Posts Tagged ‘Iron Curtain’

Brinkmann or Ehrman – the crucial question

Monday, August 24th, 2015

To this day, two men claim to have asked the crucial question that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall: Peter Brinkmann and Riccardo Ehrman. Brinkmann represented the German tabloid, Bild Zeitung; Ehrman worked for the Italian news agency ANSA. In 2008, German President Horst Koehler awarded Ehrman the Federal Cross of Merit for having asked the question that tore down the Iron Curtain. But was it really Ehrman? Brinkmann says he asked the decisive question. 

What happened on 9 November 1989

On that day, Guenter Schabowski, spokesman for the East German Communist Party Politburo, gave a press confererence in East Berlin. It covered many agenda items. The last was the East German travel law. The room was jam-packed with journalists representing domestic and International news services. Television covered the event. Schabowski was supposed to announce a temporary bureaucratic procedure that would make it easier for East Germans to travel abroad. In the face of mass demonstrations, the East German government was trying to appease its people with the new law.

An hour after the press conference had started journalists were given the opportunity to ask questions about the new travel law. Of course, they wanted to know when the law would go into effect and whether it would cover West Berlin. Schabowski looked through his notes and hesitantly replied, “Unverzueglich (Immediately).”

Schabowski’s answer spread like wildfire among the populace. The law was not supposed to become effective until the following morning – November 10 – to give border guards, police and security time to set up a system. But Schabowski hadn’t caught that. Within minutes of hearing the news that the new travel law was effective immediately, people raced to the border crossings. But the guards had no orders to let them cross to West Berlin. Soon, thousands had amassed at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, the most popular checkpoint, ready to visit West Berlin. Unable to get hold of their superiors, the guards surrendered to the pressure from the crowd. Bornholmer was the first border checkpoint to open. The others followed. Unintentionally, the wall opened up for good.

So who asked the crucial question?

Ehrmann says it was he who brought up the subject of travel restrictions, and it was he who followed up by asking the crucial question as to when the new rule would become effective. Brinkmann agrees that Ehrman brought up the subject of the new travel law but insists that he, Brinkmann, asked the defining question. Who is right? According to Guenter Schabowski the crucial question came from Peter Brinkmann. As he puts it, “It’s like playing football. The one – here Riccardo Ehrman – shooting the ball from the side of the penalty area, and the other – Peter Brinkmann – then shooting the ball into the goal.” To watch an excerpt from the press conference, click 

Summing it up

On 13 August 1961 the Berlin Wall was raised to stabilize East Germany. On November 9, the unintentional demolition of the wall was meant to save East Germany. In the end, it was a communication error that tore the Iron Curtain apart. There is no doubt that the question, “as of when?” changed the course of history. But only one man asked it. Was it Brinkmann or was it Ehrman?


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Did Churchill coin “Iron Curtain”?

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

In the United States it is often erroneously believed that Sir Winston Churchill coined the phrase “iron curtain,” when he travelled to Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946. It had been a mere ten months since World War II had ended in Europe. Only one of the three signatories of the Potsdam Agreement was still in power: Soviet Union’s Marshal Joseph Stalin. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed away and been replaced by Harry. S. Truman. Sir Winston Churchill had lost the British election to Clement Atlee. At this point in time, the U.S. and Great Britain were mainly concerned with the state of their own post-war economies and remained grateful to Russia that she had taken a prominent role in ending the war.

“The Sinews of Peace” Speech by Churchill

On this day in early March 5, Churchill gave an address at Westminster College in Fulton. His speech was entitled, “The Sinews of Peace.” He began by speaking of his admiration for the Soviet Union and by welcoming her into the circle of leading nations. He expressed understanding for Russia’s need for security on her western frontiers. But then he cautioned, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies.” He went on to say, “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. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

Following the speech, the phrase “iron curtain” became widely known. To read Churchill’s speech in its entirety, visit.

“Iron Curtain” became a household word

Although it is still widely held that Churchill coined the term “iron curtain” during his 1946 The Sinews of Peace speech, that belief is inaccurate. He had used the term for decades already. The phrase was first used in 1920 by British author and suffragette Ethel Snowden in her book Through Bolshevik Russia. In 1945, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term in his 25 February 1945 speech entitled The Year 2000. But after Churchill’s post-war speech in Fulton, the phrase became synonymous with the way the West viewed the East. The phrase became so popular that I, a post-war child growing up in Berlin, Germany, remember it as one of the givens in my vocabulary. To me at that young age, “iron curtain” meant Cold War, and I was convinced that Sir Winston Churchill had coined it.



Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill’s view on the Berlin situation

Sir Winston Churchill also foreshadowed what, indeed, ended up happening in Berlin a couple of years later when the Russians blockaded all ground access routes to West Berlin. In his speech, Churchill said, “An attempt is being made by the Russians in Berlin to build up a quasi-Communist party in their zone of Occupied Germany by showing special favors to groups of left-wing German leaders. At the end of the fighting last June, the American and British Armies withdrew westwards, in accordance with an earlier agreement, to a depth at some points of 150 miles upon a front of nearly four hundred miles, in order to allow our Russian allies to occupy this vast expanse of territory, which the Western Democracies had conquered. If now the Soviet Government tries, by separate action, to build up a pro-Communist Germany in their areas, this will cause new serious difficulties in the British and American zones.”


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.