Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

January 19, 2012

To most people outside Germany, that country's long-lasting division after 1945 has been seen as a series of dramatic crises, essentially concerned with the divided and encircled city of Berlin. There was the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49, overcome by the Western allies' airlift; the renewed Soviet pressure to take over West Berlin 10 years later, leading to the building of the Berlin Wall (and other walls) in 1961; the high drama of Soviet and US tanks confronting each other at Checkpoint Charlie; John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech ("Ich bin ein Berliner") and Ronald Reagan's imperious "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in 1987; and finally the spectacular opening of the Wall in November 1989.

Many of these events had their impact on the part of Germany described in Edith Sheffer's book, but the great originality of her approach is that she focuses on a remote semi-rural region tucked away near the southern (or rather south-eastern) end of the frontier between the two Germanies. The bridge of the book's title (whose timbers were "burned" by its medieval builders to protect against rot) is on the 5km-long road between two small towns, Neustadt and Sonneberg, in a secluded valley. The two towns had much in common, including patterns of speech, and an artisanal tradition of making wooden and other toys that were sold northwards to Leipzig and southwards to Nuremberg. Other features of the two towns, however, differentiated them. Historically Neustadt, not far from Coburg, belonged to Bavaria, a traditionally monarchist and profoundly conservative state, while Sonneberg, firmly in the state of Thuringia, had strong left-wing traditions and was under Communist influence during part of the Weimar Republic.

As the author shows, it took several years for the lightly guarded and ill-demarcated frontier of 1945 to become an "iron curtain" in any real sense. The East German authorities moved to shut off their territory, and to shut in its inhabitants, in stages. Up to 1952, crossing the border was very easy, whether for individual pedestrians, or for the crowds who crossed to demonstrate against the rival regime, or for such officially organised events as the fairly frequent East-West football matches (some of which themselves turned into political demonstrations). In 1952 East Germany began a systematic programme of sealing off the frontier, building barbed-wire fences, closing transit links and deporting residents from a militarised prohibition zone extending several kilometres eastward from the frontier. From 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, these measures were intensified by the reinforcement of the frontier with heavy metal fences, stretches of concrete wall and strips of bare ground that were often mined.

The nature of the resulting pressure on local authorities and residents obviously varied from one phase to another, but even in the final decades of constricted East-West transit, there were enough problems and incidents to make many in both Sonneberg in the East and Neustadt in the West resentful of the "other side" and to develop a case of what came to be called the "wall in our heads" syndrome. It emerges clearly from Sheffer's blow-by-blow analysis that one of the reasons why many local administrators and citizens came to accept and even tacitly to welcome the sharpening East-West division of their region was the sheer cumulative nuisance of having to live with the porous frontier of the early post-war years, and even the daily East-West problems arising later. A general commitment in principle to end Germany's "unacceptable" partition coexisted in practice, for hard-pressed municipal officials and the police, with resentment of the additional burden of work created by the random border crossings of asylum seekers, stray teenagers, demonstrators, spies, black marketeers, fugitives from justice, visitors of friends or relatives, and the odd errant Saturday-night beer drinker.

In fact, deeper causes of division were at work. Neustadt and Sonneberg, despite many common features (and especially linguistic and industrial ones), were separated by those elements of alienation in their cultural and political heritage that suggested that their "default position" might lie with a degree of demarcation rather than automatic unity. This sense of separation was to reassert itself in the aftermath of Germany's reunification: on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall, in 1999, Sonneberg and Neustadt organised a big joint celebration, but 10 years after that, in 2009, each municipality held its own separate commemoration. Sheffer's meticulous reconstruction of life on the German-German frontier sheds welcome light on broader questions of German history, and on the way human communities create and recreate themselves.

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

By Edith Sheffer. Oxford University Press 368pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780199737048. Published 24 November 2011

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