West Germany and the Iron Curtain
Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands
Astrid M. Eckert
Oxford University Press, New York, 2019, 444 pages
Book Review published on: May 15, 2020
It is hard to imagine thirty years ago that a 1,393-kilometer long border separated Germany into two separate German states as part of the Iron Curtain that divided postwar Europe into West and East. It was here that West Germany had to confront a divided country and engage its socialist neighbor in concrete ways on issues of economic deficiencies, border tourism, environmental pollution, and landscape change. Astrid Eckert, associate professor of history at Emory University and noted author whose works include Struggle for the Files: The Western Allies and the Return of German Archives after the Second World War, takes a fresh look at the history of Cold War Germany and the reunification process from the spatial perspective of the West German borderlands that emerged along the volatile inter-German border after 1945 in her latest work West Germany and the Iron Curtain: Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands.
Eckert opens in chapter 1 by describing the events that resulted in the making of the West German borderlands. She describes the transmigration of German refugees from the east that continued coming across the nascent inter-German border in the early 1950s. These migrants added to an existing economic hardship experienced among natives living in the West German borderlands. West German borderlands remained stagnant while the West German economy was picking up in the industrial Rhine and Ruhr Valley areas. This disparity of economic conditions resulted in the perception of the borderlands as “poor people’s land.” Eckert explains how borderland politicians used this perception in requesting aid for the region. The West German government fully supported such requests as part of a larger effort to denounce its socialist east neighbor.
Eckert states that border tourism started at the grassroots as people simply went to see the site that played a key role in early Cold War politics. By the 1950s, border tourism was in full swing as crowds traveled to select spots along the border to see the “Iron Curtain,” as coined by Winston Churchill in symbolism of the partition of Europe into the East and West. Border tourism benefited the borderland economy and provided West Germany the opportunity to boost its anticommunist credentials with the western alliance. West German leaders made it a point to bring guests to the border to show that West Germany was a bastion of freedom against the tyranny of communism.
The development of tourism to the Iron Curtain remained a major provocation to East German authorities. The dwellings and villages visible from the West provided ample visual material for anticommunist propaganda depicting West German reconstruction with dilapidated conditions in East Germany. East German authorities responded by tearing down or renovating buildings along the border, dedicating scarce construction materials to border villages as part of beautification programs, and agitating border visitors with loudspeakers, smoke, and by shooting leaflets across the border denouncing West Germany. West German aid continued to the borderlands until unification, when the borderlands experienced a boom in construction, tourism, and skilled crafts.
West Germany and the Iron Curtain offers the first environmental history of the German Iron Curtain. Eckert informs readers that transboundary pollution was a major issue as pollutants and waste crossed the border in both directions. West German municipalities and public corporations had exported household and hazardous waste as a cheap solution to western disposal regulations. West German industries likewise released sulfur dioxide that the wind carried into East Germany. West Germany was the recipient of water contamination that flowed downstream from East German industries. East German authorities argued a stream’s natural self-cleansing abilities would remove solids and skim off floating oils and greases. They considered only a river’s water quality in regard to industrial production. Eckert describes the challenges and issues faced by the Prussian-Thuringian Potash Wastewater Commission to address the pollution of the Werra River from potash mining. Environmental issues continued being addressed after unification.
West Germany and the Iron Curtain’s strengths are an exceptional writing style that gives the reader a “you are there” view of the western borderlands and a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the issues from both an East and West perspective. The use of maps and other graphics provide context in illustrating the borderlands. Eckert provides a balanced treatment of sensitive historical events. Her book serves as a reminder to policy makers on the significance in understanding the role history plays in understanding current international relations. West Germany and the Iron Curtain is a must read for policy makers, historians, and students of modern German history.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas