At the end of the Second World War, it is accepted that much of the western populace regarded the Soviet Union as a close ally, given their role in crushing Nazi Germany. But to those who knew the real picture behind the scenes, the view was somewhat grim. ‘Liberation’ and ‘victory’ were quickly replaced with scenes of famine, food and fuel shortages, illness, genocide and tyranny.
In the days just after the Nazi surrender Winston Churchill was moved to warn President Truman, a year before he famously used the metaphor, that an ‘iron curtain was drawing upon Europe. The seeds for this warning were arranged at Yalta, in February 1945, where the division of Europe was sealed and that of the postwar fate of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Convoys of tanks carried Soviet agents into Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Romania was not liked, but reluctantly tolerated. Each side of the political divide had agreed to respect each others sphere of influence. This, of course, did not soothe Churchill’s concerns and whether or not through honour, duty or a little bit of ‘grandstanding’, Churchill on March 5th 1946 made his famous address at Westminster College, Fulton Missouri.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities 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 many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
This most important passage of the ‘iron curtain’ speech attracted immediate world attention. Once, where the press had portrayed an alliance of the three equals between the United States, Britain and Soviet Union, now was about to turn ‘Uncle Jo’ (Stalin) into a screaming depot, forcing whole countries into submission.
Churchill’s speech would go on to further point out that “the communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power for beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.”
A recent book by Anne Applebaum (read by this author) called Iron Curtain: The crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, highlights these same views outlined by Churchill and how millions of Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians were ruthlessly evicted from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. They were also beaten, imprisoned and transported off to Serbian labor camps. Applebaum, also points out how quickly institutions, schools, churches and opposition political parties were persecuted and banned.
Churchill’s speech from Moscow was responded in kind very aggressively. Soviet cartoonists created defamatory representations of Churchill and the West. These new type of caricatures would go onto form part of a new type of (cold) war, in which governments taught whole populations to demonise each other. The Soviets, in turn, would go on a defensive ‘war’ by further buffering its sphere of influence away from the West.
This decline in cordiality of relations after 1946, fortunately didn’t come to ‘real’ war, although many thought war was frighteningly close with the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 and later the Cuban Missile Crisis as two examples. As the ‘cold war’ took shape and/or intensified, the metaphor ‘iron curtain’ that Churchill had first coined, came to be accepted by people throughout the West, as the divide between east and west.
And so do we thank Mr.Churchill then for his choice of words? Can we credit his speech for beginning the cold war? If anything is it not prudent that we sometimes revisit history and important events that have shaped our world? History will after all continue to be written, revised and analysed and so will Churchill’s infamous words.