10 November 2009

Gone with the Berlin Wall?

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I wrote this piece on the disappearance, or otherwise, of the Iron Curtain as a brief ‘essay’ for the BBC World Service’s arts programme, ‘The Strand’. It was broadcast to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the overcoming of the Berlin wall on 10 November 2009.

Did the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago this week, also mark the final disappearance of the Iron Curtain that had divided the world for nearly half a century? We may like to think that it did. For the length of the Cold War, after all, the Iron Curtain was closely associated with the militarized frontier dividing the blocs in Europe. Yet the true history of this powerful metaphor suggests a different conclusion.

The first iron curtains had nothing at all to do with geopolitics or international relations. Instead, they were anti-fire barriers installed in late eighteenth century theatres. Suspended between the stage and auditorium, these novel contrivances were proudly displayed to reassure audiences for whom theatre fires were an all too common horror.

The early versions were little more than props. By the late nineteenth century, however, these largely symbolic devices had been re-engineered. Hydraulically powered in many cases and made of asbestos as well as iron, the new versions actually worked. So much so, that actors and other who worked backstage began to worry that, while the audience might indeed now be saved in the event of a fire, they themselves risked being trapped behind the lowered curtain and burned alive.

How, then, did the iron curtain get converted into a geopolitical metaphor? Throughout the Cold War, it would be widely believed that the man responsible was Winston Churchill, who famously spoke of the descent of an iron curtain dividing Europe in the famous speech he delivered in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946.

In fact, the originator was not Churchill at all, but a Liberal and cosmopolitan British born woman named Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name of Vernon Lee. Five or so months into the First World War, i.e. in the last days of 1914, she applied the phrase to the war between Britain and Germany – deploring how the conflict had cut off all communication between the opposed peoples, and surrendered them to the propaganda of their belligerent states. For Vernon Lee the iron curtain had little to do with any frontier or wall. It was instead a ‘psychological deadlock’ with which the warring states on both sides coerced their citizens into patriotic loyalty.

By 1920, Vernon Lee’s iron curtain, had been picked up by a number of her friends and associates – progressive, socialist, anti-war types – who removed it from its German location and applied it to the Allied blockade of Russia, where the Bolsheviks were still consolidating their seizure of power. It continued to be used to describe the western attempt to isolate Soviet Russia through the 1920s.

Why might it be useful to bear this prehistory in mind as we watch the endlessly replayed tumbling of the Berlin Wall? The iron curtain, in this earlier period, was never just another name for a frontier. It involved economic blockade and trade embargo. It entailed censorship and a state-driven use of propaganda to simplify the world into hostile camps – one of which, your own, was conceived as uniformly good while the other was imagined as wholly evil. The iron curtain also retained much of its theatrical origin, not least in the methods of scene-rigging and stage management that were found necessary to the maintenance of loyalty on both sides.

Did the iron curtain finally vanish with the Berlin Wall in November 1989? I fear not. Look at the false information and manipulated imagery with which George Bush and Tony Blair justified their invasion of Iraq. Look at the way their most aggressive policy advisors applied the same polarized way of seeing to the Muslim world, whether in the name of the supposed ‘Clash of Civilisations’ or of the ‘War on Terror’. Except for a few yards preserved in various museums around the world, the Berlin Wall may be well and truly gone. But, as we look at the recent interaction between the western powers and Iraq and nowadays perhaps also Iran, we may surely recognise that many of the capabilities and habits of thought that came with the iron curtain survive to tempt the world’s leaders still.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 at 12:40 pm and is filed under Articles General, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.