Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Article excerpt

Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain. By Edith Sheffer. Oxford University Press 368pp, Pounds 18.99. ISBN 9780199737048. Published 24 November 2011

To most people outside Germany, that country's long-lasting division after 1945 has been seen as a series of dramatic crises, essentially concerned with the divided and encircled city of Berlin. There was the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49, overcome by the Western allies' airlift; the renewed Soviet pressure to take over West Berlin 10 years later, leading to the building of the Berlin Wall (and other walls) in 1961; the high drama of Soviet and US tanks confronting each other at Checkpoint Charlie; John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech ("Ich bin ein Berliner") and Ronald Reagan's imperious "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in 1987; and finally the spectacular opening of the Wall in November 1989.

Many of these events had their impact on the part of Germany described in Edith Sheffer's book, but the great originality of her approach is that she focuses on a remote semi-rural region tucked away near the southern (or rather south-eastern) end of the frontier between the two Germanies. The bridge of the book's title (whose timbers were "burned" by its medieval builders to protect against rot) is on the 5km-long road between two small towns, Neustadt and Sonneberg, in a secluded valley. The two towns had much in common, including patterns of speech, and an artisanal tradition of making wooden and other toys that were sold northwards to Leipzig and southwards to Nuremberg. Other features of the two towns, however, differentiated them. Historically Neustadt, not far from Coburg, belonged to Bavaria, a traditionally monarchist and profoundly conservative state, while Sonneberg, firmly in the state of Thuringia, had strong left-wing traditions and was under Communist influence during part of the Weimar Republic.

As the author shows, it took several years for the lightly guarded and ill-demarcated frontier of 1945 to become an "iron curtain" in any real sense. The East German authorities moved to shut off their territory, and to shut in its inhabitants, in stages. Up to 1952, crossing the border was very easy, whether for individual pedestrians, or for the crowds who crossed to demonstrate against the rival regime, or for such officially organised events as the fairly frequent East-West football matches (some of which themselves turned into political demonstrations). In 1952 East Germany began a systematic programme of sealing off the frontier, building barbed-wire fences, closing transit links and deporting residents from a militarised prohibition zone extending several kilometres eastward from the frontier. …

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