Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain


The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 shocked the world. Ever since, the image of this impenetrable barrier between East and West, imposed by communism, has been a central symbol of the Cold War.

Based on vast research in untapped archival, oral, and private sources,Burned Bridgereveals the hidden origins of the Iron Curtain, presenting it in a startling new light. Historian Edith Sheffer's unprecedented, in-depth account focuses on Burned Bridge--the intersection between two sister cities, Sonneberg and Neustadt bei Coburg, Germany's largest divided population outside Berlin. Sheffer demonstrates that as Soviet and American forces occupied each city after the Second World War, townspeople who historically had much in common quickly formed opposing interests and identities. The border walled off irreconcilable realities: the differences of freedom and captivity, rich and poor, peace and bloodshed, and past and present. Sheffer describes how smuggling, kidnapping, rape, and killing in the early postwar years led citizens to demand greater border control on both sides--long before East Germany fortified its 1,393 kilometer border with West Germany. It was in fact the American military that built the first barriers at Burned Bridge, which preceded East Germany's borderland crackdown by many years. Indeed, Sheffer shows that the physical border between East and West was not simply imposed by Cold War superpowers, but was in some part an improvised outgrowth of an anxious postwar society.

Ultimately, a wall of the mind shaped the wall on the ground. East and West Germans became part of, and helped perpetuate, the barriers that divided them. From the end of World War II through two decades of reunification, Sheffer traces divisions at Burned Bridge with sharp insight and compassion, presenting a stunning portrait of the Cold War on a human scale.


Burned Bridge—Gebrannte Brücke—spanned a tranquil marsh in the heart of Europe. This short stretch of road, built in the Middle Ages out of logs burned to resist rot, connected two adjacent German towns, Sonneberg and Neustadt bei Coburg, for nearly a millennium. The sister cities were remarkably similar and entwined. Townspeople intermarried, spoke the same dialect, cooked the same traditional dishes, labored in the same toy industry, and saw themselves as one community. They often said they shared “one heart and one soul.” With their town halls less than five kilometers apart, residents crossed Burned Bridge to work, trade, and see loved ones, passing tall chestnut trees and modest slate-covered houses.

Improbable as it may seem, Burned Bridge became a fault line in the Cold War, a hotspot on the most notorious border in the world. After victorious Soviet and American armies occupied either side of the crossing at the end of World War II, differences intensified at the boundary between them. Townspeople watched, and participated, as division grew. Burned Bridge, originally built to last, became a site of disconnection. Families and friendships came apart. Smuggling, spying, fleeing, kidnapping, and killing raged. Minefields and electric fences scarred the land. Then, in 1989, the Iron Curtain unexpectedly fell, and relations shifted again. Now rival malls face off across the site. A McDonald’s oversees the former barrier, at the center of another new Germany and another new Europe.

This is a story about the incremental nature of astonishing change. It traces the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain between Sonneberg in East Germany and Neustadt in West Germany, a population center of around fifty thousand that was the largest divided community outside Berlin. Uncovering the interactions of townspeople behind and across the border, it explores how two new nations formed out of one cohesive region, how people took part in their own partition, and how, in so doing, they normalized the monstrosity in their midst.

What follows is a biography of a border and of a divided society. Burned Bridge represented Germany’s Cold War transformations over half a century from Nazism to democracy as well as to communism and its collapse. It marked a crossroads of social disorder and political change, where makeshift policies had unforeseen and . . .

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