How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

On December 7th, Edith Sheffer, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at IES, gave the lecture, “How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” to thirty attendees in Moses Hall. Her talk investigates the role of perception, where thought meets reality and created something ‘concrete’ in the Iron Curtain. Sheffer began by announcing that the parameters of our thought create the parameters of our actions. She asserted that the role of government, politics, and armies are all extremely important, but the everyday, routine actions of individuals cannot be understated in their self-creation of the “other” in both East and West Germany. Sheffer argued that although the wall that divided East and West Germany seemed to be imposed by communism, it had very real, human underpinnings, what she called the ‘wall of the mind’. Sheffer stated that the number of crossings of the wall was vastly underrepresented, and people conceptualized it as impenetrable, when in fact it was oddly porous. People that lived along the border had inside, local knowledge, that allowed them to cross. Many young boys and men even made a sport of crossing, just for fun. Sheffer showed that local subversion of the wall meant that its perceived strength depended on the minds of East and West German citizens, rather than the strength of the literal border. Geopolitics is lived and supported by local individuals. Sheffer concluded that Germany’s story can show us today the danger of perceptual walls, and that this story has very real similarities between the conditions that exist today. The Q&A portion was very engaging and many questions were posed to Sheffer from the large audience. One attendee asked how local stories were documented in the border towns. Another asked how the situation compared to the reality of the division between North and South Korea. And another asked whether ‘walls of the mind’ or regional hostilities existed even before the Cold War, which Sheffer concluded that most likely did, just not on this large of a scale.

You can watch the presentation here.