Skip to main content

Torn Curtain

May 2024
2min read


From the time of Pearl Harbor we were told that Soviet Russia was our friendly ally against Nazi Germany. By the time the war ended it was becoming apparent that the Soviet Union was not behaving as an ally at all. Winston Churchill gave a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, in which he introduced the term iron curtain to describe the line behind which Stalin was holding Eastern Europe hostage. The term iron curtain is considered by most to be an original product of Churchill’s oratorical genius. It took me forty-five years to discover that I was in personal possession of evidence to the contrary.

When the German army was defeated in May 1945, the U.S. Army found itself in control of territory that was to be turned over to the Soviets as part of the controversial agreement with Stalin at Yalta. That included the city of Leipzig, which was to become part of East Germany, and for fortyfive years thereafter Leipzig was forced to lie behind what was to become known as the Iron Curtain. When we took Leipzig, weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender, I found myself assigned with about a dozen other young artillery officers to the temporary military-government detachment that was to govern the city until the Soviets officially took over in July 1945.

The term iron curtain is widely thought to be an original product of Churchill’s oratorical genius. I realized I had proof to the contrary.

It was not long before news of Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other horror camps was blanketing the world. Now every German was told that there was explaining to do. The law faculty of Leipzig University felt compelled to submit a paper to the military government defending the university faculty for having remained at their posts during the Nazi regime. We were amused that the distinguished professors considered us appropriate to receive their plaintive effort. We were only a minor appendage of the great machine that was the U.S. Army.

When the time came to turn Leipzig over to the Soviet army, there was no ceremony; we just left. We of the military-government detachment all had accumulated a large stock of combat points since Normandy and were eligible for quick return to the States. Records were scattered about, and somehow I was left with the Leipzig University law faculty’s paper. I put the paper with my gear and promptly forgot about it in the bustle of the times.

In 1990 Leipzig figured prominently in the news about German reunification. I was recently impelled to search the attic for my old footlocker with its war memorabilia. There I found the law faculty’s paper and read it thoroughly for the first time.

The paper, now yellowed and fragile with age, runs thirty pages, a laboriously typed compendium of defensive legalisms. But one phrase stands out as the writer’s attempt to justify German ignorance of the holocaust in the concentration camps: “In foreign countries one seems quite unable to imagine the density of the iron curtain which was drawn round the concentration camps.” The italics are mine.

Also, in another place: “But the possibility of getting information in the face of such iron curtain was extremely small.”

So now I knew. Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, was not made until almost a year later. This paper was written in June 1945. The expression iron curtain was in common use in Europe by then. Recently I decided to research the use of the term and discovered that Joseph Goebbels himself used the term in February 1945, and in fact, it goes back at least to 1914, when the German-born Queen Elisabeth of Belgium said that between the land of her birth “and me there is now a bloody iron curtain which has descended forever!”

It is satisfying to know that the iron curtain is finally drawn aside. When will we need to use the term again?

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate