Florea on Eckert, 'West Germany and the Iron Curtain: Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands'

Astrid M. Eckert
Cristina Florea

Astrid M. Eckert. West Germany and the Iron Curtain: Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 445 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-069005-2.

Reviewed by Cristina Florea (Cornell University) Published on H-Borderlands (September, 2021) Commissioned by María de los Ángeles Picone (Boston College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54717

In his famous Fulton, Missouri, speech from March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill announced that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Warsaw, Prague, Belgrade, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, and Berlin, he argued, now lay in “what I must call the Soviet sphere.”[1] In August 1961, a wall was built to separate the small enclave of West Berlin from the territory of the newly emerged republic of East Germany which surrounded it from every side. The wall went down in 1989, just as suddenly as it had come up, becoming an iconic symbol of the Iron Curtain and Cold War in Europe. And yet, as Astrid M. Eckert shows in West Germany and the Iron Curtain, the wall was hardly representative of what the Iron Curtain looked and felt like for most Germans.

Two distinct German states emerged on each side of the Iron Curtain: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West. The border between them looked nothing like the wall of reinforced concrete and barbed wire that the Berlin Wall brings to mind. It ran through countryside, across fields and meadows, through mountains and forests. In its early stages, it was almost invisible, leading some residents of the FRG to occasionally wander into East German territory by accident. Though less known and arguably less dramatic than the Berlin Wall, this Cold War border was no less significant. Eckert’s book tells the story of the Iron Curtain’s West German borderlands, the so-called Zonenrandgebiete, in seven chapters which examine the border-making process from several different angles: economic, cultural, and environmental.

Making up almost one-fifth of the FRG’s total surface, the Zonenrandgebiete were a creation of the Cold War. The new border separating the FRG from the GDR cut across what had been Germany’s heartlands, turning this region from center into periphery. But even with the Iron Curtain in place, the West German borderlands were not a coherent entity until residents of districts adjacent to the German-German frontier created the notion of Zonenrandgebiete, a veritable “brand name,” as the author calls it. Unsurprisingly, inhabitants of this region—now turned borderland—were in many ways disadvantaged by their proximity to the Iron Curtain. As the author explains, many cities that now found themselves in the Iron Curtain’s shadow suffered economically. Industries lost access to key resources and communities lost labor force as employment opportunities shifted further west. The Zonenrandgebiete were in some respect victimized and underdeveloped.

But, as Eckert shows, in calling their home region “the poorhouse of the otherwise prospering Federal Republic,” residents of the Zonenrandgebiete were doing more than just stating a matter of fact (p. 13). They were putting forward a particular argument about their position as the FRG’s easternmost periphery using Cold War language, a language they believed state authorities would understand. By casting themselves as denizens of an impoverished periphery, residents of the Zonenrandgebiete achieved their goals of directing federal aid packages to the region, to compensate for the economic disadvantages the new frontier had allegedly caused these territories. An unintended consequence of their advocacy was, paradoxically, that they ended up reinforcing the inter-German frontier in ways far more powerful and lasting than state officials—whether East or West German—ever could at this stage.

West German tourists, as we find out in chapters 3 and 4, also did their fair share to consolidate the border and stabilize the “political and territorial status quo” well before officials on the East German side began instituting control measures (p. 122). Both residents of the West German borderlands and tourists were allured by the frontier’s dangers and the prospect of seeing what lay “on the other side.” Gruseltourismus (scary tourism) to the dangerous inter-German border was also encouraged by the West German authorities as a form of political education aimed at reinforcing West German citizens’ allegiance to their state. In reality, pilgrimages to the border had unexpected effects. Tourists, Eckert shows, found the reality of the inter-German frontier rather unspectacular and compensated for its monotony by doing reckless things. Often they got themselves arrested and shot while wandering into East German territory. To prevent such accidents, FRG authorities in turn sought to make the border more visible: “western police, customs officials, and British and American troops ... stepped up border controls and erected barriers” (p. 20). Well before their East German counterparts began tightening security at the border, the West German authorities thus took measures to make the border real.

