Recent Cold War scholarship has examined the roles of everyday West Germans in shaping the Iron Curtain in locations beyond the Berlin Wall. In doing so, this scholarship (such as works by Edith Sheffer, Andrew Demshuk, Sagi Schaefer, and Astrid M. Eckert) has identified the late 1940s and the 1950s as a pivotal period. In this vein, Yuliya Komska’s The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border focuses on the role of Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia following World War II in transforming the Sudeten region’s West German–Czech borderlands from the periphery into the center of Cold War conflict. Because imaginings of the Bavarian/Bohemian border and forests had a long history, Komska suggests that the reactions of expellees and local Germans to the developing Iron Curtain in these borderlands differed from those along the inter-German border. Expertly applying the methods of cultural studies to the topic, Komska provides a rich analysis of the “prayer wall,” a collection of architectural features, natural monuments, and ritual sites, running parallel to the still not fully formed Iron Curtain, that served to mark the eastern border of the West (4–5). Komska makes the case for the significance of Sudeten Germans in “purveying the West’s eastern limit” (31). From this perspective, civilians in the West assisted in the construction of the Cold War divide. The author emphasizes the need to understand the processes by which Sudeten Germans created Cold War icons that resonated beyond their ethnic milieu, shaping Western Cold War fears. At the same time, Komska suggests that, despite being ardent cold warriors, Sudeten Germans were not entirely hostile to the East, and she contrasts this with the views of other visitors to the Iron Curtain, for whom the East represented alien territory. The book is structured around four creative practices that constructed the prayer wall: compilation, pilgrimage, travel, and nostalgia. Examining artifacts such as photographs, homeland leaflets, religious icons, borderland reports, amateur poetry, and lookout towers, Komska skillfully demonstrates how Sudeten German expellees contributed to the shaping of the West’s Cold War narrative of division. The Cold War in Central Europe was a war without an actual battlefield. Komska posits that “tragic realism” provided the narrative structure that demonstrated conflict and suffering along the Iron Curtain, transforming it into a front line (237). Photographic documentation of ruin fulfilled the tragic-realist function and prepared the way for construction of the prayer wall. The discovery of two religious icons at the border led to the creation of pilgrimage sites that marked the prayer wall’s contours. Of the two icons’ cults, the more successful and long-lasting one grew up around the “mutilated Savior,” an armless Jesus figure from the East that had survived hacking, burning, and hanging to be rescued by a Bavarian border guard (94–104). The damaged icon inspired the requisite tragic myth that could appropriate Christian imagery for Cold War purposes. Icons and pilgrimages helped define the prayer wall as a protective barrier against the iconoclastic East and, in the process, moved the borderlands to the center of the Cold War. The transformation of the abbey church housing the “mutilated Savior” into a basilica minor exemplified this shift (83). The allure of the forest and Heimat (homeland) drew Sudeten German pilgrims to the Czechoslovak border, where they traveled its length, linking the different locations of the prayer wall and further solidifying it. The longing to look into the Heimat led them to search out the best vantage points from which to see the changes to their former homeland, but also to retrieve memories of what had been. Komska uses “nostalgic bifocalism” to describe the relationship between vision and image (184–185). Nostalgic bifocalism encapsulated the complicated Sudeten German relationship to the borderlands, in which expellees adhered to the West but were also tied to what remained familiar in the East. Months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, the first civilian lookout tower was built in Neualbenreuth to facilitate “looking through the Iron Curtain, rather than merely at it” (184). Such towers served as secular elements in the prayer wall, becoming sites for expellee reunions and for contrasting the peaceful towers with the East’s fortifications. Although Komska examines the impact of nineteenth-century writings, particularly those of Adalbert Stifter, on the meanings of border and forest, the influence of the National Socialist period on Sudeten German imaginings is surprisingly absent. As a result, for example, passages quoted from a book by Ernst Bartl, an expellee publisher, are insufficiently analyzed. The Nazi terminology in one Bartl quotation about “Gipsies [sic] and other asocial people” (56) goes without comment, as does a subsequent reference to Czech and “Gypsy” vandalism (58). Later, when discussing a photograph of a Czech or Slovak cheerfully disposing of wooden German figures of Jesus, Komska asserts that “Bartl needed to uncouple it from the drawn-out confrontation between two nationalities and embed it in a broader framework” of the Cold War (69). Yet, in the (West) German Federal Republic, borrowing Nazi imagery of a Slavic threat for the purposes of anticommunism was not unknown. For example, campaign posters of the Christian Democratic Union in 1949 and 1957 depicted a red Asiatic Slav in the East looming over the map of Europe (http://www.landesarchiv-bw.de/plink/?f=5-171148-1). Rather than removing the “local” Slav-German conflict from the photo, Bartl may have had his German audience in mind, appropriating Nazi representations of Slavs and Roma for the anticommunist cause. The desecration of the religious artifacts sufficed to convey a Cold War meaning to an international audience, while the Czech-German conflict added another layer of racial threat that would be understood by the German audience. Analysis of relations between the expellees and West Germans also could have been more fully developed. There are mentions of local Germans sharing in veneration of religious icons and participating in the construction of the prayer wall, but they are made only in passing. More about the participation of West Germans in the prayer wall could potentially strengthen Komska’s case for the influence of the expellees extending beyond their own community. Komska is fluent in the idiom of cultural studies and does the kindness of defining terms of art for the nonspecialist. She has created an important, insightful work that expands our understanding of borderlands and the Cold War. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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