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Exploring “The Wall in the Head”—Historian Edith Sheffer on How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain

On May 8, 1945, the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and celebrated the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich and the end of the Second World War in Europe.   By July 1945, the Allies drew a new border stretching 1,393 kilometers from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia and dividing the Western and Soviet occupation zones of Germany, eventually separating the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) until 1990.

The border that split Germany marked the boundary between the ideological systems of capitalism and communism and became a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill's metaphorical Iron Curtain that divided the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War.  The border caused widespread economic and social disruption on both sides.

In her new book, Burned Bridge:  How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (Oxford), historian Edith Sheffer recounts how, from 1945 and through reunification, ordinary Germans living on the border gave psychological shape and a physical presence to this imaginary line imposed by superpowers. 

Dr. Sheffer focuses on the tale of two sister cities linked by the Burned Bridge [Gebrannte Brücke] and separated by the border, Neustadt bei Coburg and Sonneberg, Germany’s largest divided population centers outside Berlin.  As American forces occupied Neustadt and Soviets occupied Sonneberg, citizens of these two cities of historically shared values and traditions rapidly formed opposing identities.  Citizens in the West first demanded barriers on the crime-ridden border before East Germans built fortifications to prevent a mass exodus to the West.  Dr. Sheffer chronicles how the anxiety, mistrust and hostility of ordinary Germans on both sides of the border perpetuated the barrier—how a wall in the mind gave shape to the wall on the ground.

Dr. Sheffer has been praised for her extensive archival research and oral history interviews as well as her compelling story telling.  Burned Bridge won the 2011 Fraenkel Prize for best first book of European history.  Historian Atina Grossmann wrote:  "Edith Sheffer's exquisitely nuanced and deeply researched narrative rewrites the history of the division of Germany, revealing an East/West border marked by the infamous Wall but actually constructed over time by postwar violence, Cold War tensions, and above all by the local everyday actions and attitudes of ordinary Germans living with and in both sides of the border."

Dr. Sheffer is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University.  Her future research will examine the intersection of public events and private choices, from Germans’ “Zero Hour” diaries in 1945 to the development and dissemination of corporate cultures.  Her current project examines the creation of the autism diagnosis in the Third Reich by Hans Asperger in Vienna, and his role in the killing of disabled children.

Dr. Sheffer recently talked about Burned Bridge by telephone from her office at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

What sparked Burned Bridge, your book on the Iron Curtain in Germany?

I came to the idea from an atlas a cousin of mine gave to us as a wedding present.  I looked at Germany and the former border of East and West Germany and noticed these two towns [Neustadt bei Coburg and Sonneberg] that were on top of each other on the former Iron Curtain.  I was curious about what could have possibly happened there.

Did you have a personal connection with these towns?

No.  I have studied Germany history since college and always have been interested in Germany’s rapid transitions over the twentieth century beginning with empire and transitioning to democracy and to Nazism, then to communism and democracy in the postwar years.  It was always interesting to me how quickly these shifts occurred and how you could have completely different systems emerge from one region that had been so cohesive.

How did you approach writing a kind of biography of these two neighboring towns?

Often for historians, what you wind up with is very different from what you thought you’d get in the beginning.  My initial reading of the project was to do a comparative study of what happened in each town.  The Americans occupied one of the cities and the Soviets occupied the other so the idea was to trace this divergence through religion, through local politics, through pop culture, through education, but I never thought the border itself would be much of a story, and neither did my advisor.  We assumed the border was simply there because we have had an image of the Iron Curtain as static and monolithic.

When I started this research, it was amazing to me how dynamic the border was, and how fluid and how haphazardly it was created, and that became the story.
I stretched the book over four periods [from 1945 through re-unification].  That was beyond my original scope, which was the American and Soviet occupation period, but I followed the sources, and the sources remained so interesting through those years.

You did a lot of oral history interviews as well as archival research, and historian Peter Schneider compared you to renowned oral historian Studs Terkel. 

I had not intended to conduct interviews, but with any kind of scholar you need to be flexible when opportunities present themselves or your research takes you in a different direction.  But people were just so eager to talk about their lives, what they experienced and what they were thinking and to share their personal papers and diaries, letters and scrapbooks.  That was part of the story: an extremely intense emotional engagement of the people who lived on the border. 

In the interviews, I talked to more than fifty people ranging from border victims to border guards and people with a variety of different roles.  These interviews were often very emotional and very intense.  What you find in an archival document is often so different than what you get in an interview.  They’re both subjective and you can’t take anything as an objective truth, but it’s important to supplement one with the other.  Often I would have one event that was represented very differently in the archives versus when I talked to the people involved.

When did your concept shift from the story comparing the two towns to the influence of the border?

I think it happened when I got to the towns and heard what was important to the people.  I lived with a family; I met people on the street.  In the archives you can find [documents] and where to go, but in talking with people, it was so clear that the border was such a large part of their identity and memory and who they were, and that informed the direction of the research.  Then, when I looked at that border files, it was clear that this was unusual and undiscovered material.

It’s surprising that the towns had shared values until the end of World War II, but it then both sides readily accepted the terms of the Cold War.  Can you talk about the towns before the Cold War?

This was a cohesive region.  People were extremely interconnected in everyday life.  People from the towns intermarried, they worked together, and they had shared values.  A lot of these people were cottage-industry workers making toys and dolls.  They were 95 percent Protestant.  Nazism came very early and intensely to the region.  Voting ranged from 50 to 60 percent Nazi by 1933. That’s the common political context they came out of, which makes it all the more interesting once the Americans occupied one side and the Soviets occupied the other.

Why did the change happen so quickly?  It’s important to keep in mind the context of Germany in 1945.  The country was absolutely devastated.  People felt there was no option other than to cooperate with the new military governments.  It was clear that the Nazi regime had fallen and there was no alternative to going along with what the Americans and Soviets were setting up in their separate sectors.  I think in any situation when you set up the stark economic difference, people will start acting according to that.

With any border, the U.S. and Mexico for example, you have potential opposing material interests on one side that can spiral into security measures, identity issues, and then touch more and more aspects of life.

How does your work help us understand that issues now at the U.S.-Mexico border?

I can’t pretend to speak for the U.S.-Mexico border because it’s far from my area of scholarship, but it’s interesting that what seems to be an economic conflict can be understood as a broader cultural difference that again spirals out to societal differences. 

With this project, we all think communists imposed the Iron Curtain and the wall went up and that was that.  But actually, the first seven years of the Iron Curtain history looks a lot the U.S.-Mexico border.  The West and local residents who lived in the West also had an interest in protecting what they had and in keeping out migrants and keeping out undocumented workers and stopping smuggling.  This was very much the rhetoric of the time, which resonates now in our discourse about the U.S.-Mexico border. 

In this early period [1945-1952], the American military government in West Germany wanted ever greater protections and, to my mind, began the creation of a “Wall in the Head,” and a willingness to accept the stronger measures that happened in subsequent years.

I was surprised that the U.S. put up barriers at the border before the East Germans or Soviets. 

Dr. Edith Sheffer: This early border period was foundational for many reasons.  It was a crime zone because there were stark economic differences and that attracted a lot of smugglers.  Neither the American nor the Soviet military governments were equipped to handle the smuggling and other crime.  And because they were short of manpower, it allowed local governments to step in and take charge that wouldn’t have been possible if the military governments had the apparatus to cope with crime.  You had a power vacuum in the border zone for smuggling, migration, etc., and the border area became associated with unsavory elements and respectable people believed they should stay away from this milieu.

And you describe a “sexualized border” in the postwar period?

In terms of the sexualized occupation, people from the eastern town might want to be involved with American soldiers and issues would come up around sex on both sides.  Both East and West German women were fraternizing with Americans, and Americans were happy with this too. 

The gender imbalance was profound in 1945, and there were many contributing factors.  The dynamic of sexual relations complicated that borderland because the Soviet occupation had a high incidence of rape so that the Soviet occupiers were associated with brutality whereas American occupiers were associated with fun and material benefits.  That created an additional point of divergence in the border zones.  Also, Soviet troops could rape West German women across the border and not be held accountable back in the Soviet zone so the border region was particularly dangerous and that was another point of divergence.