Eckert further shows how citizens of the FRG took advantage of their newly gained frontier position to draw attention and resources to their region. The overall effect of their strategy was to fix the Zonenrandgebiete in the German imagination as an economically disadvantaged and underdeveloped periphery. The periphery, Eckert suggests, emerged not simply as a result of geopolitical processes but as a result of local engagement with the state and its international context.

In the last and most original portion of the book, the author takes readers by surprise yet again by bringing another perspective to the Cold War border—this time, a non-human one. Though highly effective, the border could not divide the environment. Birds went on flying across the inter-German border, rivers continued to flow, the wind kept on blowing through barbed wires and over watch towers. Much to the West German government’s despair, the border failed to keep out all the polluted air and water—the smoke and brine—that flowed out of the GDR as its industry began breaking down in the 1980s. These environmental flows had unexpected consequences for East-West German relations, forcing representatives of the two states to come to the negotiation table and find common ground in dealing with the environmental crisis that affected both of them equally.

That politics and the environment became increasingly intertwined in Cold War Europe becomes even clearer later in the chapter, when Eckert shows how the Cold War border that separated the two Germanys forged a new kind of landscape that would later inspire political protest. Deadly to people, the border became a paradise for birds and animals that were increasingly pushed out of highly industrialized and populated areas. This gave the Zonenrandgebiete the appearance of a “bucolic Germany” untainted by industrialization, which attracted agrarian-leftist tourists who turned the region into a site of protest against environmentally irresponsible politics.

Eckert’s book does not deliver what many of us expect from yet another book on borderlands: a literature that, as she herself notes, is overwhelmingly concerned with “fluidity, cross-border movement, and exchange.” The story we find in these pages is therefore not one of “lively contact zones and culturally hybrid spaces that animate much of borderland scholarship” (p. 5). Eckert brings a fresh approach to the study of borders and borderlands by showing that, even though Cold War frontiers were human creations, products of ideological competition and conflict, they were no less real. In this book, she sets out to show how an artificial border became increasingly real and dangerous over time not solely as a result of geopolitical shifts and decision-making by leading state officials but also through interactions between ordinary individuals and representatives of the state. Her book achieves this by elegantly weaving together analysis of domestic and international politics, everyday life, environmental policy, and others.

More generally, the book tells a story not simply about how borderlands influence centers but also about how states—in this case, newly invented entities that could not rely on traditional sources of authority—found their ideological justification in the borderlands. The FRG, for example, is shown to be as invested in the borderlands as the Zonenrandgebiete were in forging ties of patronage and protection with the state. Eckert does an especially good job of showing how relevant the experience of peripherality was for people living close to the border, who, as she argues, typically advanced their economic interests by creating an image problem for themselves. This is one of the book’s freshest contributions to a literature that too often stops at deconstructing the binary notions of center-periphery without ever taking the concept of peripherality—whether imagined or lived—seriously. As the author notes, the periphery is not simply a place but also a lens.

Lastly, West Germany and the Iron Curtain brings a fascinating perspective to the flourishing literature on Cold War history, which has been recently concerned with dismantling Cold War myths and reimagining the Cold War period from a multifaceted perspective. Unlike most scholarship in this vein, which explores the conflict’s global ramifications, this book examines a place situated at the very heart of Europe: the German-German border. Echoing larger trends in recent scholarship on the Cold War, Eckert’s book also highlights convergence across political and ideological barriers, noting, for instance, how despite the very different images they sought to build for themselves, both the FRG and GDR approached the environment instrumentally, as a “bargaining chip” (p. 126). That the FRG was instrumental seems somewhat unsurprising. Moreover, the differences between the two states should perhaps not be underestimated for at the end of the day, ideologies had real consequences. As Eckert herself admits, if the transboundary conservation project that both states contemplated in the 1980s failed in the end, this was largely because the GDR—a socialist state—remained more committed to exploiting resources than conservation.


[1]. Winston Churchill, “Sinews of Peace, 1946,” America’s National Churchill Museum, https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/sinews-of-peace-iron-curtain-speech.html.

Citation: Cristina Florea. Review of Eckert, Astrid M., West Germany and the Iron Curtain: Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54717

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