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Iron Curtain's consequences still evident for former West Germany

The border that split post-war Germany has long fascinated scholars who explored its impact on the Communist East. Emory historian Astrid Eckert’s new book flips that narrative, examining the lasting consequences for what was West Germany.

The inter-German border, which became an 866-mile barrier of fences, walls and minefields that split post-war Germany into East and West, has long fascinated scholars interested in its impact on the Communist East.

Now, Emory historian Astrid M. Eckert has published a new book that flips the narrative, examining the life-changing consequences for those in the west that reverberate into the modern day.

Eckert will discuss her findings in “West Germany and the Iron Curtain” – including the first environmental history of the borderland – in a conversation with Emory history department chair Joe Crespino on Thursday, Nov. 14, at 5 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

“Any fresh border created where none had been before will inevitably have consequences for both sides, in this case West and East Germany,” says Eckert, who grew up near the Iron Curtain in the Federal Republic (West German) town of Bad Bevensen, about 55 miles south of Hamburg. “The customary focus on the border’s impact on East Germany overlooks how the countries on the western side leveraged Cold War discourse for material advantages.”

The border, to be sure, caused tangible harm to local economies on each side. Companies lost their customers and their suppliers, utility networks collapsed and schools and workplaces were suddenly beyond reach.

In the East, the socialist leadership also razed villages deemed too close to the border. The government deported people further inland if they were considered politically unreliable, seizing their farms and land with impunity.

By contrast, the cities and counties in the West presented the border as the root cause of their economic struggles. The federal government responded with direct subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts – all meant to create affluent communities right on the border and demonstrate the superiority of capitalism over socialism.

“The political economy in the West German borderlands followed the same logic as in West Berlin,” Eckert says. “These regions were turned into the ‘display window’ of the West.”

The creation of the zigzagging border also had unintended consequences for the natural environment. The border fortifications that degraded the landscape also created a mostly human-free corridor that became a haven for some animals, especially birds.

Conservationists have worked since reunification in 1990 to turn the former Iron Curtain into the German Green Belt. The narrow swath of land runs from the Baltic Sea to the mountains of Bavaria, and, on the European level, from Finland to the Adriatic Sea. Many now celebrate that Green Belt as an almost miraculous transformation – the “death strip” turned into a lifeline.

Eckert questions this redemption narrative. Where birds found undisturbed nesting sites, mammals were blown up by land mines. The borderlands were also sites of intense diplomatic wrangling over transboundary pollution. Border rivers carried toxic wastes from the GDR into West Germany. Especially during the 1980s, pollution in the GDR reached alarming levels, allowing West German industries in the border regions to conveniently duck under the widely shared assumption that pollution only swept in from the East.

That’s why Eckert argues that it is “bad history” to view the former border as an inadvertent monument to nature. Such rhetoric ignores damage done on both sides – including western pollution that helped plunge waterways into ecological crisis and the legacy of the rampant deaths of deer, foxes and other mammals who tripped land mines in the region.

She hopes her book will convince scholars, policy makers and environmentalists to incorporate this contradictory history in the story of the region, showing how issues on both sides of the border shaped the Green Belt that exists there today.

“Without the Cold War rhetoric, you can finally come to a more sober assessment of the environmental record of capitalism and socialism,” Eckert says.

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