The Iron Curtain

Man chiseling on Berlin Wall
Man chiseling on Berlin Wall. (Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images)

"The Iron Curtain did not reach the ground and under it flowed liquid manure from the West." - Prolific Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1994.

The 'Iron Curtain' was a phrase used to describe the physical, ideological and military division of Europe between the western and southern capitalist states and the eastern, Soviet-dominated communist nations during the Cold War, 1945–1991. (Iron curtains were also metal barriers in German theaters designed to stop the spread of fire from the stage to the rest of the building while an orderly evacuation took place.) The western democracies and the Soviet Union had fought as allies during the Second World War, but even before peace had been achieved, they were circling each other warily and suspiciously.

The US, the UK, and allied forces had freed large areas of Europe and were determined to turn these back into democracies, but while the USSR had also freed large areas of (Eastern) Europe, they had not freed them at all but merely occupied them and determined to create Soviet puppet states to create a buffer zone, and not a democracy at all.

Understandably, the liberal democracies and Stalin's murdering communist empire did not get on, and while many in the west remained convinced of the good of the USSR, many others were horrified by the unpleasantness of this new empire, and saw the line where the two new power blocs met as something fearful.

Churchill's Speech

The phrase 'Iron Curtain,' which refers to the harsh and impenetrable nature of the divide, was popularized by Winston Churchill in his speech of March 5th, 1946, when he stated:

"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, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."

Churchill had previously used the term in two telegrams to US President Truman.

Older Than We Thought

However, the term, which dates back to the nineteenth century, was probably first used in regard to Russia by Vassily Rozanov in 1918 when he wrote: "an iron curtain is descending on Russian history." It was also used by Ethel Snowden in 1920 in a book called Through Bolshevik Russia and during WWII by Joseph Goebbels and German politician Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, both in propaganda.

The Cold War

Many western commentators were initially hostile to the description as they still viewed Russia as a wartime ally, but the term became synonymous with the Cold War divisions in Europe, just as the Berlin Wall became the physical symbol of this division. Both sides made attempts to move the Iron Curtain this way and that, but 'hot' war never broke out, and the curtain came down with the end of the Cold War at the end of the twentieth century.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Iron Curtain." ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-iron-curtain-1221526. Wilde, Robert. (2017, July 6). The Iron Curtain. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-iron-curtain-1221526 Wilde, Robert. "The Iron Curtain." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-iron-curtain-1221526 (accessed September 24, 2017).