Until about two decades ago, the standard Western narrative of the history of the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Cold War Europe used to be a straightforward story. The Communist East had imposed the barrier actively and unilaterally, and the West had reacted by consistently denouncing and opposing it. More recently, a revisionist historiography has emerged to challenge this interpretation. According to the new scholarship (the most prominent example of which is probably Edith Sheffer’s Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain ), the formation of the East–West border was a much more complex affair than previously acknowledged. Western actors played a prominent role in the emergence of what became the ‘Iron Curtain’, particularly early on, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The dynamics on the ground were complicated, with local actors on both sides of the emerging border exerting extensive influence on the process, not only locally but at higher levels too. Overall, the ‘Iron Curtain’ was therefore not imposed unilaterally but shaped gradually, through extensive interaction between local and more highly placed actors in both East and West. Sagi Schaefer’s monograph fits closely into this developing strand of ‘revisionist’ scholarship. He examines the history of the German–German border in a specific, rural location, the Eichsfeld region of Central Germany, through a close analysis of local dynamics and their interaction with wider regional and national trends from the 1940s to the end of the 1980s. Schaefer argues that the initial push for tighter controls along the dividing line between the Soviet and American occupation zones in the region came primarily from the West, particularly as a result of the currency reform of 1948 and the subsequent desire for greater economic control and central economic planning in the emerging West Germany. From 1952, the GDR seized the initiative, seeking to consolidate its hold over both territory and population in the border zone and thereby inaugurating a prolonged period of heightened conflict and gradual compromise between local populations and state authorities on both sides of the border, which continued into the 1960s, intensifying after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Throughout this period, West Germany’s policy of non-recognition vis-à-vis the GDR, together with East Germany’s reactions to it, significantly undermined efforts at local co-operation across the border. By the 1970s, the wider normalisation of relations between the two German states, made possible by Bonn’s new Ostpolitik, brought major changes at the border as well. A seemingly stable and mutually-regulated dividing line emerged, with elaborate border construction proceeding apace, primarily on the Eastern side. The seeming stability proved fragile, however, as greater inter-German mobility gradually posed growing challenges to the GDR, undermining the system and its border regime to a point where collapse ensued by the end of the 1980s. Schaefer’s study has many merits. It is a well researched and carefully constructed case-study of the dynamics of post-1945 border formation in a particular location, which casts a good deal of new light on complex local and regional processes the role of which has been poorly understood in previous scholarship. By shifting the emphasis away from Berlin and the infamous Wall, Schaefer usefully brings into focus the kinds of rural communities which made up the vast majority of the long East–West border between the two Germanys. His cogent analysis of the importance of Western actions in pushing border formation, particularly in the early post-war years, reinforces and reifies similar points made recently by Edith Sheffer and others. In short, this is an important, innovative monograph that deserves a wide readership. No study is perfect, however, and Schaefer’s book, too, leaves certain questions at least partly unanswered—the most important of which have to do with the relative significance of the Eichsfeld region and its power dynamics in the wider process of division and border formation in post-1945 Germany. Throughout the book, Schaefer stresses the significance of interactions among ‘different state and civil organizations, communities, and individuals’ (p. 2) in gradually creating sustained division at an arbitrarily imposed demarcation line. In his thoughtful introductory chapter, he also positions himself carefully within debates about the relative power of different actors in this process, writing that ‘[the] actions and choices of frontier residents and administrators played a pivotal role in the creation of the Iron Curtain in Germany, but did so within limits determined in constant interaction with state agencies’ (p. 7). Yet later on in the same chapter Schaefer goes on to claim that ‘there is very good reason to view processes in the inter-German borderlands as key for the division of German society in its entirety’ (p. 15). While the two statements are not necessarily contradictory, they do suggest different weightings of the relative overall significance of developments in the border zone, and throughout the book there is a certain tension between the focus on local developments and many of the conclusions, which typically end up stressing the power of higher-up state authorities to prevail when significant conflicts with local and regional actors arose. In many ways, however, the ability to raise questions and to provoke wider debate is the mark of a successful study, and in that respect, too, Schaefer’s monograph delivers. Overall, it is an important, highly valuable contribution to the thriving scholarly literatures on post-Second World War Germany and Cold War borders. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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