The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marks the most important event in recent German history. The succeeding reunification of Germany not only reshaped the political, sociological and cultural landscape of Europe, but served as one of the milestones which paved the road to end the Cold War. Because of the consequences on a truly global scale and the permanence of change both the construction and the deconstruction of the Iron Curtain have caused, much less thought is given to the more local circumstances: the people who lived in constant threat of nuclear warfare only a few kilometers apart from each other, yet on the sides of two vastly different political systems, separated by a physical and psychological wall.
Wall of the Mind
Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain by Edith Sheffer, who is an Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Stanford, takes a closer look at the “Wall of the Mind” prior and after the construction of the physical barrier. Sheffer’s research focuses on the sister cities of Neustadt bei Coburg and Sonneberg, two cities very similar in social structure and much else, yet separated by a border after World War 2. The former fell to the West, into the military zone occupied by the United States, the latter to the East, into the Soviet sector. The author argues that it was already in the immediate post-war period, before the wall was even built in 1961, that a growing sense of alienation between easterners and westerners began to emerge. What used to be a homogenous community was slowly driven apart by images of “the other”, enhanced by propaganda and selective media communication.
Growing East-West tensions
“Very early on, people’s opinions of what east and west meant were already forming,” says Sheffer. “In as early as a year, people were beginning to see each other as either easterners or westerners.” As the years went on, local governments in the west began taking action to stem the exodus of easterners to border towns like Neustadt bei Coburg, while such migration bred resentment in the east. One woman, Sheffer recalls, found herself begging in the streets of Neustadt after being turned away from work opportunities because her father, a glass maker, had been wooed over to the west where there was greater demand and compensation for his services. Such acts of discrimination were not tolerated and marked entire families as effective traitors.
It is important to understand the far-reaching human impact of ideological policies and political decisions in general. The book presents an interesting case study which shows just that and gives a more vivid picture of what East-West tensions looked like.
There is an additional interview with the Edith Sheffer about her research:
Book details and more information
The book was published by the Oxford University Press in September 2011. 384 pages. ISBN: 0199737045.
For more information visit http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/burnedbridge
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