The border solidified over the years.  In the early years you describe a porous or “Living Border,” and it eventually became static with the Berlin Wall in 1961.

This story reveals the incremental nature of astonishing change.  At any given moment, if you lived on the border, you wouldn’t necessarily experience events as turning points, but when you look at this as an aggregate with the benefit of hindsight, you can see these shifts as much larger than they appeared at the time. 

If you were an East German living in Sonneberg on the east side and may have wanted to flee in 1951, you might think, “Oh well.  I can leave in a couple of years.  This border might be temporary and might go away.”  It was hard to know at each moment in time what would happen, so it was a very slow process by which people internalized the reality.  

The physical border apparatus was porous.  I call it the “Living Wall” because people started acting as if it were an Iron Curtain, even though its physical reality was quite different.  In fact, a third of the border was not yet fenced in the fifties, but the rate of flight decreased dramatically and people were acting as border guards and enforcing this border as a “Wall in the Head” [rather than] as a formidable and dangerous wall on the ground.

Was there something about the character of Germans in this area—who had voted for Nazis years earlier—that made them more accepting and less likely to object to this political change at the end of the war?

I get this question a lot:  Could this border have happened anywhere?  Would this happen with a border between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto?   I don’t believe in German particularity—that there is something uniquely German about this.   But I do see the border as an outgrowth of the Nazi period in the sense that it had a historical context.  The policing practices and the rhetoric of the late forties and fifties are absolutely resonant with the practices of the Third Reich and some of the same people were still in power. 

I don’t think there was necessarily an ideological connection, but twelve years of dictatorship with six years of war and utter devastation and then rule by foreign powers created a situation where people are less apt to protest.  And it wasn’t clear there was something to protest and resist because it wasn’t always clear moment-to-moment that this border would be permanent.  There were many local reasons why people wanted greater security measures.
My basic answer is no, it’s not unique to Germany, but it’s unique to Germany’s historical context. 

What propelled that support of the Nazis in elections in this area?

Dr. Edith Sheffer:  This area, Franconia, supported Nazism from very early on, especially around Coburg.  This is not my area of expertise, but some attribute this to high rates of Protestantism, and [a predominance of] petit bourgeois or small-scale artisans.  They were also hit hard by World War I, and the area was hurt by export restrictions, and unemployment was high in this area.  So there were a number of reasons the area supported Nazism so early, but I wouldn’t draw a connection between that and the Iron Curtain.  I think the experience of dictatorship and then military occupation had more to do with [attitudes in these towns] than ideological considerations.

You include many surprising stories of border crossing.  In the West, we tend to think of Easterners fleeing for freedom across an impregnable border, but you also recount tales of intoxicated people wandering over the border or spouses fleeing domestic conflicts, and even West Germans crossing to the East.

That was unexpected to me because we don’t learn about that with the standard narrative of the Iron Curtain.  The official escape rates over the inter-German border in the seventies and eighties were around one hundred a year for people escaping from East to West.  But with crossings that were not recorded as escapes, you get a very different picture.  

Much of what you’re describing I got from the basement of the Neustadt police station.  These weren’t in an archive but were police records that had not been deemed worthy of preservation.  They were incredible reports.  “Johann got in a fight with his wife and crossed the border and we returned him the next day.”  These incidents would not be reported further out of concern for the safety of person’s family in the East, and East Germany had no interest in reporting these publicly.  It’s difficult to estimate how widespread this was, but I found dozens of cases in the seventies and eighties.

One of the most striking cases I found was one young man who crossed 23 times in six months in 1982 at the height of the border when there were minefields everywhere.  Most considered it technologically impassable, yet he crosses 23 times in six months.  He’s selling mines to U.S. servicemen in the West and he’s helped by his father who is an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police.  He’s able to cross because he knows the terrain and has inside information.  His mom cooks for the border troops.  Although his family is part of the security system, he is crossing the border and subverting it. 

It’s frustrating in this history how anecdotal the evidence is.  When you talk to people, you hear these stories.  People drew sketches of the ladders they used to cross the border.  But it’s very hard to get a handle on exactly how often this occurred.

You mention the mines, barbed wire, guards and other obstacles on the border, and many believed it was impregnable.

