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Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain stretched over a distance of almost 7,000 km through Europe from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea and divided the continent into east and west. Until the fall in 1989 it was a physical and ideological border between two hostile blocs. Not only were many neighbouring countries separated thereby, but also Germany was divided into east and west.

Iron Curtain was the term first used by Winston Churchill to describe the political barrier which had been erected between the East and West and the creation of spheres of influence. Scarcely had the war ended when relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had essentially extended its borders to include all of Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination. The victorious Allies of World War II divided Germany into occupation zones: the American, French, and British zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. Within the Soviet zone lay Berlin, formerly Hitler's capital, also divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the wartime allies.

On 05 March 1946, Britain's wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, warned: "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 some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow." Some have suggested the temporal boundaries for the Cold War as running from the March 1946 “Iron Curtain speech of Winston Churchill to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Although Churchill did not coin the term "Iron Curtain" it was this speech that popularized it — so much so that to this day the address is usually referred to as the "Iron Curtain Speech." It seems the term was actually was first used by German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in the final weeks of World War II. In “Das Jahr 2000,” Das Reich, 25 February 1945, pp. 1-2, Goebbels wrote that "If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered. The Jewish press in London and New York would probably still be applauding. "

Behind that curtain, Soviet control tightened; a sphere of influence became a ring of satellite states, as happened to Czechoslovakia in February 1948 when a Communist faction seized control of the government. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union began exerting pressure on the overland routes leading into Berlin, imposing arbitrary restrictions on access, such as temporarily halting coal shipments and, on 24 June, establishing a blockade. Within four years of war's end, communists had won the Chinese civil war and the Iron Curtain was augmented by the Bamboo Curtain. Leaders in the Soviet Bloc conveyed at every opportunity their intention to acquire world dominance.

In Europe, the Allied occupation gave way in 1955 to a close relation with the FederalRepublic of Germany, which regained sovereign slatus and a military force in that year. Thenearly 50-year sojourn of an entire American field army and American air forces in peacetimeGermany was a hallmark of the era. The American military presence, initially a constabularyforce, (continued to serve as a trip-wire in a confrontation that threatened to become a world warif the Soviet armored host facing them violated the border between the two Germanys thatformed1 the original Iron Curtain.

In 1961, Berlin became the focal point of increased tensions between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. Dissatisfied with the economy and the political conditions in East Germany, thousands of East German refugees fled into West Berlin, the only gap in the Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Black Sea. To stop the exodus of their nation's elite -- doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals -- the East German government sealed the border between East and West Berlin. During the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 13, 1961, East German troops and workers, backed by Soviet tanks, ran barbed wire and built barricades. The wire soon gave way to heavy concrete segments topped with a concrete tube. A parallel barrier later went up in the East, leaving between them a brightly lit Todesstreifen (death strip), consisting of tank traps, fixed guns, attack dogs and land mines.

In the area of the former Iron Curtain, which formed a most divisive and inhumane border between East and West Germany, nobody was admitted to enter the border strip itself. Due to the remoteness and numerous restrictions the situation was similar in most border areas in Central Europe.

But by 1989, it was clear that the nearly 45 year-long Cold War between the world's superpowers was coming to a close. By August, tens of thousands of East Germans were already in Hungary, living on campsites, in parks and churches, and hoping to find a loophole that would enable them to escape into the West. On 19 August 1989, a small group of Hungarian dissidents and Austrian politicians had agreed that they would symbolically open the border for a few hours that day so that they could have a picnic together. But it became more than a merely symbolic act: While Hungarians were already allowed to travel freely at that time, about 600 citizens of East Germany, the GDR, used the opportunity to flee to the West. The episode went down in history as a "pan-European picnic".

The Berlin Wall crumbled on 09 November 1989, and the process of ending the era of seclusion was not to be stopped. Germany reunified, and former Eastern Bloc nations replaced their Communist regimes with democratically-elected governments. As a new decade and new world order began, the Soviet Union disintegrated. In 1991, when the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the enemy that President Ronald Reagan had once called "the evil empire" ceased to exist.

Dr. Kai Frobel from the Bavarian branch of of BUND (Friends of the Earth) was the first to recognise the value the secluded areas had for nature conservation. As early as 1989, the BUND in Germany and other conservationists engaged in protecting valuable habitats along the Green Belt. Apart from the inner-German border, which is a special situation along its course, the Green Belt follows the borders in Central Europe that formerly had separated the East from the West. Conservation areas on both sides of the borders clearly show a need for transboundary cooperation and a coordination of transboundary projects will facilitate an optimal use of the financial tools of the European Union.

The European Green Belt inititative has the vision to create the backbone of an ecological network that runs from the Barents to the Black sea, spanning some of the most important habitats for biodiversity and almost all distinct biogeographical regions in Europe. By following a course that was in large sections part of the former east-western border - one of the most divisive barriers in history - it symbolizes the global effort for joint, cross border activities in nature conservation and sustainable development. Moreover, the initiative shall serve to better harmonise human activities with the natural environment, and to increase opportunities for the socio-economic development of local communities.

Since 2002 this ‘Green Belt’ has been under the patronage of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union and now President of ‘Green Cross International’ (GCI).

In 2005, following the initiative of Green member Michael Cramer, the European Parliament recognised the "Iron Curtain Trail" as a model project for sustainable tourism and called upon the Member States for support. The Iron Curtain Trail thereby contributes in a lively and very practical way to the creation of a genuine European identity. majority. Twenty countries, 14 thereof EU Member States, are involved. The “Iron Curtain Trail” is part of Europe’s collective memories which can help promote the much talked-about European identity. Today there is hardly anything left to see of the former death strip, the remnants are no longer a dividing line. The eastern and western Europeans have very different memories of the border.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2014 21:15:30 ZULU