The Iron Curtain described hard borders between Eastern Europe and the rest of the continent during the Cold War. These borders were formed in the years after World War II, as Soviet-controlled regimes in the East sought to tighten control and prevent both emigration and infiltration. Though not the first to use the term ‘Iron Curtain’, Winston Churchill popularised its use in this context.
By early 1945, Nazi forces in Europe were in retreat, pursued by the Americans and British from the West and Soviet forces from the east. Areas occupied since 1940-41 found themselves freed from Nazi control and oppression. Nations in Eastern Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – were liberated by the Soviet Red Army.
After the war had ended, the Soviets remained in these countries longer than expected and longer than necessary. They had work to do, as agents worked behind the scenes to ‘sovietise’ these countries. In other words, they were left with puppet governments that served as an extension of the Kremlin.
These regimes had the appearance of democratic and representative governments but, in reality, they were neither. In most cases, local communists were gathered into a coalition party then given power, usually following a coup or rigged election. Soviet agents were appointed as ‘advisors’ but were in fact monitors, informers and enforcers. Other political parties were dissolved and dissenters and resisters were sidelined or eliminated.
By the late 1940s, most of eastern Europe was cloaked behind what would become known as the Iron Curtain.
By the start of 1946, the process of ‘Sovietisation’ was well underway in these countries, which collectively became known as the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Bloc. Access to the Eastern Bloc was tightly restricted; there were no foreign journalists permitted and diplomatic access was minimal. Despite this, Allied governments had some information about what was transpiring there.
Tensions between the USSR and the West began to acquire a public voice. In a February 1946 speech, Stalin stressed the superiority of communism over capitalism, warning Russians to stay on their guard against the West. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill, no longer British prime minister after an election defeat in July 1945, accused Joseph Stalin of breaking promises made at Yalta.
In March 1946, Churchill visited the US and spoke at Fulton, Missouri about his concerns:
“A shadow has fallen upon the scenes [recently] lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia …intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive tendencies. It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present situation in Europe. 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 are subject to a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow… This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up.”
Meanwhile, behind this ‘Iron Curtain’, the Soviets were helping themselves to the raw materials and industrial resources of the nations they had liberated from the Nazis or pro-Nazi government.
Grain, food, machinery, steel, coal and other items were seized and transported east to the Soviet Union. Romania and Hungary, which had allied themselves with Nazi Germany during the war, suffered worst. As defeated enemy states, both were required to sign humiliating armistice documents with the Soviet leadership, agreeing to pay reparations to the Russian people.
These documents were little more than a license to plunder, as reported by Kertesz:
“The armistice agreement compelled Hungary to furnish goods, facilities and services for the occupying army. The Soviet Union took the old principle of “la guerre doit nourrir la guerre” [‘the war must feed the war’] seriously, and the Red Army lived off the land. Besides carrying the legal burden of the armistice obligations, Hungary suffered through illegal seizure and large-scale looting. The notion of “war booty” was interpreted most extensively. Valuable machines, and in numerous instances whole plants, were dismantled and removed to the Soviet Union. Grains and other victuals were seized in huge quantities. Almost one-half of the livestock was taken out of the country. Safe deposit boxes were forced open and their contents removed. Whether the property was private or public did not make any difference. Private homes, public warehouses, stores, government agencies and banks all received the same treatment. [The properties] of neutral powers, such as Switzerland, Sweden or Turkey were not spared.”
The Marshall Plan
The 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan, an offer of vast amounts of foreign aid to assist with post-war reconstruction, revealed the extent to which these nations were under Stalin’s control.
All six members of the Eastern Bloc refused invitations to the Paris negotiation conference, despite Poland and Czechoslovakia having earlier expressed some interest in accepting US aid. Moscow’s control of Eastern Bloc governments became less covert after this.
In September 1947, the USSR established Cominform (the Communist Information Bureau) which linked the communist governments of eastern Europe and ensured they adopted policies approved by Moscow. Several Czechoslovak, Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian communists who failed to toe the line were reported by Cominform, arrested, given Stalinist ‘show trials’ then executed.
Each Eastern Bloc government formed its own secret police based on the Soviet NKVD, including the Stasi (East Germany) Securitate (Romania) the StB (Czechoslovakia) the Sigurnost (Bulgaria) and the AVH (Hungary). Any pretence that these countries were independent or discrete from the USSR had faded away by the early 1950s.
The curtain closes
For those living in Soviet bloc nations, it became gradually more difficult to relocate or travel to other countries. Borders once relatively open became guarded and tightly controlled. Europe’s border controls, once relatively relaxed, became the strictest in its peacetime history.
This division was keenly felt in Germany, which was split asunder by Soviet and Allied occupation zones. The German twin towns of Sonneberg and Neustadt found themselves in the Soviet and Allied zones respectively and separated by the Iron Curtain.
In July 1949, the two towns participated in a soccer game, played on a pitch with a boundary-line formed by the east-west border (allowing those on both sides to watch the match without passes). More than 25,000 spectators attended, some holding up placards demanding the two towns – and indeed the entire German nation – be reunified. After the match, Soviet officials opened the border for the afternoon, allowing thousands of Sonnerberg residents to visit family and friends and shop at Neustadt’s well-stocked businesses.
A virtual prison
Optimistic events like east-west football matches and border openings provided some hope that the borders would one day be relaxed or dissolved. But as pro-Moscow governments settled into power in the east, they began to strengthen border controls – to lock out anti-communist infiltrators and demonstrators, as well as preventing an exodus of their own people to the West.
In 1951, East Germany began a building program to fortify vulnerable parts of its border, erecting barbed wire, towers, gates and guard posts. Some heavily populated areas fringing the border were cleared of people. Roads, railways and tunnels crossing borders were destroyed, dug up or diverted. The ground near the border was cleared and, in some cases, packed with landmines.
Back in 1949, it had been possible to cross the border into Allied-occupied Germany, if one was determined enough. Within four years, the border was sealed, government-authorised crossings were strictly controlled and unauthorised crossings were dangerous. The Iron Curtain was not only a political and philosophical concept, eastern Europe had been a virtual prison.
A historian’s view:
“The Fulton address was a brilliant exercise in political prophecy. Like some master architect, Churchill laid out, in a necessarily general but easily recognisable form, much of the future shape of the Cold War. He anticipated the formation of an anti-Soviet Western security system, based on the Anglo-American nucleus. He outlined the role that Britain would play as a junior partner… He envisioned the rise of a democratic West Germany tied to the West. He clearly foresaw the course of the arms race in atomic weapons and urged further American development to maintain the lead. He set forward many of the philosophic, geopolitical and strategic foundations of both ‘containment’ and ‘confrontation-liberation’, the two leading American national security doctrines of the early Cold War.”
Fraser J. Harbutt
1. The Iron Curtain was a Cold War name for the borders between Western and Soviet Europe. It was coined by Winston Churchill in 1946 during a speech in Fulton, Missouri.
2. The formation of a Soviet bloc in Europe occurred after World War II. After the Soviets liberated eastern European nations from Nazism, they shaped the political development of these nations.
3. In most cases, Soviet agents orchestrated a pro-Soviet government by organising local socialists in a party or coalition, then giving them power through a coup or rigged election.
4. The implementation of the Marshall Plan further exposed the widening divisions between these two blocs, with Soviet bloc nations refusing this aid under directions from Moscow.
5. The prohibition of movement and trade, along with the growth of secret police forces in the Soviet bloc, saw the Iron Curtain firm into an uncrossable border by the early 1950s.
Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech (1946)
Joseph Stalin responds to Churchill’s speech (1946)
Title: “The Iron Curtain”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 3, 2020
Date accessed: April 26, 2023