Dr. Edith Sheffer:  We think of it as technologically perfect but in reality, mine fields go rotten.  Mines would explode in snow.  The barbed wire was breakable and rusty.

There were many physical problems with the border.  And the young man who crossed 23 times could do this because he knew where the mine fields were rotten, where the fences fallible.  The lucky drunks knew how to do it too because they lived there.  But I’m not saying this border wasn’t incredibly dangerous for outsiders, but people who lived there and knew how it worked could cross, but even some who lived there met with tragedy. 

In 1963, there was a two-and-a-half-year-old boy [who] wanted to leave some local festival and crossed four fences and a minefield and lost a shoe.  He apparently didn’t set off mines because he was too light.

But I’m not trying to play down the danger and awfulness of the Iron Curtain by telling these stories.  I’m just trying to round out the history of the Iron Curtain, which has been so one-sided and lop-sided in its representation of this monolithic barrier.   I don’t want to deny the tragedies or the people who lost their lives, but this is the other side of the coin of what happened and what was possible.

How many people died when attempting to cross the border?

As for casualty statistics, unfortunately that number is unknown, and the federal government is unwilling to fund a research project into that very question.   We do know that there were 136 deaths at the Berlin Wall.  

Here is how I handle the question in two places in the book: 

"Hundreds died or sustained serious injuries trying to escape across its mines and electric fencing.  By the mid-1970s, fewer than one hundred people a year reportedly succeeded, less than 10 percent of all flight attempts."

And:  "It is not known how many people were injured or killed at Germany’s Iron Curtain, but the total number surely runs into the thousands.  The death toll for the Berlin Wall is conservatively estimated at 136, and these figures do not include the many more who suffered devastating injuries and traumas."

You write that the “Living Wall” or more porous border solidified with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

1961 is the major turning point and the Berlin Wall went up overnight on August 13, and there were escalations along the rest of the border.  But, to my mind, the Berlin Wall was only the final stage of the creation of the border.  By 1961 the die was cast, and the Germans on both sides had accepted the presence of a lethal barrier in their midst, and it got more and more difficult to pass and the security measures were intensified after that.

There was another wave of deportations from the border zone.  In both 1952 and 1961, East Germany moved to deport people it deemed unreliable from the border to new homes inland.  In 1952, this met with a lot of resistance.  When police units came to border areas, local residents would build barricades or attack police physically to prevent their neighbors from being deported.  It was an ugly event.  Soviet tanks came to some areas.  1952 was a time of upheaval. 

In contrast, in 1961 the deportation action unfolded very differently with little reporting of protest and the action went smoothly.   My speculation is two-fold:  the East German regime was then more efficient in carrying out that kind of police action, and people had come to feel helpless and that there was not much they could do to prevent these actions. 

In the 1950s, the “Living Wall” was internalized, so that by 1961 this “Wall in the Head” made possible the wall in the ground.

Don’t we all have a “Wall in the Head” when it comes to thinking about the Cold War?  When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed many of us blocked out or dismissed what was happening behind the Iron Curtain—and we didn’t know much about that world.

I think that’s right and I talk about it toward the end of the book.  There is a profound disconnection.  And it’s an irony that by the time cross-border travel opened up in 1972 during detente—after all the difficulties of travel in the 1950s and 1960s—people were already estranged from each other.  There was an expectation of very high travel rates between these two border communities but that never materialized because the experience of encountering people who lived apart for a generation was so alienating. 

I was struck that people from one side would romanticize people on the other side in broad ways.  Like “the Westerners are so generous and so open,” and “the Easterners are so victimized and so grateful.”  But when people actually met people from the other side, who could live up to the stereotype?  There was disappointment and alienation.

Over time, the West forgot about the East.  The Iron Curtain seemed permanent and its reality was an accepted fact.  But the East stayed engaged and interested in the West.  Many received Western television, which was watched avidly.  It was an asymmetrical interest, and West Germans turned away from East Germans who were still interested in the West. 

What was the role of the East German secret police, the Stasi?

The Stasi’s mandate changed with the uprising of June 17, 1953—in which half a million people in 560 cities organized strikes and demonstration.  It was rapidly quashed and the government imposed martial law, but it reveiled widespread dissatisfaction with the East German regime.

