Edith Sheffer, "Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain" (Oxford UP, 2011)


If Edith Sheffer's excellent Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (Oxford UP, 2011) has a single lesson, it's that dividing a country is not as easy as you might think. You don't just draw a line and tell people that it's now the "border," for in order for borders to be borders, they have to be seen as such. Sheffer shows that for quite a number of years after 1945, the Germans in Neustadt and Sonneberg--closely situated towns in, respectively, the American and Soviet zones of occupation--didn't really know whether the border was a border and, if so, what kind of border it was or should be. "It"--whatever it was--was shifting, lawless, contested, resented, profitable, and sometimes deadly. The Grenze at Burned Bridge was really a kind of anarchical region dividing people who were in no way different from one another but who were compelled to behave as if they were by two occupying powers. The degree to which they were so compelled differed and this made all the difference in the end (the end being 1990, the year of reunification). Years of Nazi propaganda had taught Germans to fear Communist Russians. So when the Soviets arrived in Sonneberg and began to rape and pillage, their fears were realized and they fled. When Soviets (with the help of East German Communists) imposed Stalinism and all that went with it, their fears were doubled and they fled. And when Soviet order reduced once prosperous Sonneberg to a mere economic shadow of Wirtschaftwunder-era Neustadt, their fears were tripled and they fled. For the Soviets and their East German toadies, this "defection" was embarrassing, so they made what was an ill-defined, porous border zone into a militarized, nearly sealed wall. For anyone familiar with Soviet border policy in the 1930s, what they did in Germany is not surprising. What is surprising (at least to me) is the Americans' and Neustadters' response to the influx of Easterners, namely, something between ambivalence and hostility. The former wanted order on the border and the latter wanted security from the Eastern "mob." Both took active measures to keep the Ossis out, all the while issuing pronouncements about the necessity of Wiedervereinigung. The Soviets are responsible for the division of Germany, but, as Edith shows, they had help.

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Marshall Poe

Marshall Poe is the founder and editor of the New Books Network. He can be reached at marshallpoe@newbooksnetwork.com.

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