As political metaphors go, “iron curtain” — first used to describe an actual partition in a theater — has gotten a good run. It’s been in circulation for 200 years.
But since Winston Churchill co-opted the term to describe the Soviet bloc’s borders, the metaphor has been as divisive as the physical borders it describes. In the Cold War, the term reinforced black-and-white bloc mentalities: The enemy typically belonged behind the Iron Curtain, and its morally superior antagonist in front of it.
Today, a quarter-century after its fall, “iron curtain” is back as a metaphor, according to an array of Western news outlets, including the Independent, Newsweek and the public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. In the past month, these outlets have dusted off the term to charge Eastern European countries with sealing their borders, Cold War-style.
We should retire the metaphor before it plays a part in fracturing Europe once again.
European theater managers in the late 18th century used “iron curtain” to describe a protective metal firewall between the stage and the audience. The contraption was necessary because directors would occasionally ignite entire sets as part of a performance, to suspenseful if devastating effect.
In print announcements, the makers and adopters of the safety device advertised the firewall across European capitals, which helped “iron curtain” catch on as an idiom. By the time the Congress of Vienna came around in 1814-1815, the term had won over some silver-tongued statesmen, who used it to explain the political climate after Napoleon. From there, it went on to serve many masters and to change meanings as it suited them.
World War One strategists used “iron curtain” to describe artillery barrages. Russian counter-revolutionaries and their allies adopted the term to label the West’s cordon sanitaire against the nascent Soviet Union. Adolph Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, borrowed it to justify Germany’s total war, which was waged to avert the onslaught of what he called the “mechanized robots from the steppes” that would come in the then-remote year 2000.
Finally, Churchill provided the term with its most enduring meaning in his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, priming “iron curtain” for Cold War geopolitics and generations of Western cartoonists, propagandists and writers. For them, the term became the Soviet bloc’s border, militarized to keep entire populations in. Illustrators usually depicted it with a crown of thorns, a heavy chain or a dense wall around the continent’s east. Such images accompanied the term for decades.
But in the Cold War years, the actual Soviet border was neither continuous nor impenetrable, as the metaphor suggests. Along seven Eastern-bloc countries (if one counts Albania and the Soviet Union itself), the border was more visible, narrow or porous in some places than in others.
In some areas, actual fortifications — a mix of physical obstacles — were erected where divisions had not existed earlier. In others, they sprung up along some of the continent’s oldest borders. And citizens of the adjacent Western-bloc countries, eager to keep out communism and atheism, were often just as interested in maintaining the physical borders as were the authorities in the Eastern bloc.
Today the media use “iron curtain” to describe border-fortification efforts in Eastern Europe. Since last year, Ukraine has built 90 miles of antitank barriers and 60 miles of fortifications in its east, with similar plans for its entire 1,200-mile-long border with Russia. Poland plans to build watchtowers along its 125-mile-long border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. To deter migrants from Syria and Iraq, Bulgaria has been installing security fences along its border with Turkey — 10-foot-tall metal rows topped with razor wire and equipped with underground sensors. Bulgaria’s border police and members of its armed forces patrol the fence.
The return of fortress-like borders demonstrates the three countries’ tendency to focus on easy fixes instead of long-term political solutions. It exposes the relics of their communist past — above all, the long-lived “fortress mentality.” It limits the free movement of goods and labor. And when one country builds a border fortification, another follows suit — in line with another favorite Cold War metaphor, the “domino effect.”
It is small wonder that the Russian press has eagerly reprinted this news, albeit leaving “iron curtain” in quotation marks in line with the old Soviet-bloc convention. Under European Union sanctions, divisions coming from Europe — especially Eastern Europe — make for good headlines.
By applying “iron curtain” to these divisions, however, journalists and politicians create a fault line between Western Europe and countries in the east. In doing so, they risk associating problems common across all Europe — security, immigration, xenophobia — with only a handful of communities on the EU’s eastern periphery.
Such misgivings about Eastern European countries are a widespread holdover from the Cold War. After the United Kingdom and other EU countries opened their labor markets to workers from Bulgaria and Romania last year, the public, politicians and the press were less than enthusiastic. Right-wing populists, such as UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, have repeatedly unleashed tirades against Bulgarians, Poles or Romanians who “haven’t fully recovered from being behind the Iron Curtain.”
Recycling the “iron curtain” metaphor today will only play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin and EU-skeptical extreme-right parties that seek to weaken Europe from within. Use of the term will cement estrangement between the EU’s established members and newcomers, or membership candidates like Ukraine. Even the simple word “border” would be a better substitute for the high-drama misnomer.
Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor at Dartmouth College. She writes on transatlantic media and culture in the Cold War.