The Stasi’s mandate shifted after that and expanded to broad surveillance.  The Stasi then was not as formidable as we view it now, but it was developing techniques for the borderland.  And people were less reliable in the borderland [with] double agents and people going back and forth with shifty allegiances—basically to win visa allowances to visit their [relatives] or something like that.  Many of the reasons for these collaborations are incredibly mundane.   

Was the Stasi like the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo?

The Gestapo was based on denunciation, and many scholars think that people volunteered information because they believed in the system.  Scholars tend to believe that the Stasi, by contrast, had to manipulate its network of informants because communism in East Germany wasn’t innately popular.  That’s why the Stasi grew so large.  And penetration in the border region was absurd:  it could be up to one in ten people in some communities.  The irony is:  what kind of information can you get when everyone is spying on one another and everybody knows it?  There were some complaints in Stasi files that it was hard to keep cover in a fishbowl.

The Wall came down in 1989 and reunification soon followed.  I thought most Germans celebrated the reunification, but you describe lingering suspicion between people who lived in the East and the West—even twenty years later.

Yes.  That has to do with the disappointment I mentioned.  It was easier when East and West lived apart to imagine a connection and the lost brothers and sisters on the other side.  The reality of seeing these people on the other side was quite different and often disillusioning.  Also, reunification policies were carried out in a way that people on both sides felt they got the short end of the stick.  Westerners believed they paid for everything and Easterners believed they lost opportunities in the process.  There was resentment over how things unfolded, which to me is another example of how economic matters can be quickly felt as broader social constructs. 

There was an initial euphoria after reunification, but in the borderlands, you see animosities earlier because there was more contact.  

How are you bringing your ideas and research techniques into your teaching?

I’m most interested in understanding mentalities in history and how powerful mentalities can be in effecting historical change, and this goes to how the “Wall in the Head” contributed to the Wall in the ground.

In my teaching I try to convey this perspective on a range of issues and events.  To [help] students understand how mentalities matter, they create historical characters that they keep throughout my course on modern Germany.  The first week of the class, they are assigned an identity at random and given just one sentence on who they are.  One student was the son of a prostitute in Berlin and another student was the daughter of a Jewish banker in Munich.  They’re all born in 1900.  Each week as we proceed through time, they have to make life choices based on the lectures and readings.  They would answer questions like, did you vote for Hitler?  Why or why not?  To answer that question, they need to know the demographics of who voted and why, and what someone in their situation would have done. 

They are in total control of who they want to be.  They can become communists or Nazis or shopkeepers or film producers as long as it’s somewhat accurate historically.  I was actually very impressed with their work.  They would write [for example] a diary entry for September 1914, so they would have to know what happened in September:  the outbreak of World War I, the Battle of the Marne.  They’d consider:  what was public opinion, what would someone from the family I come from think about it?

I think a continuous project like that gives students ownership over the material.  Some students said they talked to their families about their characters or their diary entries.  And they could choose subjects that were of personal interest to them.  One student was interested in German colonialism and she sent her character to what is today Namibia, to German Southwest Africa, and researched that context. 

The students were very engaged.  They averaged 1100 words of writing a week or about a five-page paper a week, including during midterm weeks. 

Are you working on other research projects now?

I have a project on the origin of the autism diagnosis.  It happened in Vienna during the Third Reich by Hans Asperger.   He published on the subject in 1944 in a context where disabled children were killed by the regime.  Asperger subscribed to Nazi racial hygiene policies.  While he believed a subset of children in the high-functioning range of the autism spectrum were educable and of value to the national community—he deemed other disabled children “of minor value” and was complicit in their murder.  I believe this research recasts Asperger’s syndrome as a pseudo-diagnosis by a Nazi-era eugenicist that has distorted how we help, or rather don’t help, children labeled with it.

Would you like to add anything on what you hope readers will take from your book on the border in Germany and the Cold War?

I like to think that this book illustrates the importance of the everyday actions of ordinary people in history—and how these everyday actions can form the backbone of many events that we tend to view exclusively in terms of impersonal forces.