Top 10 books about the iron curtain

The dividing line between capitalism and communism which descended across Europe after the second world war inspired spy writers and historians, polemicists and memoirists

The iron curtain bisected Europe from north to south between 1945 and 1989. It defined the continent, and in many ways the entire world, because of the ideological battles that raged across it. The realm of capitalism and representational democracy dominated to the west; the realm of communism and one-party rule to the east.

Crossing the curtain in either direction was always an undertaking, and for millions was both illegal and impossible. The nuclear might and conventional armed forces of all major powers were focused on that dividing line, the most likely place for a third world war to start.

I was just 11 when the iron curtain collapsed. I remember watching news of the Berlin Wall falling. Ever since, the divide has been a ghost in my mind. I started learning Russian the following year and my textbooks came from the Soviet era. I visited eastern Europe from 1995 onwards and found countries reeling from the end of its version of socialism.

I also discovered early how the iron curtain had inspired writers. From tense cold war thrillers to passionately argued treatises blaming one side or the other for the stalemate, from historians trying to make sense of how Europe became so riven to memoirists committing their own, often tragic tales to print: the iron curtain has been the source of some amazing books.

Just before the pandemic, I travelled the length of the iron curtain, from the Arctic where Norway and Russia meet to the frontier of Turkey and Azerbaijan, the most southerly place where Nato touched the Warsaw Pact countries. The result was the trip of a lifetime and a book, The Curtain and the Wall: A Modern Journey along Europe’s Cold War Border. It is my attempt to capture what survives of the old divide both on the ground and in people’s heads. I read widely during the journey. It is one of the pleasures of solo travel. Here I share 10 books that reveal the essence of the most menacing border the world has yet seen.

1. Eight Days at Yalta:by Diana Preston

Even once the second world war was under way, it was by no means inevitable it would end in a divided Europe. Preston’s 2020 book is a vivacious account of how the Big Three allied leaders gathered on the Crimea to thrash out an uneasy agreement about the continent’s future and their countries’ respective spheres of influence. The Yalta Conference of February 1945 was a supremely important political event. But Preston also focuses on the personal preferences and foibles of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, and how they navigated one another’s red lines.

2. The Third Man by Graham Greene

When people think of the iron curtain, they tend to think of two European cities particularly – Berlin, itself divided, and Moscow, from where the USSR government effectively ran its satellites. However, until 1955, Vienna was divided much like Berlin into American, British, French and Soviet sectors. Greene’s The Third Man (1950) and the earlier film of that name conjure the period better than anything. The investigation of Harry Lime’s death shows the City of Dreams in a seedy postwar light. Greene also foregrounds one of the greatest cold war oddities, Vienna’s Inter-Allied Military Patrol, which required one soldier from each occupying power to share a jeep and travel to crime scenes together.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man
Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Photograph: Studiocanal/British Lion/Allstar

3. Alex von Tunzelmann’s Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis That Shook the World

This rare gem focuses on two of the biggest events of the period, the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. Both reached their culmination at the same time in 1956. More often treated separately, in Von Tunzelmann’s hands the twin crises regain their full geopolitical force. She has an eye for illuminating detail; the action often unfolds hour by hour. It reads like a thriller.

4. Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Frederick Kempe

The year 1961 was when the cold war had one of its “hot” moments. Kempe takes the reader on a journey into the conflict, as Soviet and East German authorities attempt to solve the problem of West Berlin. An island of western capitalism marooned inside the GDR, West Berlin was also a major escape route for unhappy East Germans. More than 2.5 million had fled by 1961. Khrushchev and the East German regime were determined to end this embarrassment. For a time, it looked as if they might seize West Berlin, but in the end the Wall was their chosen sticking plaster, a monstrous imposition on Germany’s capital, but one that largely worked to trap East Germans inside for the next 28 years.

5. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

No iron curtain book list would be complete without Le Carré, and this is the book of his that sticks closest to the iron curtain. It is dark, cynical and, even after six decades, gripping. Ultimately, the hero, British agent Alec Leamas, is compelled to confront the reality of the Berlin Wall at close quarters.

the Checkpoint Charlie crossing point between East and West Berlin in 1968
‘How barricaded our country is’ … the Checkpoint Charlie crossing point between East and West Berlin in 1968 Photograph: Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images

6. Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

Leo explores what it was like to grow up in the GDR in one of my favourite memoirs. He writes beautifully and his words are deftly rendered in English by the much-missed translator Anthea Bell. The good, the bad and the ugly of East German life are before us. For me, the most affecting passage describes Leo’s first visit to a huge East German road checkpoint. “How barricaded our country is,” he thinks. “What became of a dream of socialism?”

7. Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

The USSR had iron curtain land borders with three countries – Norway, Finland and Turkey – but also a maritime border with the west on the Baltic Sea. Latvia was one Soviet republic with a long Baltic coastline. This ended up punctured with missile bases and barbed wire. Latvian writer Ikstena’s 2015 novel takes a harshly ironic look at life there, through the eyes of a doctor who is banished to a remote village only to find herself contemplating the absurdities and injustices of so-called ”mature socialism”. There is a wonderful passage where characters watch the televised state funeral of Leonid Brezhnev and see the men lowering him into the grave lose grasp of his coffin; it falls with a loud crash – I can reveal this is not fiction.

8. Along the Edge of the Forest: An Iron Curtain Journey by Anthony Bailey

Bailey’s book was one inspiration for my own iron curtain journey. He travelled the line while the divide was still in place, going from the top of the inner German border to Trieste. He is restricted in his ability to enter the east. Nonetheless, the book contains much fascinating reportage. The author really manages to get under the skin of what the frontier meant to ordinary people.

9. Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania by Blendi Fevziu

Nowhere in Europe was more mysterious during the cold war than Albania. The country was isolated even from other communist states and the dictator Enver Hoxha effectively immured his nation on all sides. Fevziu’s biography is shocking reading. As a young man, Hoxha “slept till noon, stayed up late at night and had no particular interests”. But once he hit his stride, he imposed bizarre laws on Albanians and outlasted six ministers of the interior, the first five of whom he executed.

10. Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny by Witold Szabłowski

What has the iron curtain left behind? There are physical remnants, some large and celebrated, others small and neglected. There is also a legacy in millions of minds. Many pine for their lost lives in the Eastern Bloc. My own journey found people missing not just the good parts but also sometimes the bad, including the impassable borders and the state intrusion into daily life. Szabłowski, a Polish journalist, travelled across central Europe to write this tender and opinionated book. It is a delight from beginning to end.

Timothy Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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