The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border, by Yulia Komska

Hester Vaizey on the political and religious divisions across a lesser known part of the Iron Curtain

December 11, 2014

Twenty-five years after the Cold War’s end, it may be time to rethink embedded myths about the era. Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech of March 1946 implied an impenetrable mental barrier between Western capitalist values and Eastern socialist principles. The beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and its 28-year existence, gave the divide a physical and iconic manifestation. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned how truly “iron” the Iron Curtain was. Edith Scheffer’s Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (2011), for example, emphasises that the border between the two states was far more porous than has been widely assumed.

Building on Scheffer’s work, Yuliya Komska here shows how the 4,750 mile long Iron Curtain had varying characteristics at different points. “Thinking about the many Iron Curtains”, she argues, “can help us avoid perpetuating already abundant Cold War stereotypes.” Such stereotypes have been encouraged by scholars who, perhaps understandably, have been drawn to study Berlin and the inner-German border. In light of this, Komska’s work on the part of the Iron Curtain further to the south is a welcome addition.

It is not often that a forest forms the centrepiece in historical writing. The Icon Curtain is one of those instances. Komska’s research focuses on the Bohemian Forest on the border moving up and down between the western side of Czechoslovakia and the West German border. Her work not only explores a less-studied locus of Cold War tension, but it also aims to deepen our understanding of the Iron Curtain by looking at representations rather than events, and by looking at literary texts and religious artefacts rather than experiences.

While the death strip of the inner-German border attracted tourists who were curious to see the grim reality of the Cold War, along the East-West divide’s southwestern reaches the border hardly conveyed the same menace, often offering idyllic views instead. In spite of this, contemporaries were very aware that a different political system was operating on the other side of the demarcated line. For Christians throughout West Germany, the spread of communism with its materialist worldview was a direct threat to their religion, arguably making the Cold War one of history’s great religious wars. At the quiet border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany, civilians on the Western side responded to the military barriers in the East by constructing their own prayer wall – a sequence of chapels, sculptures, paintings and watchtowers – that gave them a sense of agency as they tried to stave off religion’s all-out defeat by the communists. In doing so, it transformed these often impoverished rural inhabitants into important guardians of Christianity.

Although it has often made sense to draw attention to the differences between the two sides of the Iron Curtain, Komska shows that it can be misleading to make such a distinction in the Bohemian Forest. Many of those living on the forest’s western side were Sudeten Germans, only recently expelled from their homes in Czechoslovakia at the end of the Second World War, so the apparently stark opposition between East and West was certainly more nuanced in this region. The dynamic of this section of the Iron Curtain, Komska explains, was very much shaped by the Sudeten Germans who regularly went to the borderlands, looking and imagining their old Heimat beyond.

Komska’s research persuasively shows how the character of the Iron Curtain was far from uniform throughout its length. At times her florid language serves to obfuscate rather than illuminate; however, the content is enlightening and she demonstrates how using geographical, literary and visual sources can greatly enhance our understanding of this era.

The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border

By Yuliya Komska
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226154190 and 54220 (e-book)
Published 23 February 2015

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