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

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’.

Wright’s style carries the reader into heartfelt sympathy with one personality or episode after another. Just as he conjured up Tyneham, the village that ‘died for England’ by being turned into a military exercise area, here he makes us identify with, among others, the Greek-Romanian writer Panaït Istrati. ‘Waiter in a cabaret, pastrycook, locksmith, coppersmith, mechanic, workman, labourer, wharf porter, servant, sandwich man, sign painter, house decorator, journalist, photographer’, as Romain Rolland described him, Istrati was a critic of Soviet society who was denounced by the Comintern denigration and, like Victor Serge, abused as an ‘anti-Moscow anarchist’. Visitors to the Soviet Union touring ‘their own ardent preconceptions’ were often reminded that eggs have to be broken to make an omelette. It was Istrati who came up with the best riposte: ‘All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?’ Iron Curtain’s merit lies partly in its rediscovery of such characters, who refused to conform to the stereotypes on either side of the curtain.

Gratitude must be qualified, however, by disappointment at Wright’s unwillingness to take a longer view – or, one could say, a more anthropological view of ideological division. His tactic is to reveal larger issues through the unexpected or overlooked detail. Light is cast outwards from endearing (and often comic) miniaturisations: these concrete embodiments of grand abstractions suggest meanings different from the ones statesmen or philosophers wished to impart. Such meanings in turn call for new and better abstractions, but Wright often appears reluctant to take them on.

As opposed to Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘short 20th century’, Wright’s hypothesis is of ‘the long Cold War’, of an Iron Curtain mythology decades in preparation, formalised by Churchill’s Missouri speech, and lingering on in a new century. Globalisation remains haunted by its pernicious influence, in spite of the manifest victory of one Cold War side in the 1980s. As he points out, today a new curtain is being clanked down, between legitimate globalised capitalism and the realm of a supposed terrorism, the by-product of an Islamic fundamentalist worldview bent on imposing itself. The blurb of Wright’s book describes this mindset as a ‘psychological state’ fostered by the post-Second World War generation, but still refusing to die away. It’s as if neither the victors nor the aspiring members of the international community can be happy without a war – or at least a cosmic melodrama – to give them real meaning, and intimations of ultimate victory. George W. Bush’s policy after September 2001 ‘has been closely shaped by the memory of the Iron Curtain’, Wright maintains, while its legacy has helped liberals and ex-Marxists to switch a ‘polarising habit of thought to a new enemy named “Islamofascism”’. The dying fall of his final chapter suggests an inability to forsake the memory of the Cold War, and a wish for a theatrical revival, for new curtains to keep up the morale of politicos and plebs alike.

No doubt such folklore is observable, but Wright may be exaggerating Iron Curtainism in retrospect, and conceding too much influence to its relics. ‘Intellos’ and speechwriters have certainly reanimated standard apocalyptic imagery since 2001, but its content isn’t really the same. Nor is any new mega-division likely to result from blather about ‘civilisational conflict’, or denunciations of God and globalisation. Armageddon may not yet be off the agenda, but it’s heading that way. This is a world in which Henry Kissinger has joined a group preaching the surrender and destruction of all nuclear armaments, including US ones. It shouldn’t be forgotten that dread of nuclear war was the most important factor in keeping the Iron Curtain mentality going for so long, and in generating the clichés and stale jokes Wright deplores. He doesn’t pay enough attention to the background, in that sense: something extremely serious persisted behind the melodramatics of stage management. During the 43 years between the Fulton speech and 1989, some mistake or crass misjudgment could have brought the house down, triggering the end for both sides; and once or twice it almost happened.

Wright also fails to take another factor sufficiently into account. This might be called the collapse of short-cut-ism – that is, of the belief in an alternative socialist route to the level of development foreseen in the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Iron Curtain lunacy owed a lot to the peep-shows, hypocrisy and wish-fulfilment so well detailed here. But its deeper motivation was determination that the show begun by the earlier 20th-century revolutions must go on – from Russia in 1905, via 1917, to China in 1949, to Cuba, Korea and even less likely scenarios of salvation. Roberto Unger and many others have recently been calling for alternatives to the pensée unique that has taken over most of the stage after 1989. Have they forgotten that the Iron Curtain universe was founded on projected alternatives, most of which turned out to be let-downs and dead-ends?

