The Icon Curtain: The Cold War's Quiet Border

The Icon Curtain: The Cold War's Quiet Border

by Yuliya Komska


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226154190
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/02/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Yuliya Komska is assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She lives in Plainfield, NH.

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The Icon Curtain

The Cold War's Quiet Border

By Yuliya Komska

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15422-0



Ruins of the Cold War

Destruction on Display

Despite the dense hem of taciturn spruces, beginning in the late 1940s the Czechoslovak–West German border's western side was hardly the picture of a godforsaken wilderness. Roaming along the divided forest's edges were not only the Bavarian Border Police (Bayerische Grenzpolizei, BBP), the US Army, and, to a lesser extent, the Federal Border Police (Bundesgrenzschutz). Every year, hundreds, if not thousands, of Sudeten German civilians went out to reconnoiter the border as well. Thanks to their own observations and to the intelligence received from family or friends who had stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, visiting expellees were able to fathom the scale of the ongoing transformations that were taking place to the border's immediate east. The new face of the other side struck them as nothing if not distorted. The cleared security zone, the expansive military training areas such as the Polletitz/Boletice, the artificial lakes along the Vltava, and the radar stations and watchtowers erected as part of the strategic barrier that was the Iron Curtain, stuck out to them like a sore thumb. These developments affected not only the forest, cut down in places to ensure greater visibility and access, they scarred the lived environment as well—our protagonists' former homes, now dilapidated or razed altogether. Frequently featured in homeland leaflets throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the changes in Bohemia's west provided a plentiful source for depictions of the inexorable breakdown in the cross-border infrastructure as it had once existed. Scores of authors and editors used photography, a medium with a strong claim to veracity, as a means to disseminate the stories to as broad an audience as possible and to enhance their appeal. Yet alarmingly, in this task, the pictures came very close to failing.

The problem was that, at the time, visual tropes of destruction, as the following discussion will make clear, did not belong in the Cold War vocabulary. In both Germanys and abroad, rubble (the physical debris left behind by World War II) and ruins (the aftermath of destruction in general) were firmly entrenched in the public's mind as images that defined the immediate postwar period. The war had cast a "long shadow" and left behind "lasting and persistent aftereffects." Signs of the wreckage were the foremost among these. For Sudeten Germans keen on putting the damage wreaked by the Iron Curtain on display, this circumstance was more than an inconvenience—it was a major roadblock. Removing it came with high stakes: the area's deplorable condition in the East, it was believed, was also the essential precondition for the prayer wall in the West. The icon curtain, it bears reminding, rose to compensate for the definitively lost sites that had existed across the border, so that each resulting replica did its part in demarcating the western rim as the culture's dependable sanctuary. Simply put, without that debris, there could be no prayer wall. And without the prayer wall, the people thought, West Germany's southeastern border lacked its humane flair—a worthy antithesis to the East's cut-and-dried military barrier.

Even more essential to the Sudeten German project than the physical detritus itself was its documentation in the public record. Sudeten German activists understood that the more extensively they could outline the scope of Eastern Bloc destruction, the more effectively they would be able to justify and validate the new continuum of structures and artifacts on the western side. With this in mind, they were determined to downplay the context by which both ruins and rubble were associated with the immediate postwar era, and to connect them instead with the burgeoning new standoff. Detecting, foregrounding, and displaying the ruins of the Cold War—the labor at the heart of this chapter's narrative—proved indispensable for the making of the icon curtain.

No contemporary tackled this prospect more systematically than Ernst Bartl, a prominent activist and publisher from Eger/Cheb. Whereas most of his countrymen were limited to brief reports of current border conditions accompanied by one or two illustrations, Bartl had at his finger tips a vast archive of images from both before and after 1945. He arranged a selection of them in a trilingual volume entitled Egerland einst und jetzt/Egerland Once and Now/Egerland autrefois et à present (1959). As the book's compiler, editor, and publisher, Bartl hoped that the pictures would themselves take care of the storytelling. Yet, in reality, they resisted his project of stylizing the ruins' passage from the post-war era into the Cold War era. Before considering these obstacles in detail, let us unpack the significance of Bartl's entwining of two loaded terms of historical analysis: "postwar" and "Cold War." There is nothing like ruins "to invite us to contemplate [the] layered temporality" of the two eras, and there is nothing like the photographic chronicle of destruction, the genre at stake here, to confound the contours of the two periods. In order to understand the physical beginnings of the icon curtain, we must first apprehend the scope of both the postwar and the Cold War eras, as this will help us understand the importance of their entanglement in Bartl's book. We shall approach them in reverse, beginning with the late 1950s.

