Johnson on Schaefer, 'States of Division: Border and Boundary Formation in Cold War Rural Germany'

Sagi Schaefer
Jason Johnson

Sagi Schaefer. States of Division: Border and Boundary Formation in Cold War Rural Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 288 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-967238-7.

Reviewed by Jason Johnson (Trinity University)
Published on H-German (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeremy DeWaal

Sagi Schaefer’s book centers on the Cold War inner-German border through the Eichsfeld region, a rural Catholic enclave in central Germany. His work continues the important historiographical thread of moving beyond Berlin to investigate events and processes of German division that have been, as Schaefer has written elsewhere, “hidden behind the Wall.”[1] Scholarly analysis of the rural border dividing Germany, stretching more than eight hundred miles, has until recent years been largely overshadowed by the division of Berlin.

Anthropologist Daphne Berdahl’s pioneering work Where the World Ended (1999) on the thousand-person East German border community Kella helped spark more scholarly interest in the frontier. Edith Sheffer’s brilliant Bridge Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (2011) looked at the adjacent cross-border towns of Sonneberg in Thuringia and Neustadt bei Coburg in Bavaria, convincingly demonstrating in particular the importance of local agency in the creation of the Iron Curtain. Schaefer now brings a focus on the rural.

Schaefer’s five chapters thus “foreground the rural character of the borderlands …. roughly reflecting the experience of farmers” (p. 11). The first chapter focuses on the early years of division—1945-52—as occupation zonal frontiers crystallized into the 1949 border between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Schaefer persuasively illustrates that in the Eichsfeld, “Western economic reconstruction was the most powerful motor of division in those years” (pp. 15-16). Chapter 2 then turns to the watershed year 1952 when the GDR removed thousands from its borderland and began to seal its frontier. Schaefer cleverly focuses on land use and property ownership across the following year, exhibiting that frontier farmers “acted in their own interests, attempting to harness policies designed in Bonn and East Berlin to locally relevant ends” (p. 61). The third chapter eloquently shows that across the following years of the 1950s, the Federal Republic’s claim of exclusive representation of the German nation and its refusal to recognize the GDR paradoxically “contributed to buttressing and enhancing the process of division”: as options for cross-border cooperation waned, frontier farmers and administrators “were forced to adopt solution and practices…[of] ‘their own,’ that is, their separate states,” leading to increasing distance between those on each side of the border (p. 92).  

Schaefer’s fourth section traces struggles between frontier farmers and administrators on both sides of the border during the 1950s: in the East, such confrontations were over the state-led agricultural collectivization drive which ended in forced collectivization in 1960 while in the West they centered on farmers’ claims for compensation for land lost in the GDR due to the sealing of the border. Schaefer shows that during these years—which he insightfully categorizes as “a decade of conflict”—“frontier farmers learned to orient themselves toward the legal and institutional frameworks created by state organizations” (p. 119). This then helped cement division. Schaefer describes the following time frame of 1961-70 as “a decade of compromise” as farmers and state agencies on both sides of the border developed such arrangements, ones made possible in particular due to “economic stabilization and grown on both sides of the border; the diminishing role of agriculture; and an at least de facto acceptance of the finality of the border” (p. 119). States of Division’s final chapter focuses on the December 1972 Grundvertrag or Basic Treaty, which brought mutual recognition between the two German states, and the effects of West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s larger policy of Ostpolitik to normalize relations with the GDR. Schaefer illustrates that “Brandt’s strategy worked in unexpected ways to solidify the border in the short term and to undermine it in the long” (p. 158). In particular, the author’s findings on the consequences of the Basic Treaty in regard to GDR border fortification in the 1970s are striking: he shows that “international recognition, and especially West German commitment to respect GDR sovereignty along the border, enabled East German state agencies to extend border fortifications systematically and to guard the border more effectively than ever before” (p. 177).

Overall, Schaefer skilfully demonstrates “the protracted process of border formation and the division of Germany” (p. 23) and that “in this process, East and West Germany, indeed The East and The West, were produced and reproduced in the German borderlands” (p. 2). His detailed analysis adeptly showcases the often unexpected—sometimes even counterintuitive—effects of state policy at the physical margins. At the larger level, Schaefer’s work usefully and persuasively creates “a new balance in the question of agency” along the Iron Curtain: “local agency was important in shaping life along the border and meanings attached to the border over time, but only within the limits imposed by state organizations” (p. 7). Though clearer signposting would have at times been helpful for the reader, Schaefer’s work is a rigorous, well-conceived, thoughtful, and convincing historical analysis based on impressive extensive archival work done at eighteen repositories. This book will be especially useful for scholars of postwar German history, the Cold War, or border studies.

Schaefer’s excellent study is a sign of the increasing scholarly attention to the Iron Curtain. Indeed, more recently Yuliya Komska expanded the geographic scope with a superb investigation of the Cold War frontier between Bohemia and Bavaria in her The Icon Curtain: The Cold War's Quiet Border (2015). Hopefully scholars will continue to move beyond divided Berlin to give us an even more comprehensive knowledge of the Iron Curtain across Europe. In a contemporary climate laden with talk of fences and walls, reminders of the consequences of divisions past are all the more needed.


[1]. Sagi Schaefer, “Hidden Behind the Wall: West German State Building and the Emergence of the Iron Curtain,” Central European History 44 (2011): 506-535.


Printable Version:

Citation: Jason Johnson. Review of Schaefer, Sagi, States of Division: Border and Boundary Formation in Cold War Rural Germany. H-German, H-Net Reviews. December, 2016.

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