When reliable news of events in Russia reached Turin in the winter of 1917, an obscure diagnosis appeared the day before Christmas in the Socialist Party paper Avanti! The title of Antonio Gramsci’s piece was ‘The Revolution against Capital’, and his argument was that ‘events have exploded the critical schemas whereby Russian history was meant to develop according to the canons of historical materialism.’ The Bolsheviks were breaking all the rules prescribed for ‘the normal course of events’ (italicised in the original) by embarking on a wilful project to ‘bring itself up to the standards of production in the Western world in a short space of time’. That is, by a short cut or forced march demanding extremes of willpower, organisation and (later) ‘public relations’.

Such extremes appealed to Gramsci. All had not been well with the founding fathers. He perceived the ‘positivist and naturalist incrustations’ that Marx had fallen foul of – the very things that a few years later would be seized on by Stalin as rules for the new Iron Curtain Soviet Union. One of the century’s greatest pieces of journalism, this essay found few readers at the time, and caused its author embarrassment later, when he became leader of the Italian Communist Party and the piece had to be marginalised as over-exuberant juvenilia. Gramsci’s former comrade Benito Mussolini knew better, however, and had him imprisoned to silence his acrid, disturbing voice. Mussolini aspired to make Fascism part of the ‘normal course of events’, like Stalinism and liberalism. Hijackers of history have to make their versions look like normality. And after Fascism’s defeat the older idea-teams settled down once more to misrepresentation and braggadocio.

Wright doesn’t sufficiently stress just how run-down and rusty the whole business had become by the 1970s. Nor does he attend to the holes shot through it in the 1960s, on both sides. In 1968 and after, fires were started on various stages, from Prague and Paris to universities on every continent. And again the fireproof curtains proved futile, as panic quickly spread from the classrooms and streets to the magistrates and office-holders. They could no longer drown or burn people as witches, yet repression was threatened on both sides in an attempt to control ungrateful bourgeois malcontents to the west, bitter losers to the east, both resentful of short cuts and pretend socialism. The ‘normal course of events’ was lost from sight, and Gramsci’s revolution against Das Kapital had failed. The 1848 drawing-board would have to be got down from the attic. In the meantime, the curious moment of détente led the way towards globalisation.

‘At its core, détente was a mechanism for domestic fortification,’ writes Jeremi Suri, another unorthodox Cold War historian, with ‘a powerful domestic component that exceeded a mere agreement to avoid nuclear armageddon’. The tedious fire-screen recovered some of its utility as a defence against the ‘uncompromising, unpredictable and unorganised’ dissidence of utopia-minded arsonists. ‘Co-operation among the great powers became a substitute for both domestic and international reform’ and ‘unreasonable public expectations’. In fact Ostpolitik and its successors buttressed reasonable expectations, and colluded in outlawing demons on both sides. By 1987 comforters like John Lewis Gaddis could write that the Cold War and the Iron Curtain had been a ‘way of life’ for more than two generations, with the result that ‘it simply does not occur to us to think about how it might end or, more to the point, how we would like it to end.’

The Iron Curtain was by now a double-sided ‘spectacle’ in the sense described by Guy Debord. At the very moment the new managers in the East hoped to ‘demonstrate its superiority on the terrain of capitalism’, socialism ‘reveals itself to be a poor cousin of capitalism’; while capitalism’s ‘pseudo-freedom’ meant what the 1968 rebels had denounced: ‘liberty to choose from an unlimited range of spectacular pseudo-alternatives’. Both now needed the curtain-spectacle as an ideological frontier: ‘It obliterates the boundaries between self and the world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world’ and supporting ‘the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organisation of appearances’, Debord wrote. The greater the ‘agonising feeling of being at the margin of existence’, the stronger the need for spectacular reassurance – for mini-Churchills and displays of rhetoric and ‘vision’.

