The term iron curtain was coined by the British author and suffragette Ethel Snowden in her book Through Bolshevik Russia (1920). In her very early and negative critique of the Bolshevik form of communism, this British feminist referred to the iron curtain simply as the contemporary geographical border of Bolshevik Russia in 1919 (‘We were behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last’). At the end of the Nazi regime in Germany the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, used the term in a journal article and several times in his private diary in February 1945, and the minister of finance, Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk, used it in a radio broadcast on May 2, 1945. Both Nazi leaders argued that the Soviet Army is occupying one country after the other, lowering an iron curtain immediately afterward on these occupied countries in order to commit war crimes, without being observed and controlled by the outside world. During the last months of the Third Reich, both ministers regarded the iron curtain as a moving part of the ongoing occupation process by Soviet troops within the territorial scope of the Yalta agreements from 1943. This analogy with an iron curtain in a theater (Goebbels was in charge of German theaters and culture) in this usage of the notion refers to the fact that events behind the theater curtain are not visible by the audience and somehow cut off from outside observation. The British prime minister Winston S. Churchill used the term in a diplomatic telegram to President Harry S. Truman in May 1945, and in a public speech in the British Parliament on August 16, 1945, but the term was not popularized until the following year, with Churchill’s speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on 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, all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but also to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow. (Cannadine 1990, pp. 303–304)
The iron curtain refers to the boundary that divided Europe politically and militarily from the end of World War II until the end of the cold war. Geographically, the borderline ran from Estonia in the north to Yugoslavia in the south. Churchill’s famous 1946 address, which is sometimes referred to as the “Iron Curtain Speech,” is regarded as marking the commencement of the cold war between the democratic Western world and the Communist Eastern bloc with the Soviet Union as its political center. Between 1946 and 1989, the existence of this symbolic boundary forced many Central and East European countries to join the Communist bloc under the control of the Soviet Union. These countries—Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and (until the 1960s) Albania—were labeled “Iron Curtain countries.”
The iron curtain was manned and defended militarily against the West by the Warsaw Pact, which combined the Soviet Red Army and troops from the new Communist one-party states after the end of World War II. It also served as a wall to prevent citizens of Eastern bloc countries from migrating west. In Berlin, the section of the iron curtain dividing West from East Germany took the form of the Berlin Wall, a long concrete wall separating Berlin into democratic and Communist parts; many East Germans lost their lives trying to escape over the wall to the West. In other areas, the iron curtain was constructed of nearly impenetrable steel fencing, creating a long and narrow strip of no-man’s-land of untouched wildlife.
The iron curtain was finally lifted on June 27, 1989, at the border between Austria and Hungary by the foreign ministers Gyula Horn (Hungary) and Alois Mock (Austria), forty-three years after Churchill’s historic speech. This first crack in the long border between the free world and the Communist world was the beginning of the final collapse of communism in November and December 1989, and the first sign of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The fall of the iron curtain coincided with the end of the cold war, signifying the end of a crucial and dramatic period of European and world history.
Cannadine, David, ed. 1990. The Speeches of Winston Churchill. London: Penguin.
Muller, James W. 1999. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Rose, Brian. 2004. The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
Snowden, Ethel. 1920. Through Bolshevik Russia. London: Cassell.
Christian W. Haerpfer
Popularized in a speech by Winston Churchill (1874–1965), the term Iron Curtain refers to the diminished contact and restricted travel imposed by the Soviet Union between the communist countries of Eastern Europe and the capitalist-democratic nations of Western Europe during the Cold War (1946–1989). A truly effective physical barrier between the two Germanys and Czechoslovakia and between Austria and Hungary did not exist until the early 1960s. For Western politicians and pundits, Iron Curtain dramatized the isolation of the police states forced upon the Eastern Europeans by the Soviet Union.
Forced from office in 1945, Winston Churchill, a leading voice against fascism and the wartime prime minister of Great Britain, returned to the cause of anticommunism, his personal crusade since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The title of Churchill's speech, given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, was "The Sinews of Peace," and in it Churchill stressed that world peace required a continuation of the Anglo-American wartime alliance.
Churchill did not invent the term iron curtain, which had entered the discourse of European politics before World War I to describe territorial divisions created by the breakup of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Joseph Goebbels, head of Nazi propaganda, even used the term in Das Reich (1945), an attack on the Soviet Union.
Churchill's Iron Curtain speech was the brainchild of President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who wanted to honor Churchill for his wartime leadership. They also wanted him to take the lead in criticizing Joseph Stalin's postwar uncooperativeness, which had been clear at the foreign ministers' conference held in Moscow in December 1945. Truman discussed the speech with Churchill, but neither he nor any U.S. foreign policy officer cleared the final draft. Truman cautioned Churchill not to attack the United Nations but approved of the concept of a continuing U.S.–Great Britain "special relationship" for military peacekeeping. For his part, Churchill needed no prompting to stress the enduring common interests of "the English-speaking world."
To Truman's dismay—he introduced Churchill at Westminster—Churchill used the speech as an all-out condemnation of the Soviet Union. Churchill stressed the growing danger of Soviet-backed subversion in Europe, especially in France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia. He predicted that the Soviet Union would never let occupied Germany reunite except as a Soviet satellite. He deplored the fact that the great cities of Eastern Europe now fell under the Soviets' "increasing measure of control." He introduced the theme of communist captivity: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." Predictably, Stalin condemned the speech as warmongering by the most notorious Western imperialist.
