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The Iron Curtain: The Cold War’s Deadly Line of Demarcation

In March of 1946, just after World War II, the ever-eloquent Winston Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College in Missouri in which he said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” At the time, he was mostly being metaphorical, referring to the ideological and political divide between the Soviet Bloc of Eastern Europe, and the future NATO countries of Western Europe. 

However, his words would ultimately prove to be more prescient than anyone had realized. As the Cold War progressed, the Iron Curtain began to manifest itself as an ever more physical barrier. This nearly 7,000-kilometer, or 4,300-mile, dividing line stretched from the northern point of the Norwegian-Soviet border to the Turkish-Bulgarian border on the Black Sea and ultimately consisted of plenty of real iron in the form of landmines, barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and of course, the Berlin Wall.


Although the Iron Curtain is widely known as a symbol of the Cold War between the NATO countries led by the United States and the Warsaw Pact nations led by Soviet Russia, the origins of the political divide and animosity stretch back to well before World War II. Specifically, tensions began to grow between Russia and the Western Allies after the Bolshevik Revolution at the end of World War I.

In November of 1917, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin led the Bolsheviks to overthrow the provisional government created by the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, seize control of Russia and install a communist regime. The revolution was partly born out of the horrors of the First World War. Russia suffered huge losses of life and terrible conditions on the war’s Eastern Front against the German Empire, and the common people had begun to see the war as a senseless bloodbath all for the pride of outdated and corrupt aristocrats like the Russian Tsar.

Consequently, the new Bolshevik government followed popular opinion and ended Russia’s involvement in the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. Russia had been allied with Britain and France in the Triple Entente against the Central Powers of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The Western Nations felt betrayed by Russia’s abandonment of the war. 

Not only did the peace treaty free up German forces in the east to fight against Britain and France in the West, but it ceded huge territorial gains to the Central Powers in Eastern Europe. For instance, Germany was to receive the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as vassal states, the Ottoman Empire would gain power over the province of Kars in the South Caucasus, and Ukraine would become an independent state allied with the Central Powers. This gave the Central Powers greater resources for their fight against the Western Allies and put them one step closer to European domination.  

The boost of manpower from America’s entrance into the war ultimately helped lead to Allied victory, but Western suspicion of Bolshevik Russia only increased. This was due to the inherent incompatibility between the two sides’ economic systems of state-planned communism in Russia and free-market capitalism in the West. Plus, Western governments feared the success of the Bolsheviks would inspire communist revolutions in their own countries, and indeed, Lenin encouraged as much by setting up the “Comintern,” or Communist International, to foment uprisings in capitalist countries. 

In fact, the capitalist countries were so resentful of the Bolsheviks that they sent money and soldiers to support the “Whites,” counter-revolutionaries who were attempting to remove the communists from power. This strategy was developed by none other than the then British Minister of War Winston Churchill himself and joined by France, Japan and the United States. It was unsuccessful, though, and the Bolsheviks gained undisputed control of Russia in 1922, officially establishing the Soviet Union to the dismay of the Western Powers.


When World War II started, the Western Allies and the USSR were seemingly enemies. The Soviets resented the United Kingdom and France for signing the Munich Pact that ceded territory in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, while the Western Allies resented the Soviet Union for signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, an agreement of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR that secretly planned the division of Poland between the two nations.

Of course, Nazi Germany went back on the deal and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Stalin immediately returned to Russia’s old allies and signed a formal alliance with the UK called the Anglo-Soviet Agreement. For the rest of the war, the UK, the US and the Soviet Union would represent the Allied Powers, fighting against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

Nevertheless, despite the extensive sharing of resources, money and strategy, the Western Allies and the USSR were far from the best of friends. Even during the heat of World War II, the Soviets carried out covert spying operations against the British and Americans, and vice versa, and there were constant disagreements over military strategy. 

As Allied Victory became imminent, both sides accused the other of trying to increase their own influence and dominion in post-war Europe by delaying or refusing help to the other. For example, the Soviets accused the British and Americans of postponing the Normandy Invasion so that the heavy fighting on the Eastern Front would weaken the Soviet Forces. Conversely, the Allies accused the USSR of purposefully refusing to aid the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in Poland. By the end of World War II, these hostilities came to real violence. In many Eastern European countries like Yugoslavia and Greece, partisans trained and supplied by the Soviets actually fought against those trained and supplied by the British.

Ultimately, the Western Allies and the USSR simply wanted different political structures to rise from the ashes of World War II. The Western Allies wanted a liberal market economy, while Russia, devastated by the two world wars, wanted a large territorial buffer against Germany, not to mention a communist command economy. It was clear before World War II was even over that once Germany was defeated, the United States and the Soviet Union would emerge as rivals, and each rushed to gain territory and influence in central Europe and Asia.


Even as American and Soviet soldiers were shaking hands after meeting each other in Germany, the governments of both nations were setting the stage for the Cold War. In fact, at the behest of Winston Churchill, the Allies were considering directly engaging and invading the Soviet Union once the Axis Powers were defeated in a plan called Operation Unthinkable.

With both sides wary of the other, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in the Yalta Conference in February of 1945. Ostensibly the purpose of the conference was to establish the post-war political structure of Europe but in the end it did little more than solidify the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. 

While the Western Powers demanded the Soviets allow free elections in the Eastern Bloc they controlled, something Stalin actually agreed to, they left this responsibility to provisional communist governments installed by the USSR in those nations, effectively recognizing Soviet influence and dominion. 

This was especially relevant in Poland where, unlike in many other countries, it was not agreed that the pre-war government would be reinstated. Instead, recognition was granted to the pro-Soviet provisional government. Many Poles did not want to be left under Russian control and felt betrayed by the Western Allies. In 1947, Polish elections resulted in Poland officially becoming a communist state, the People’s Republic of Poland, similar to the many other Soviet Socialist Republics that had been annexed by the USSR and its satellite communist countries.