Fortunately, the rehabilitation of the curtain didn’t last long. Blair, Bush and Berlusconi have done their pitiable best, only to end up as ridiculed as the old beast itself. Some readers may conclude that the curtain is fated to keep on turning up in new versions. Wright fears such life after death, and asks readers to reject it. But the contraption is falling apart of its own accord, and no anthropological reflex dooms humanity to seek out polarisation (as distinct from diversity). Dosages of monotheist faith have of course been stepped up, to boost the bipolar cosmos. But Satan-creation has been fitful, and its prospects as a staple industry seem poor. Manicheanism accords badly with the aggressive one-worldism of economists and neoliberal pundits.

Here, the way in which the original East-West partition ended may also be significant. There had been a general conviction that it was eternal stage scenery, certain to continue, short of nuclear war. In 1976, however, Emmanuel Todd published La Chute finale, an essay on the decomposition of the Soviet Bloc. He argued that these societies were collapsing internally as a result of their own social modernisation, undermined by much deeper factors than the failure to compete economically with capitalist manufacturing and consumerism. Universal literacy and employment had given women a new importance, and a power of assertion that had resulted in dramatic falls in birth rates and had weakened the rigid authority of state regulation and party-political status. These were the last days in which the East kept trying to bring ‘itself up to the standards of production … in a short space of time’. It was taking too long, and the standards were too high. While office-holders and magistrates redoubled their prayers to the curtain and socialism, implosion was gaining momentum.

Todd, with Yousef Courbage, recently published another critique, Le Rendez-vous des civilisations, putting forward quite similar arguments about the Arab world and Muslim society.* As Ernest Gellner maintained nearly thirty years ago in Muslim Society, extreme Islamicism can be at bottom an expression of panic at internal changes, based on dread of over-hasty threats to a rigidly paternalist social structure – ‘modernisation’, whether in American or other garb. It can be another of Suri’s ‘mechanisms for domestic fortification’, with fanaticism keeping uncertainty at bay. The resultant Muslim nationalism may have even less chance of catching up than state socialism did last century. There won’t even be time to get a new curtain up and working. Globalisation is now moving too fast and disruptively for populations to get used to stage sets, stable vistas and that comfortable, settling-down sensation.

It’s true that, even since Iron Curtain was published, noisy revivals have been attempted – most notably in and around Georgia. As terrorism has faded, expeditions to the basement have dragged out the wretched remains of the Iron Curtain apparatus: there are gloomy hints of possible Cold War revenants, with differing varieties of capitalism contesting the global future. Authoritarian economics versus the heirs of neoliberalism, for example, with social democracy assuming the role of non-alignment. From Todd’s perspective, these are shallow political devices aimed principally at reviving popular support in the wake of neoliberal failure, rather than expressions of the deeper shifts the globalisation process is bringing about. They are attempts at what Umberto Eco ridicules as ‘turning back the clock’, in his recent book of the same title.

In Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that after the Cold War’s end capitalism was for the first time ‘on its own’: deprived of older forms to exploit, it would have to invent new ones, including new versions of nationalism. The rules for these are being worked out in such sites as Chechnya, and now Georgia and Ossetia. But the process can’t help providing opportunities for older political elites to grab the clock-hands and restore ‘stability’, normally with assistance from London – the past-master of clock-management, stalling and dithering. Any such restoration is likely to be temporary and counter-productive: clamorous reminders of former glories, rather than an advance to new ones.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that Wright’s last touch to his portrait of paralysis and ruin should be a return to ‘Fulton’s Backside’. He discovers an Afro-American community down the road from ‘the gleaming Churchill Memorial’. It’s a reminder that modernising changes are still to come in Missouri, as well as in Eastern Europe, Mesopotamia, Burma, Africa and Britain. And in the end they will come from the bottom upwards, possibly more easily in a world less divided by curtains.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences