 August 1945 vol 413
  19. Yankees Besieged - TIME


  • Lewkowicz, N., (2008) The German Question and the Origins of the Cold War (IPOC:Milan) ISBN 88-95145-27-5

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