A.M. Eckert: West Germany and the Iron Curtain

West Germany and the Iron Curtain. Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands

Eckert, Astrid M.
Anzahl Seiten
X, 422 pp.
£ 64.00 / $ 99.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Peter Gengler, Duke University

Travelers to Berlin can hardly ignore the numerous relics of the Cold War that dot the cityscape, yet – even as visions of spies dance through tourists’ minds when they gawk at remnants of the Berlin Wall – many forget the 1,393-kilometer-long border that snaked through the heart of Germany. Like its famous counterpart in Berlin, it has dramatically changed since 1990. Today, cyclists on the Green Belt escape into idyllic nature while catching thrilling glimpses of the past. The Iron Curtain is gone, but it casts a shadow, often in ways less apparent than rusted barbed wire and dilapidated guard towers.

Understanding the consequences and long-lasting effects of that inter-German border on West Germany’s economy, environment, and culture is the task that the historian Astrid M. Eckert sets for herself in West Germany and the Iron Curtain. Unsurprisingly, the borderlands were the most sensitive territories for both Germanies. Here, West Germany wrestled with the practical challenges that arose from division and conflict with the GDR, the ideological rival across the border. The border profoundly changed the local economies and ecologies of the Zonenrandgebiet, or “zonal borderland,” and addressing those challenges took on a greater priority than other political issues simply because they were located at the frontline between democracy and communism.

Eckert goes beyond an analysis of the ideological implications of Germany’s division. In the borderlands, infrastructure, economic development, pollution, and nuclear policy were just as much a part of the Cold War as geopolitical struggles. In fact, Eckert claims that using the Iron Curtain as a lens through which to reexamine the economic and ecological history of West Germany opens new and significant perspectives. Not only did this space reflect the trajectory of the FRG from its anticommunist beginnings to its present, but the developments here at the periphery also drove national debates and trends. Eckert stresses that one cannot understand West Germany without a long, hard look at its most eastern periphery.

To make her case, Eckert divides her study into topical chapters. The first two chapters examine the economic consequences of the erection of the Iron Curtain and how the West German borderlands emerged as a spatial unit because of economic developments. Chapter One introduces the coalition of politicians and business leaders who feared the border would economically destroy the region, and who vociferously lobbied to prevent the borderlands from devolving into an economic backwater vulnerable to the communist menace across the Iron Curtain. These lobbyists invented the Zonenrandgebiet as a “brand” that underpinned arguments for subsidies. They benefited from Cold War concerns and ultimately managed to get a staggering 20% of West Germany recognized as the “zonal border” deserving economic assistance. These discourses, Eckert argues, helped create the borderlands as much as the Iron Curtain itself did.

In the second chapter, Eckert lays out the consequences of the longest-lasting regional aid program and its evolution from a politically unassailable subsidy to contentious “pork barrel” spending. Continuous messaging of the vulnerability of these territories created the impression that they were underdeveloped. Making federal support of the “East of the West” a permanent feature cut across party lines and lasted despite growing criticism of its usefulness. Eckert ends the chapter with unification and the initial encounters between divided Germans, along with the sudden economic “cotransformation” that unfolded. Zonal aid ended and turned into “Reconstruction East,” businesses followed the money, and the economic challenges of underdevelopment and inadequate investment persisted. In other words, going from border to the heart of a reunified Germany did not transform the economic fortunes of the zonal area, which saw its subsidies flow toward rebuilding the former GDR. The border, Eckert concludes, was not solely responsible for the region’s economic deficiencies, and despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, the borderlands continue to live in its shadow even though they are now in the heart of a united Germany.

Chapter Three considers tourism to the Iron Curtain, beginning with “grass roots” visits that developed into federally supported attractions. While the government of the FRG funneled organized visits to the frontline of the Cold War to communicate anticommunist messages, the East German regime moved to make the border “uninteresting” and deprive the class enemy of propaganda coups. Eckert therefore traces the changing ways the two Germanies presented the Iron Curtain to viewing publics. In the end, she finds that the promotion of the border as a destination where Germans could see a contested and illegitimate division of the country confronted visitors with a grim reality: the border was real, permanent, and “normal.”

In the remaining chapters, Eckert turns to the environmental history of the Iron Curtain. Chapter Four focuses on negotiations between the FRG and GDR to address air and water pollution and how both parties did not fear ecological problems as much as they did political liabilities. Eckert argues that the negotiations paved the way for the massive and celebrated ecological cleanup of East Germany after 1990, but she also warns that the Iron Curtain obscured the reality of pollution on both sides of the border. Chapter Five introduces the concept of “transboundary natures” (p. 10) to describe the impact of the border on nature and human activity. Here Eckert examines the ecological footprint of the Iron Curtain, emphasizing that the effects on the landscape were neither solely “good” or “bad.”

The last chapter explores the potential site of a nuclear waste reprocessing and storage facility in the village of Gorleben. Because of the arguments from the 1950s that suggested the region was open to any and all investment, the site seemed to be a logical choice. By the 1970s, however, a robust civil society fearing nuclear energy and the disruption of the idyllic countryside that had emerged at the militarized border turned the sleepy hamlet at the FRG’s periphery into the center of the anti-nuclear movement. Eckert outlines how the Iron Curtain and sensitivity of the borderland magnified the controversy and thereby changed the nation’s energy future by transforming the initial promise of nuclear power into a sinister and undesirable threat.

This study makes an important contribution to the literature, representing the first environmental history of the Iron Curtain. Eckert’s analytical focus on the border and its effects will remind readers of similar approaches in the studies of Edith Sheffer and Yuliya Komska.[1] However, Eckert does not limit her investigation to the local level, instead taking a wider perspective to document the profound impact the Iron Curtain left beyond 1990. She has produced a well-conceptualized study, combining cultural, economic, and environmental methodologies to great effect. Eckert also argues convincingly, marshalling an impressive array of sources gleaned through meticulous research in 19 archives and numerous private collections. One must also admire the incredibly accessible and evocative writing that makes this an enjoyable read for a broad audience.

The study is moreover bound to push research in new directions. Eckert shows how surprisingly instrumental the border was in shaping the history of the FRG, the GDR, and the process of reunification. Despite the title of the book, Eckert shows the entangled and connected way in which both Germanies wrestled with practical issues at the border and the far-reaching repercussions these contestations had. She also historicizes contemporary issues such as unemployment, environmental and nuclear policy, and even “dark tourism.”

These accomplishments far outweigh minor criticisms. While as a whole the monograph is a rewarding read that proposes fascinating new ways of thinking about the history of West Germany, individual aspects are unlikely to surprise specialists. The discussion of how the Iron Curtain transformed into an object anticommunist lesson, for instance, will not shock readers familiar with the history of the Cold War West; neither will the repeated argument that the border politicized every aspect of the region. Environmental historians likewise won’t encounter new revelations, but again the strength lies in the book’s scope and the interpretations it formulates.

Overall, Astrid M. Eckert has delivered a wonderfully conceptualized and highly original study. The unique framing, impeccable research, and judicious interpretations will delight historians of Germany, while the engaging writing will charm audiences beyond academia. The work is bound to make an impact in the field. Of equal importance is Eckert’s prescient reminder of the long-lasting ecological, economic, and political consequences of borders in an age of refugee crises, ethno-nationalist populism, and pandemics that threaten to disrupt our supposedly global world. The Iron Curtain’s lessons continue to echo three decades later.

[1] Edith Sheffer, Burned Bridge. How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain, New York 2011; Yuliya Komska, The Icon Curtain. The Cold War’s Quiet Border, Chicago 2015.