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What does Iron Curtain mean, and who popularised the term?

The political and ideological division between the Soviet Union and the West after WW2 split Europe in two

Photo of fence and barbed wire
Published: February 28, 2022 at 12:45 pm
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The barrier between the Soviet Union and the West after WW2 was the ‘Iron Curtain’, with the Communists on one side and the capitalist democracies on the other.

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The term referred to both the physical blockade that ran for thousands of miles across Europe – including the intimidating Berlin Wall – and the ideological barrier.

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Russian civil war, 1919

The term was used long before the Cold War. Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of Belgium, used the term to describe the political division between Belgium and Germany in 1914, and several authors employed the phrase throughout the early 20th century. Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels, was concerned about an iron curtain falling if Germany lost the war.

Which statesman popularised the term 'Iron Curtain' in a 1946 speech?

The term only became common parlance after a speech on 5 March 1946 by former British Prime Minster Winston Churchill.

Churchill had been invited to speak at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, by President Harry Truman. In his speech, he condemned the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.”

An iron curtain is drawn upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind.
Winston Churchill

It is unknown where Churchill picked up the phrase. He used it before the speech in telegrams and letters to Truman, including the ominous words in May 1945: “An iron curtain is drawn upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind.”

Russian premier Joseph Stalin described the speech as “war mongering”, but the Iron Curtain became an important definition in Cold War politics for the next 45 years.

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This content first appeared in BBC History Revealed

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