Painful truth of familiar phrase

Iron Curtain
January 4, 2008

Iron Curtain is a kind of prequel. Or, given the author's obsession with theatrical metaphor, a prologue. A long prologue. Its title comes from a celebrated bit of oratory by Winston Churchill at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," declaimed the old warhorse, "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." That speech - that figure of speech - helped to codify the Cold War, a froideur between East and West (and recent allies) then still incipient. Churchill's "Iron Curtain speech" has lingered in the collective memory ever since.

Like other Churchillian coinages - the same speech expatiated on the "special relationship" between Britain and the US - the expression was not exactly original; rather, Churchill seized it, set it vibrating and stamped it as his own.

Accordingly, Patrick Wright, sensitive to these vibrations, "journeys through the back of Winston Churchill's mind", as he says, in search of the origins of this usage: a metaphoric or symbolic cordon between peoples and polities, at once a psychological barrier and a painful reality, made manifest in the Berlin Wall. The aim seems to be a combination of historical etymology and revisionist history (there is passing mention of "the long Cold War", a well-worn trope).

The outcome is curiously unsatisfactory. Iron Curtain has in its favour a quizzical intelligence, underpinned by a vigorous style. It is insightful, anecdotal and episodic. It is full of unconsidered trifles. In spite of its length, however, it is less a sustained argument than a series of divagations, an omnium-gatherum of Wright's researches in the recesses of the early 20th-century cultural imagination. At the back of his mind was perhaps to do for "iron curtain" what Paul Fussell did for "no man's land" in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975): to make of it a kind of master concept for modern life, pillaging literary texts for the purpose. If so, it has yet to be demonstrated in detail. A few brief remarks on how "George W. Bush's policy towards Iraq has been closely shaped by the memory of the Iron Curtain" do not carry conviction. The Cold War and Modern Memory is a book that remains to be written.

When asked about his inspiration, Churchill himself mentioned the safety curtain descending in a theatre. Wright tends to overdo the theatricality, not to mention the play-acting of politics and the deceptions of diplomacy.

He is alert to the more intriguing usages, or implications, of the Iron Curtain: a cordon sanitaire against the "infection" of communism; a means of keeping in as much as keeping out; an encouragement to Manichean thinking; a bundle of prejudices more impassable than an international frontier; an organising metaphor indicative of a certain recidivism - a suggestive notion applied, rather obscurely, to the anti-communist Churchill. All these ideas crop up in the text, but they are neither developed nor integrated. In consequence, the book reads a little like a giant jeu d'esprit . As an exercise in etymology, Iron Curtain is diverting. As an alternative history of the Cold War it is not fully baked.

The sequel to the prequel, announced for next year, is concerned with Rex Warner, Barbara Castle, Stanley Spencer, Clement Attlee, A. J. Ayer and other British delegates who visited China in 1954, the fifth anniversary of the proclamation of the People's Republic. It promises to be every bit as maddening as this one.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University.

Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War

Author - Patrick Wright
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 512
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 9780199231508

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