Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Last shreds of the Iron Curtain

Anybody over the age of about thirty will be familiar with the idea of the Iron Curtain.

Although used earlier by others, the term “Iron Curtain” was popularized by Winston Churchill in his March, 1946 "Sinews of Peace" speech; explaining that Stalin was no longer an ally - “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…The Communist parties… raised to power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.”

As people gradually came around to Mr. Churchill’s way of thinking the term came into common usage to describe the fortified border between the communist east and capitalist west of Europe and eventually became one of the most potent symbols of the cold war era. Usually it remains just that, a symbol or an idea; an abstraction representing the division between communism and capitalism in Europe, east and west, us and them.

For most people the idea of the Iron Curtain is such an abstraction that it can be quite odd to think about it as an actual physical structure. Something made of concrete, wood, steel and wire. Something put together not just by politicians and lawmakers with maps and red pencils, but also by engineers and carpenters and labourers. Something built by human hands.

Not far from Znojmo in southern Moravia, there’s an actual remnant of the old iron curtain that has been preserved as a memorial. Just a few minutes’ walk from the village of Čížov, the first sign of the old Iron Curtain is a row of heavy concrete barriers, several feet high and pyramid-shaped to stop any motor vehicle that might try to force its way through.

Behind the barriers stretching across the hillside into the distance is a nasty-looking ‘T’-shaped barbed wire fence taller than a man; posts and cross bars all stretched with heavy-gauge barbed wire every three or four inches, and more strands on the diagonal for good measure.

‘Inside’ the fence is a narrow paved track, just wide enough for a jeep and on the other side is a cleared strip of ploughed land. Cleared to allow unobstructed vision for the border guards and ploughed to show up the footprints of anybody who managed somehow to escape their attention. The cleared land is several hundred metres wide which, over rough ground, would be at least sixty seconds’ run even for the best athletes. For anyone who survived that undetected there would still be another four kilometres through thick and heavily patrolled forest, probably in darkness, to the Austrian border.

On a rise along the fence a guard tower waits and watches like a spindly-legged, box-headed predator from a Pink Floyd film clip. When i visited in September, a native vine growing around the fenceposts was turning deep red in the crispness of the early autumn, and like the scarlet poppies on WWI battlefields it was an eloquent reminder of the blood shed by the countless souls who perished in their quest to escape the oppression of the communist regime. Countless because the actual number of shootings has never been revealed.

Some people might visit this place and think “Well, now it’s just a bit of old wire and some concrete, what’s the big deal?’ But anyone who gives themselves the chance might find it quite a thought provoking experience.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to condemn and dismiss communism as an absurd experiment with little chance of success, but a question that’s been nagging me for some time is

“What kind of person would I have become if I’d been born on this side of the Iron Curtain?”

Would I have found life so unbearable that I would attempt an escape to the greener capitalist grass on the other side? Would I have stayed and suffered quietly to spare my family the repercussions of having an émigré son and brother? Or would I have been a believer and protector of the great socialist paradise under construction?

Would I have shed blood at the base of the Iron Curtain? Would it have been my blood or would I have been watching from high in the guard tower, telescopic rifle in hand?

After all this time, I still have no idea.

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