In what ways did the Iron Curtain impact the political and economic geography of Europe between 1945 and today?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Iron Curtain greatly impacted the geographic, political, and economic landscape of Europe starting in 1945 and extending to the modern day. For one, the Iron Curtain physically separated people from one another, often within their own countries. This had a devastating effect on families and the economies of Eastern...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Iron Curtain greatly impacted the geographic, political, and economic landscape of Europe starting in 1945 and extending to the modern day. For one, the Iron Curtain physically separated people from one another, often within their own countries. This had a devastating effect on families and the economies of Eastern Europe. These negative effects have extended into the modern day for many former Eastern Bloc nations (like Ukraine and Romania), while others have rebounded quite well. Secondly, as the Soviet Union crumbled under Gorbachev, the revolutions of 1989 sprang up, causing demands for democracy and tidal waves of courageous defiance across Eastern Europe. These political revolutions—and the new governments put into place as a result—have continued to influence global current events.

As the previous answer noted, the Iron Curtain (a term coined by Winston Churchill in a famous speech) was a nonphysical boundary dividing Europe into two portions—the capitalist West and the communist East. One of the most devastating socioeconomic and geographic effects of the Iron Curtain was the way in which it physically separated people from one another. The Iron Curtain was a 7,000-kilometer long barrier composed of an intricate network of fences, watchtowers, and minefields that were meant to keep people from leaving the communist East. The Berlin Wall was a physical part of this barrier, and as many Berliners noted when the wall finally fell, it seemed to sprout up overnight, leaving people trapped on one side or another. Many people were separated from their loved ones for decades.

The Wall, referred to by many as the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart," prevented East Berliners from escaping the grips of communism between 1961 and 1989. When the wall went up in 1961, there were many reports of people being so desperate to get to the West that they jumped out of high-rise buildings, plummeting to their deaths. During this period, 100,000 people tried to escape, and only half of those succeeded. Not only were families separated, the economies of countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered.

Countries within the Eastern Bloc were effectively separated from Western markets by the Iron Curtain. The command economy of the Soviet Union meant that the government decided what was produced and for whom it was produced, creating an environment devoid of market competition. Western goods were strictly banned (Western-style blue jeans, like Levi's, were hot contraband). Data from 1970–1988 show that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had a lower GDP than East Asia, Latin America, Western Europe, and North America. Tracking former Soviet nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 shows that, while many economies were able to rebound from the economic devastation of the Soviet era, many have continued to stagnate. For example, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland have seen large increases in GDP since 1990, while Ukraine's GDP has only increased slightly. Overall, though, "Emerging Europe"—classified as formerly Soviet nations—grew twice as fast as the economies of Western Europe from 2000–2008.

Secondly, the loss of control by the Soviet Union led to the revolutions of 1989, the results of which have reverberated into the modern day. This period, also known as the Fall of Nations, saw one country after another undergo political revolution in order to shed communist puppet governments and install new systems, many of which were democratic-leaning. The wave of revolutions began in Poland and soon extended into Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. People in these nations showed their distaste for Soviet tyranny by using tactics such as civil disobedience and nonviolent protest to have their voices heard. They staunchly opposed one-party rule.

All of these revolutions were nonviolent but Romania's—where the Communist Regime was overthrown in a bloody anti-Communist uprising. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was sought to ride out anti-Communist uprisings and put down protesters violently. Ceauşescu, at first, ordered the military to shoot protestors, in the style of Deng Xiaoping. They initially agreed, but then turned on him, ushering in a period of violent upheaval. Ceauşescu was eventually put on trial and executed by firing squad. Over one thousand people died (one hundred of which were children) in Romania's revolution. Although the legislature in Romania has since never elected another Romanian Communist Party (or PCR) member, former PCR members have continued to hold important roles in Romanian politics into the modern era. For example, the president elected in 2014, Klaus Iohannis, is a former member of the PCR.

Interestingly, recent polls in Romania show that people who lived through communism think back to Ceauşescu’s regime nostalgically. Experts believe that this amnesia is a result of two factors: restrictions on adequate free speech regarding the country's communist past and a condemnation of Romania's post-communist government system. Romania's political leadership continues to struggle to bring stability and prosperity to the nation. Currently, Romania is one of Europe's poorest countries, with 21 percent of people living below the poverty line.

Overall, the impacts of communism continue to resonate throughout Eastern Europe and will continue to do so for decades.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Iron Curtain separated Europe into two distinct spheres for most of the period from the end of World War II in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The term is derived from a famous speech given by Winston Churchill in 1946. He worried that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent." The idea had been used before, but this speech canonized it.

The division marked out by the Iron Curtain was between the democratic Western European nations and the Communist-controlled Eastern European nations under the influence of the Soviet Union. This schism had long-lasting effects, isolating the Eastern Europeans from Western commercial influence—as a result creating controlled and somewhat stagnant economies. Politically, these Eastern European nations were all satellites of the Soviets and were tied to the Communist cause. Militarily, Eastern Europe joined together collectively as the Warsaw Pact, an organization analogous to NATO in the West.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 a crack formed in the Iron Curtain that eventually led to its end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The long-standing economic and political divides marked out by this schism had left their mark, however, and one can still see aftereffects in Eastern Europe today.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team