What is the Iron Curtain?

"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 many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow".
Winston Churchill's “Sinews Of Peace” address of March 5th March 1946 at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri USA

What is the Iron Curtain?

In 2015 I cycled the length of the former Iron curtain, a journey which took me through 15 countries to meet people who were there and to learn more about this period in history.

The term Iron Curtain refers to the boundary that divided Europe in the west and the Soviet Union and its Communist one-party states in the east. The division began at the end of World War Two (WW2) in 1945 and lasted until the fall of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1989, a division that lasted nearly 45 years. Geographically, the borderline ran from arctic Russia in the north, through eastern Europe down to Bulgaria ending at Black Sea.  

At first just a metaphor made famous by Winston Churchill’s 1946  address in Missouri, the divide soon became physical with boundary walls erected with heavy military protection, the most famous section being the Berlin wall and check point Charlie where tanks from the US and USSR had a stand off. Many believe Winston Churchill’s speech marked the commencement of the cold war between the democratic Western world and the Communist Eastern bloc with the Soviet Union as its political centre.

Churchill’s ‘Iron curtain’ speech

Churchill's metaphorical iron curtain speech 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 recognised 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. In even more provocative language Churchill likened Stalin with Adolph Hitler, by telling his American audience that the Anglo-American alliance must act swiftly to prevent another catastrophe, this time from communism instead of fascism, from befalling Europe.

In response, Stalin also compared Churchill with Hitler. He noted that Soviet casualties far outweighed the deaths of the allied nations combined. Therefore Europe owed a debt to the Soviet Union, not the United States as Churchill claimed. Stalin explained his intentions in occupying what would later 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?

By likening each other to Hitler, both men sought to demonise their one-time ally and convince their audiences that a new war against an equal evil was on the horizon. 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, considered by many to be to the start of the cold war.


The German/Soviet Union partnership and Operation Barbarossa

Shortly before the German and subsequent Soviet invasion of Poland which triggered the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The pact outlined an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union on the division of their soon to be conquered border countries. The Soviet Union and Germany would invade and partition Poland, and the Soviet Union would be allowed to overrun the Baltic states along with Finland. The pact stunned the world.

Relations soured when in 1941 Germany turned against its partner and mounted an invasion known as Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to land grab and weaken the Soviet Union. Barbarossa was the largest military operation in world history in terms of both manpower and casualties. Operation Barbarossa’s failure was a turning point in the war. The Soviet Union then joined the Allies against Germany and ultimately helped to win the war.


Why did the Soviet Union build the iron curtain?

After WW2 the Soviet Union wanted to surround itself with a “buffer” border of countries it  controlled. A major goal of the Soviet Union was to shield itself from another invasion from the west. As WW2 drew to a close, the Soviet troops pushed the Nazis back across Eastern Europe. At the war's end, these troops occupied a strip of countries along the Soviet Union's own western border. Stalin ignored the Yalta agreement and installed or secured Communist governments in Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Stalin's reluctance to allow free elections in Eastern European nations was a clear violation of those countries' rights.


What did the Iron curtain look like and what was its function?

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 (referred to as the Eastern Bloc countries) after the end of WW2. It served as a wall to prevent citizens of Eastern bloc countries migrating to the 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-mans-land of untouched wildlife.


When was the Iron Curtain ‘lifted?’

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 Churchills historic speech. This first crack in the long border between the western world and the Soviet 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. The events that demolished the Iron Curtain started with discontent in Poland, and continued in Hungary, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Romania was the only communist state in Europe to violently overthrow its communist government.


The formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact

The Soviet building of the Berlin wall and blockage heightened Western Europe's fears of Soviet aggression. As a result, in 1949, ten western European nations joined with the United States and Canada to form a defensive military alliance. It was called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). An attack on any NATO member would be met with armed force by all member nations. Nato is still operational and now has 28 member countries with its HQ in Brussels. The Soviet Union saw NATO as a threat and formed it's own alliance in 1955. It was called the Warsaw Pact and included the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. The Iron curtain divide was drawn.