Postwar and Cold War

The volatile term "postwar"—an adjective so pervasive that it has become a noun—has enjoyed several decades of considerable notoriety. "Wars end.... But when does the postwar era end?" mused the historian Klaus Naumann in his reflections on that era's uncertain duration. In the German context, academics and public intellectuals have linked the blurred chronological contours of the period to the contentious issues of normalization, reunification, and to various aspects of twentieth-century remembrance. When did the postwar era begin? When did it end? Did it end? What would be the interpretive ramifications of its passing—or, perhaps, its tenacity? Finally, is there a "post-postwar"? The persistence of these questions suggests a repeated deferral of closure. Irreducible to a final phase of, or an epilogue to, a grand conflict, the postwar period remains an open-ended chapter.

The predominance of the term in public discussions and academic writing went unchallenged until the early 1990s. At that point, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, another significant periodic marker—the "Cold War"—unseated "post-war" from its privileged position. Increasing references to the world's most recent large-scale conflict alluded to a chronology that coincided uneasily with that of the postwar period. The already muddled relationship between the two eras was further compounded by the vagueness that now persisted in discussions of the Cold War as well. The periodization of the Cold War remains only indistinctly defined: When did it begin? Did it end? If so, when? Finally, was there a Cold War—or was it no more than "a deceit or fiction, an artificial notion"? A revaluation of the meanings and reciprocal influences of both eras has been long overdue.

Few approaches have manifested this need as pointedly as the "study of keywords," a subset of socio-lexicography that purports to demarcate discrete periods by defining their central concepts. Dieter Felbick, an expert in this field, asks whether the Cold War even merits a place in his collection dedicated to the postwar period. On the one hand, he is hesitant to recognize the relevance of such a "borderline case" to the scope of his study. On the other hand, he cannot but ponder the relational bond between two terms marked by "such a close-knit connection." In the end, Felbick's willingness to deliberate their tie to one another is more important than his tentative inclusion of "Cold War" on his roster of postwar signifiers. Felbick's musings obliquely acknowledge that neither era was a mere episode in a neat chronological sequence. In other words, there may not have been a straightforward path "from war to post-war and from post-war to a Cold War." Taking my cue from Felbick, in this chapter I outline the preamble to the emergence of the prayer wall—destruction in the Eastern Bloc borderlands—and use it to take a step toward a more-refined articulation of the two eras' referential and semantic scopes. What distinguishes them? And conversely, what do they share?

To buck the narrow confines of periodicity, Frank Biess has already proposed that "postwar" is "not only a chronological and thematic unit but also an epistemological tool." This chapter adopts his important suggestion to continue reclaiming both "postwar" and "Cold War" as categories of cultural analysis. Close attention to holdovers has been part of such recovery. Instead of pursuing the postwar era as a mythical "zero hour," Biess and his colleagues, for example, link it to the tenaciousness of the war that it is thought to have bracketed. Postwar societies, they argue, inherited a subtle violent momentum from the war itself. The latter, such a residue implies, was more than a finite prehistory: it co-constituted its own aftermath. "Postwar" and "Cold War" have been entwined just as intensely, and not only because of the memory and fear of the bombing—the "presence of a catastrophic past in the midst of a prosperous present"—has shaped both. Their other entanglements, uncovered here, transpire not only in hindsight: they were obvious already to contemporaries in the first full Cold War decade. At stake is thus not when the two eras unfolded, but rather what they mean—not just how we understand them, but how they understood themselves.

Thus far, their imbrications have been defined ex negativo. In most existing accounts, the postwar era is neither an "incubation period" nor a mere synonym "for a new Cold War order." In this chapter, in contrast, I imagine the intersection of both eras for what it was rather than what it was not by looking at the their convergences on a par with the rifts. Rubble, in this analysis, is a rare point of both convergence and fracture. To see why, let us examine how Bartl's vicarious photographic journey along the Iron Curtain in the first full Cold War decade mobilizes visual legacies of the postwar period for a Cold War agenda.

Where Central Europe's Gilded Age Turns to Dust

The ambition of Bartl's book, to reach out to an international audience conversant in German, English, or French, may seem odd for a volume that came off the press in a provincial publishing house founded by Bartl in Geislingen, a small and heavily expellee-populated town between (West) Germany's Stuttgart and Ulm. Why does the author select, group, and caption more than a decade's worth of images only to position their implied viewer right alongside the Iron Curtain, where most Westerners have never set foot? Moreover, why does he supply town and country scenes observed on the barrier's eastern side, rather than having his public look at or through the divide from the west, as the borderland tourists, prayer-wall architects, and pilgrims described in chapters 2, 3, and 4 would do? Why does he further provincialize his account by circumscribing the volume's geography to just one area, the Egerland/Chebsko, an administrative unit in western Czechoslovakia that bordered on the West German Upper Palatinate and Upper Franconia in the west and East German Saxony in the north? The choice of this ostensibly unknown region is purposeful, as it is obscure in name only. The world, Bartl implies, has heard of the Egerland but has to realize it yet.

The author takes two hundred pages to refresh our memory, even if we scarcely need this much. Home to the internationally acclaimed "spa triangle," the area ought to touch the hearts of all those who are partial to images of Central Europe's gilded age. It was here, as one of Bartl's contemporaries remarked, that "the heart of the Sudetenland [once] opened to the entire world." Bartl mobilizes the triad of the region's best-known resort towns—Carlsbad/Karlovy Vary, Marienbad/Mariánské Lázne, and Franzensbad/Františkovy Lázne—to evoke memories of the Continent's once glamorous leisure culture, its uniquely "spa-like (kurörtlicher) lifestyle," to borrow a phrase from the same colleague and contemporary. Of course, Bartl is interested not in balneology, or mineral water treatments, but rather in the spas' famous literary clientele and their works. He presumes that his audience will know and admire their oeuvres. To think of it, the range of these works is indeed impressive. By 1959, when Bartl's volume was published, paeans to the decelerated pace and charms of these resort towns filled the pages of Goethe, Dostoyevsky, and Sholem Aleichem. Within two years, this gentle universe appeared on cinema screens, courtesy of Alain Resnais. Bartl's own long list of celebrities goes on to include "emperors, kings, other crowned persons, noblemen, heroes of science and tone, secretaries of state, military commanders-in-chief, men of economy ..., in short 'the Great World.'"

Bartl's intention, however, was not merely to sing praises to the Egerland's mark on the Western cultural canon. On the contrary, the ensuing hundred pages of the volume left no doubt that this universe was no more. The gilded age, in Bartl's interpretation, was about to turn to dust. The descent of the Iron Curtain, if one is to believe his narrative, had ousted the glitterati from their comfortable hotel rooms, leaving a patina on the formerly luminous glamor of the promenades and water fountains. Moreover, it had completely erased parts of the Egerland from the face of Earth, rendering the region unrecognizable. "In the heart of Europe," Bartl thunders ominously in his introduction, "at the forefront of the Cold War and no man's land at the Iron Curtain, wilderness came about" (15). Not content with this mere statement, Bartl then sets out to portray the regress of the border's eastern side into nature, which he relates conversely to the expansion of expellee activity on the barrier's western side.

Bartl then uses the latter part of the book to juxtapose "before" and "after" images, as another way to make his point and to draw international attention to the Sudeten German cause—a cause that by then had already found its first expressions in the icon curtain. His photographic chronicle lays bare the conflict that underpins Bartl's entire project: the juxtaposition of the rhetoric of a return to the East and the reality of staying in the West. Both views were pervasive among German expellees, but the reality was that no matter how much they may have pined for their Heimat, in the late 1950s few were serious about going back. At the same time as Bartl urges his ostensibly international readership to condemn the negative consequences of Czechoslovak governance in the former Sudetenland and endorse the return of his compatriots to their homes, he tacitly accepts the Egerland's ruined condition. In the end, the West German prayer wall, with its new sites and sanctuaries, examined in the following chapters, will stand as the region's future ersatz.

En route to such an endorsement, the author highlights the nexus between the area's appearance during the interwar period, its postwar destruction, and its present condition under the Cold War. The book's pictorial narrative unfolds at the cusp between the waning 1950s, when the physical impact of World War II was still remembered vividly, and the early 1960s, when atomic-age fears and Cold War tensions approached a boiling point. Yet the author's iconography of Cold War trepidations, as we will see, has little to do with nuclear angst. Instead, it draws on stock images of the postwar period, although it is never entirely clear whether Bartl's act of borrowing adopts the Cold War lens to commemorate or, on the contrary, to extinguish the postwar rubble. The span of the narrative serves to highlight the fear of erasure, be it of landscapes or of their residents' habitus, as a fundamental feature of both the post-war and Cold War eras. And it is this fear that Bartl harnesses as a call to action. Embracing photography as its principal medium, his book derives its central message—rescuing the Egerland from its rapid decay, even if only by way of Western replicas—from the unstable semantics attached to the photographs of wartime destruction in the wake of World War II. Egerland is thus not an epitaph for the postwar era winding down, but rather it is an affirmation of its continued influence, with no closure in sight.


Excerpted from The Icon Curtain by Yuliya Komska. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Conditions: Ruins of the Cold War
Chapter 2. Cornerstones: Iconoclasm and the Making of the Prayer Wall
Chapter 3. Infrastructure: Civilian Border Travel and Travelogues
Chapter 4. Uses: Visual Nostalgia at the Prayer Wall

Epilogue: Tragic Frames

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