Churchill's call to arms against Soviet communism did not change America's reluctance to make a long-term commitment to the future of a free Western Europe. Subsequent Soviet actions moved the United States into a union with free Europe, characterized by the Marshall Plan for economic reconstruction and the NATO alliance for military defense after Stalin blockaded Berlin, pressured Greece and Turkey for political concessions, threatened to invade communist (but anti-Soviet) Yugoslavia, and backed a communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Churchill's call for "fraternal association" became the Truman Doctrine for the "containment" of communism in Europe, which continued until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989–1991.
The "iron curtain" Churchill imagined in 1946 became a reality by the end of the 1950s. To prevent refugees from flooding into Western Europe, which had occurred twice in the decade as a result of revolts in East Germany and Hungary, the Soviets built a barrier of electric and barbed wire fences and minefields along the borders of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. This true iron curtain became a domain of border guards, watchtowers, guard dogs, and searchlights. The last addition to this system came in 1961, when the East German government, with Soviet help, built a wall from cinder blocks across the middle of Berlin to stop the flight of desperate Germans. When the Germans tore down the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 as part of a national revolt against their communist government and the Soviet armies that had occupied East Germany since 1945, the Iron Curtain, literally and figuratively, came tumbling down.
Churchill did not live to see his vision triumph. He returned as prime minister in 1951–1954 but found painting and the writing of history more congenial than parliamentary politics and the liquidation of the British Empire. He died, beloved for his wartime leadership, in 1965.
Gerdes, Louise I., ed. The Cold War. Great Speeches in History. San Diego, Calif., 2003.
Gilbert, Martin. Churchill: A Life. London, 1991.
Harbutt, Fraser J. The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Origins of the Cold War. New York, 1986.
Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992.
Ryan, Henry B. "A New Look at Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' Speech." Historical Journal 22 (December 1979): 895–900.
Allan R. Millett
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." With these words on March 5, 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill marked out the beginning of the Cold War and a division of Europe that would last nearly forty-five years. Churchill's metaphorical iron curtain brought an end to the uncomfortable Soviet-Anglo-American alliance against Nazi Germany and began the process of physically dividing Europe into two spheres of influence. In his speech Churchill recognized the "valiant Russian people" and Josef Stalin's role in the destruction of Hitler's military, but then asserted that Soviet influence and control had descended across Eastern Europe, thereby threatening the safety and security of the entire continent through "fifth columns" and "indefinite expansion of [Soviet] power and doctrines." In even more provocative language Churchill equated Stalin with Adolph Hitler by telling his American audience that the Anglo-American alliance must act swiftly to prevent another catastrophe, this time communist instead of fascist, from befalling Europe.
In response, Stalin also equated Churchill with Hitler. Stalin rebuked Churchill for using odious Nazi racial theory in his suggestion that the nations of the English-speaking world must unite against this new threat. For Stalin this smacked of racial domination of the rest of the world. He noted that Soviet casualties (which he grossly under-counted) far outweighed the deaths of the other allies combined and that therefore Europe owed a debt to the USSR, not to the United States as Churchill claimed, for saving the continent from Hitler. Stalin explained his intentions in occupying what would become known as the Eastern Bloc: After such devastating losses, was it not logical, he asked, to try to find peaceful governments on the Soviet border? Stalin conceded Churchill's point that communist parties were growing, but argued that this was due to the failures of the West, not Soviet occupation. The people for whom Churchill had such disdain, according to Stalin, were moving toward leftist parties because the communists throughout Europe were some of the first and fiercest foes of fascism. Moreover, he noted that this was precisely why British citizens voted Churchill out of power in favor of the Labor Party.
By linking the other to Hitler, both men sought to demonize their one-time ally and convince their audiences that a new war against an equal evil was on the horizon. This set the tone for the rest of the Cold War as the western powers established the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO, to which the USSR responded in quick succession. The chief battleground was divided Germany and Berlin. Any escalation by one side was quickly met by the other, as both sides operated on mistaken assumptions that a war for world dominance (or at least regional dominance) was at hand. In short, the "Iron Curtain" speech, the real title of which was "Sinews of Peace," created a metaphorical division of Europe that soon became a reality. This division only began to erode in 1989 with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
McCauley, Martin. (1995). The Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1949. New York: Longman.
Karl D. Qualls
IRON CURTAIN, a phrase made popular by the former British prime minister Winston S. Churchill in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946. He referred to the influence of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." As the Cold War emerged, President Harry S. Truman and other politicians used Churchill's metaphor to describe a dividing line in Europe between "West" and "East." The expression "behind the iron curtain" conjured an image of "captive peoples" suffering in a Soviet "bloc." Although Soviet influence over its neighbors varied country by country and the "curtain" did not move westward, the dark symbol served as anticommunist propaganda and helped spur the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Radio Free Europe. The Berlin Wall, erected by the Soviets in 1961, gave the symbol credence. In 1989 the communist governments in Eastern Europe collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down, and in 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated. Consequently, the term lost its relevance and its value as a Cold War epithet.
Paterson, Thomas G. On Every Front: The Making and Unmaking of the Cold War. Rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1992.
Thomas G. Paterson
See also Anticommunism ; Cold War .
i·ron cur·tain • n. a notional barrier that prevents the passage of information or ideas between political entities, in particular: ∎ (usu. the Iron Curtain) the notional barrier separating the former Soviet bloc and the West prior to the decline of communism that followed the political events in eastern Europe in 1989.