Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

Tuesday, January 24, 2012
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
CISAC Conference Room

This talk presents an unconventional look at the creation of a deadly barrier between East and West Germany.  It reveals how the Iron Curtain was not simply imposed by communism, but had been emerging haphazardly in both East and West long before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.  From the end of the Third Reich, ad hoc enforcement of the tenuous border between the two Germanys led to the creation of difference where there was no difference, institutionalization of violence among neighbors, popular participation in a system that was deeply unpopular--and people normalizing a monstrosity in their midst.

Edith Sheffer is assistant professor of Modern European History at Stanford. Edith Sheffer came to Stanford as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities in 2008 and joined the History Department faculty in 2010.  She recently completed Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain, and was the winner of the 2011 Fraenkel Prize, awarded by the Wiener Library Institute of Contemporary History, London. 

Co-sponsored by The Europe Center (TEC), the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), the Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREEES) and the Department of German Studies


Event Summary

Professor Sheffer's presentation includes a social history of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. She examines the process by which culturally homogenous populations internalized ideas of difference, and erected arbitrary physical and mental borders accordingly. She argues that the Iron Curtain was a "wall of the mind" reinforced not only by Communist authorities but by the everyday actions of ordinary Germans. 

Professor Sheffer first outlines her recent book, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain. Drawing on archives, news stories, and personal interviews with people from East and West Germany, she argues that the Berlin Wall was simply a visible manifestation of an existing rift within the country that had been building for 16 years.  She examines the process of institutionalization of difference, by which people living in a once-cohesive community with no stark religious or cultural differences began to view those on the opposite side of an arbitrary border as "other." Professor Sheffer offers several explanations for why Germans largely accepted the divide, including the gradual internalization by individual citizens, on both sides of the wall, of what Sheffer describes as "the living wall" and a "wall in the head formed by a wall on the ground."  The fact that the wall was a structural response to a social set of conflicts can explain why it both went up and came down so quickly, as the result of many small steps and individual actions.