Where’s the omelette?

Tom Nairn

  • Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War by Patrick Wright
    Oxford, 488 pp, £18.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 923150 8

In Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn described the medieval witch craze as a ‘supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths’. Of course popular beliefs had to fall into line with the bureaucracy’s position, and Cohn provides plenty of examples to show that they did: rural and small-town societies were rich in resentments, ancestral curses and fears of the unknown. But the dreadful machinery of retribution proceeded essentially from on high. ‘The power of the human imagination to build up a stereotype’ was exploited and channelled by ‘the authorities, notably the magistrates’. Doubt and scepticism were dispelled, until everyone felt the presence of the devil on the doorstep each day, just waiting his chance.

Patrick Wright evokes Cold War stereotypes very concretely, beginning in Fulton, Missouri, where in 1946 Churchill first claimed to discern the curtain that had ‘descended from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’. His speech aimed at creating a special Anglo-American relationship that would stand against everything on the other side of the curtain. This aspiration endures, but it is now undisguisable as anything other than ‘cringing submission to American power’. Wright describes in detail the theatrical origin of the literal iron curtain: it was a fire precaution intended to separate audiences from the stage, where conflagrations were most likely to start. It doesn’t seem to have been very effective.

In The Village that Died for England (1995) Wright quoted Dennis Potter on patriotism: ‘The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.’ A philological story like this must carry us from one mouth to another, showing that meaning is an end-product: a tongue that speaks through us, via the intimacy of accreted customs, familiar allusions and feelings, things taken for granted. Wright reminds us at length of the tedious distortions that came about during the Cold War, in order to help us shake it off. Far from being coined by Churchill, the term Iron Curtain was already in use soon after the 1917 Revolution, when both the new Soviet regime and those attempting to stifle it were trying to recruit impressive ideological justifications for their aims. By 1946 Churchill was a hardened practitioner of such devices, as well as a devotee of the purple phrase and resonant vista. At Fulton he was rolling out old ideas, not inventing new ones.

Wright is at his best when he evokes such tales and precedents, from the ‘cardboard thrillers’ of Churchill’s childhood model-theatre days, with their ‘clear division between the good and the bad’, down to 1945, and the deployment of iron curtains by both Joseph Goebbels and the CIA director Allen Dulles. My favourites are the accounts of what delegations from the Labour Party to the USSR were shown: they usually lapped everything up, putting down shortcomings as ‘cost of revolution’ on the ‘great 20th-century bridge which will in its due time lead us into another world’. Wright’s heroine in much of the narrative is Vernon Lee (whose real name was Violet Paget), an expatriate Briton who was, as one obituarist declared, ‘cosmopolitan from her birth, without any single national tie or sympathy’. She denounced the nationalistic divisions between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance before the First World War as a precursor of the later, more general curtains of mutual ignorance and hatred. In 1915 she spoke of ‘war’s monstrous iron curtain’ which ‘cut us off so utterly from one another’, and offended ‘the undying needs of our common humanity’.

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[*] Seuil, 176 pp., €12.50, September 2007, 978 0 02 092597 6.