Meanwhile, certain Western actions made the Soviets feel uncomfortable and threatened. For instance, despite requesting Soviet help against Japan at the Yalta Conference, the US ultimately dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, who then signed their unconditional surrender to the United States. The US then occupied Japan, giving little say or influence to the Soviet Union. 

Plus, the Allies seemingly went back on previous plans to repress German industrial potential and restrict it to agrarian activities. Instead, the US instituted the Marshall Plan which provided significant economic aid to West Germany and started setting up permanent military bases there. While no actual fighting had broken out, it was clear that the brief alliance between the USSR and Western Allies was effectively over.


While the Cold War gradually grew out of old rivalries going back decades prior, the official starting point is often said to be the Berlin Blockade, which started on 24 June 1948, and the subsequent Berlin Airlift that started two days later on 26 June. The blockade consisted of the Soviet military blocking all of the Western Allies’ road, railway and water access to Berlin. 

It was a response to the Marshall Plan’s institution of a new currency in West Germany, the Deutsche Mark, which replaced the Reichsmark, the original German currency that the Soviets had full printing control over at the time. They’d been debasing the currency significantly, causing severe inflation, so much so that use of the new Deutsche Mark even spread to the Soviet Occupation Zone of Berlin, threatening their influence and power.

The Allies reacted by airlifting supplies into Berlin, something the Soviets had thought was impossible. Over 250,000 flights by American and British personnel dropped over 2 million tons of food, coal and other resources to the people of Berlin and flew over 148 million kilometers. That’s more than 92 million miles, nearly the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Not only did the Berlin Blockade and Airlift make it clear who were enemies, who were friends, and who had control of what, it maintained American and British control of West Berlin. This provided an easy corridor where refugees from the Soviet Bloc could escape to the West. 

The communist nations considered emigration—with an E not an I—a threat to their economies and national security because they believed more intelligent, innovative or successful people would flee to capitalist nations where they could make more money, thereby preventing economic development in their home countries. As a result, they mostly banned their citizens from emigrating, one of the main reasons the “Iron Curtain” went from metaphorical to literal.


The political divide that represented the Iron Curtain stretched some 7,000 kilometers, or 4,300 miles, right through the center of Europe and Germany itself, splitting it into East and West. Most of it was heavily militarized and sometimes even fortified. 

It included a 25-kilometer wide (16 miles) monitored border zone between Greece and Bulgaria that required a special Greek passport to enter, a border area on the West side of Hungary that consisted of two barbed-wire fences with landmines in between them, guard towers with machine guns, and attack dogs, and a buffer zone in what was then Czechoslovakia where deer still refuse to cross out of fear for the three electric fences that used to run its length. 

Arguably the most significant and formidable part of the Iron Curtain was the border between East and West Germany, known as die Grenze. For most of its length, it consisted of two walls running parallel to each other. In the countryside, it was usually made of steel mesh, but in more populated areas, it was built with concrete. Guard towers stood at frequent intervals, and the border was heavily monitored by both sides. 

This culminated in the Berlin Wall, the part of die Grenze that divided the city of Berlin. Built in 1961, der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall,” as it was called by communist authorities, was the East German and Soviet government’s attempt to stem the flow of emigration out of the Eastern Bloc, some 2.5 million East Germans having defected to the West through Berlin prior to its construction.

Because East Germany controlled the territory in Brandenburg west of Berlin, the Berlin Wall essentially encircled West Berlin. It was 155 kilometers, or 96 miles, long, made mostly of concrete slabs with smooth pipes on top to prevent climbing. Altogether, the wall had 105 kilometers, or about 66 miles, of anti-vehicle trenches, 302 watchtowers, 20 bunkers, and was armed with 55,000 landmines.

Like the rest of die Grenze, the Berlin Wall was actually two separate barriers running side by side. Both were roughly 3.6 meters in height, or almost 12 feet, and the distance between them varied, sometimes reaching nearly 150 meters, or almost 500 feet. This large area was often referred to as “the death strip” because it was heavily monitored by the East German guards who would patrol it with attack dogs, looking for footprints in the regularly raked sand. Sometimes they shot those trying to escape who were caught between the two walls. In total, at least 138 people died trying to cross the wall, many by gunshot.


In the 1980s, Soviet leaders began exercising much less influence in the Eastern Bloc, leading to the growth of resistance and revolutionary movements throughout Eastern Europe. Hungary opened up its border with Austria, constructing a barbed wire fence which they subsequently cut to symbolize the end of the Iron Curtain. In Poland, the legalization of non-communist political parties led to their mass success in free elections. 

Most importantly, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that movement across the Berlin Wall would no longer be restricted. Celebrating Germans began climbing over the wall and destroying it piece by piece. Official demolition began in June of 1990, and later on in October, Germany officially reunited. The Soviet Union then dissolved in December of 1991, dropping the Iron Curtain once and for all.

Now, monuments stand in numerous places where the Iron Curtain used to be. For instance, there is a symbolic curtain made of iron chains in Budapest as well as a memorial in the Czech Republic preserving the original fence as well as several guard towers and bunkers. A number of monuments exist in Germany including various sections of the Berlin Wall like the East Side Gallery that’s now a street art exhibit.

Most impressively, much of the length of the Iron Curtain is now a bike trail. The Iron Curtain Trail, sponsored by the Council of Europe, is a cyclable trail running more than 10,000 kilometers and covering most of the Iron Curtain from north to south. It goes through natural areas and preserved parks, and of course, passes by many of the monuments and historical sites related to the Iron Curtain. A line that once divided a continent now connects it.

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