The History You Aren’t Supposed to Understand: “The Iron Curtain”


8-28-07, 9:33 am

I was on a university radio station today talking about aspects of the history of the cold war, from Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, to what fascism was about, to the propaganda behind equating the fascist states with the Soviet Union. This got me to thinking about the history of events which are clouded in ways that not only obscure the meaning of those events but often turn them inside out. This is a first of what I hope will be a number of articles for our online edition that explore such events.

Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, made on March 5th, 1946, before a small college audience in Fulton, Missouri, is an excellent example of events being turned inside out. “The Iron Curtain” became a phrase that would repeated endlessly for more than half a century, used to “explain” Soviet “domination” of Eastern Europe, repeated over and over again in political discussion, movies, television. But where did it come from?

On February 5th, 1945, Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister wrote in Das Reich, his newsweekly that “if the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe, along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory, controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered. The Jewish press in London and New York would probably still be applauding.”

Besides the last line and a half, this isn’t that different from what Churchill was to say thirteen months later. While the phrase wasn’t original with Goebbels (an “eisene Vorhang” or Iron Curtain in English had been used on stages in German theaters to prevent the spread of fires and there had been earlier uses of the term as a political metaphor, even to the Soviet revolution immediately after WWI) the specific reference and more importantly the analysis that Churchill picked up on came from pretty Goebbels, who was trying to keep the Germans fighting in spite of an inevitable total defeat and use anti-Communism and of course anti-Semitism to divide the allied powers.

It is likely that Churchill read Goebbels commentary in some translated intelligence report. While Churchill was no fascist, he was a conservative and imperialist who had fought Hitler to save the British Empire and from 1943 on was actively seeking to limit revolutionary and Soviet influence in Europe even if it meant delaying the second front and advancing policies that costs millions more lives and undermined postwar peace. He had no intention of seeing the war lead to social revolutions or, if he could help it, to an end to colonial imperialism.

On May 12, 1945, days after the German surrender, Churchill wrote Harry Truman “I am profoundly disturbed by the European situation….An iron curtain is upon their [the Soviet front]. ... All kinds of arrangements will have to be made by General Eisenhower to prevent another immense flight of the German population westward as this enormous Muscovite advance toward the center of Europe takes place.”

Churchill, as he had earlier, wanted the U.S. to treat the Soviets as a leading enemy in a future war rather than the major ally of a war that was just ending. And he wasn’t averse to using a “sanitized” version of Goebbels Iron Curtain propaganda to accomplish that goal. On June 4, he wrote to Truman again (suggesting in effect that the U.S. forces fight to hold territory in Germany in violation of tentative agreements made at Yalta rather than give up such territory to the Soviets) by warning that U.S. “withdrawal” would lead to “Soviet power in Western Europe and the descent of an iron curtain between us and everything eastward.”

The British Labor Party won a sweeping victory in June 1945 on a program to build a “Socialist Britain,” and Churchill was out of power, although he did lead the British delegation to the Potsdam Conference, where Truman, informed of the successful testing of an atomic bomb, began to quarrel with the Soviets on a wide variety of issues concerning postwar Europe and move in the direction that Churchill wished.

By December, 1945, Allen Dulles, the OSS official, brother of Republican foreign policy specialist John Foster Dulles, and later director of the CIA when Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State, referred to Soviet occupation forces in Germany as “a bunch of thugs” and noted that “an iron curtain has descended over the fate of these people and very likely conditions are truly terrible. The promises at Yalta to the contrary, probably eight to ten million people are being enslaved.”

What was going with these people? They knew certainly what the Soviet Union and much Europe had suffered in the war, the mass murder carried on by the Fascist states. Did they care? They were not racists and imperialists of the same kind as the Nazis and their allies but they were racists and imperialists and they had fought to war not to create an international order where higher levels of peace and social justice would become possible but to keep the Fascist Axis from taking away their own imperial power and privilege. Their anti-Communism, which had been a central factor in the policies of appeasing the fascist states, now became a powerful engine to break up the Allies and launch a cold war that was initially seen by many as a prelude to WW III.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill said on March 5, 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, in a speech titled “The Sinews of Peace.” “All these famous cities,” Churchill went on to say, “and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some measure increasing control from Moscow.”

Six months after the Japanese surrender in the aftermath of the atomic bomb attacks, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech was widely criticized as an incitement to war, but it both reflected and was clearly an attempt to rally support to the policy of forcing the Soviets out of Eastern Europe while using U.S. and British occupation forces to marginalize Communist and left forces in Western Europe, which the Truman administration had embarked upon.

If the public knew of the connections to Goebbels when the Iron Curtain concept began to be disseminated widely in 1947, would it have made a difference? After all, the public was being bombarded with propaganda that communism equaled fascism, Stalin equaled Hitler, and not to resist the Soviets was in effect a policy of appeasement that would lead to the advance of an “iron curtain” over Europe, a term that became both Winston Churchill’s last truly famous speech and Joseph Goebbels last albeit posthumous propaganda “achievement.”

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