Behind the Iron Curtain

By Nina Melka

“When I was your age”. This is probably the most often used phrase by parents when giving a lecture. We all know that our parents grew up in a different generation, but could the world have been that much of a different place only a few decades ago? For the millions of Europeans that grew up behind the iron curtain, it was.  

Let me paint the full picture. When the second world war was coming to an end, the four main allies divided Germany into four sections to be governed by together. Although the country was supposed to be governed jointly, the mutual dislike between the capitalist west and the communist east grew stronger until the sides had to agree to separate Germany into two new states in 1945. The soviet expansion then continued. Slowly, the USSR spread their power like a disease throughout eastern and central Europe. Bulgaria’s monarchy was overthrown and a new communist government was elected, while in Romania a communist coalition won the elections. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the communist government was established by force. In Poland, the communist opposition was brought to Moscow and arrested, in Hungary a communist politician used the secret police to execute the opponents standing in his path and in Czechoslovakia, only the communist party was allowed to be enrolled in the elections, guaranteeing it a win. The iron curtain was introduced; a physical and ideological barrier that would separate Europe and the world for the next four decades. 

Unless you personally lived behind the iron curtain, it would be hard to imagine living behind it. Isolated from the west, the countries behind the iron curtain were perfect for promoting soviet propaganda. For these reasons media became widely censored and controlled by the government. This included radio, television and newspapers. In the case of television channels, there were only a few national channels that streamed during working hours only. There was always a possibility that if you’d turn on the television, you’d only have a black and white static display visible. There were no real laws banning any specific activities that we would consider normal today. The police were only encouraged to stop any “hooligan” behaviour. However, under this very general statement fell a wide range of activities. Having your hair grown out as a boy or dressing in a punk rock style was viewed as rebellious and you could face consequences like getting your hair shaved or getting arrested. At first jeans were also not only unavailable but also avoided because they were a symbol of western culture. Only a few movies, songs and books from the other side of the iron curtain made their way through. Something that was also different behind the iron curtain was that almost everyone had a job. Unemployment was close to zero, but you couldn’t freely choose your occupation unless you supported the system, or corrupted it. In general, this complete and extensive government intervention caused a lack of motivation in the people as well as a lack of competition in the market. In my opinion though, the worst part was how the regime broke the society. The government encouraged neighbours, coworkers and friends to report each other until eventually you couldn’t even be sure that you could trust your own family. People grew colder and more closed, and the air around them grew denser with paranoia, jealousy and hopelessness. 

When presented with these aspects of daily life of people who grew up behind the iron curtain, I’m not surprised so many people wanted to leave their country. Can you blame them? You, perhaps not. But the governments did. Leaving the country was in many cases considered treason. Crossing the border to other countries in the eastern bloc was problematic. Crossing the iron curtain itself was practically impossible. It could still be done, but with many limitations and procedures. There were numerous authorizations from the government necessary. Some currencies like the Czechoslovak crown weren’t exchanged in the open market so you wouldn’t be able to buy anything abroad. Everything that you were taking with you had to be documented and checked. Even if you got through all of that, there was still a possibility that you would just be declined exit from the country. All the countries in the eastern bloc had actual physical borders that were protected. Except one. Although East and west Germany acted as separate states, there was no real border between them. People could just walk to the other side. And that’s exactly what they did. For almost 12 years approximately 3.5 million East Germans left the country. This accounted for approximately 20 percent of GDR’s population at the time. Afraid that East Germany was facing a brain drain and paranoid that western ideas and spies would find it easy to make their way into their territory, Krushnev ordered the building of the famous Berlin Wall. It was in the early hours of August 13, 1961, that the first barriers that would come to form the Berlin Wall were placed.  

According to some studies, most people who lived in the USSR actually enjoyed the communist regime. Whether this data was genuine or influenced by the propaganda and brainwashing of the USSR’s citizens, is still up for debate. Either way, there’s no doubt that some people were perfectly fine with having a simple life where their government took care of all their issues. Because although this political regime took away the freedom its people had, it also took away their responsibilities and choices. And there’s always a certain amount of people that benefit from a specific regime. But most people living under soviet occupation viewed their situation as more of a live action remake of a dystopian science fiction novel. All you need to do is take a look at all the protests that took place across the eastern bloc. There were the protests of East Germans in June 1953. Then in 1956, Hungary attempted to overthrow its government. Communist statues were destroyed, and chaos arose. At the time it seemed like Hungary was actually close to achieving freedom when the Soviet Union took things into their own hands. Over 3000 people died during the protest suppressions of Hungary.  In Czechoslovakia new reforms were introduced in 1968, where media censorship was decreased, other political parties were legislated, the economy became more capitalist, and the intervention of the secret police was decreased. The USSR did not take this information with as much excitement as Czechoslovakia’s citizens, however. On August 21, 1968, half a million soldiers from the Warsaw pact surrounded the country and many stayed to monitor it for the next few decades. In Poland, a Solidarity strike marked the biggest protest in not only Polish history but the history of the Warsaw Pact itself. Over 12 million Poles gathered to protest against police brutality and violence. In each of these nations, the USSR used force to ensure their stable power. With every additional protest, strike and attempted revolution the power and control of the USSR weakened while the voice and hope of the crowds strengthened. 

And then came one big accident which marked the beginning of the end. In response to the spreading and intensifying protests of East Germans, the government of the German Democratic Republic held a live press conference where Günter Schabowski announced that the regulations on the movement between East Germany and West Germany would be. In fact, he stated that Germans wouldn’t require any paperwork or documentation to leave the GDR. This information, however, was false. In reality, Schabowski was running late to the conference and was only reading a scripted document as a base for his improvised speech on national television. The GDR had no plans in opening the borders. Especially not completely and immediately. But there was no turning back; the damage was done. I guess that’s one bad thing about only having one television channel available; everyone’s watching because they’ve got no other option. In this case, all of Berlin was watching attentively. Before Schabowski even had time to fix his mistake, thousands of Germans were gathering at the wall. The patrol guards, who were known for shooting at anyone attempting to cross the border, were now standing powerless and dumbfounded against the massive crowds of Germans regrouping, celebrating and crossing the once feared brick wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall was broadcast all over the world and within two years of it being torn down, every single country in the eastern bloc gained its own independence as well. I’m guessing this was probably not the soviet union’s idea of a “proletariat revolution”. Well, the USSR had a hard time coping without its satellite states and faced bankruptcy. The Soviet Union finally fell apart in 1991. 

It’s been over thirty years since the iron curtain fell. What remains of it now is only a chapter in your history book and some surviving memories and accounts like those of my parents. Today, all of the countries in the eastern bloc apart from Albania, are part of the European Union. For a vast number of Europeans this gives them a voice and a choice that they didn’t have a few decades ago. Still, every regime has its own insufficiencies. I didn’t write this article to tell you that living behind the iron curtain was a nightmare. Because that’s the thing with freedom: you get to have your own opinion.