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Stanford historian investigates the powerful social impact of the Iron Curtain

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By Kareem Yasin 
In 2009, the world commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that symbolized the end of an era of fear and division. 2011 marks another milestone in the history and legacy of the wall; the 50th anniversary of when the first concrete was laid, the physical manifestation of political conflict, but also of the widening gulf between neighbors and family members who found themselves on opposite sides of an arbitrary border.

While the wall is most often thought of in the context of its geopolitical origins, Stanford scholar Edith Sheffer believes that the physical manifestation of the German border reveals much about the human condition. Long before construction began on the Berlin Wall in August 1961, Germans were forging identities and barriers in the absence of any of the ethnic, linguistic or ideological differences that we see between divided communities today.

In her new book, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain, the Assistant Professor of Modern European History considers how the forging of separate German identities was not simply the result of physical separation and Cold War posturing, but of divisions that were created on the level of the individual.

The year is 1946, and on a near daily basis packs of young children from the east enter towns in what has become West Germany, seeking food and spare change. Dressed in rags and labeled vagabonds, this is the image West Germans had already come to associate with their brothers in the Soviet-occupied east.

But things are not necessarily as they seem. The rags and the dirt are all part of an act, an attempt to play up to already preconceived notions of what life beyond the Iron Curtain entails.

“The wall in the head made the wall in the ground,” says Sheffer, who argues that the wall itself if unimaginable outside of the context of what was happening to Germans on a social level. “I have a hard time imagining the Berlin Wall going up in isolation,” she says.

Divided Cities, Divided Families

Sheffer’s research revolves around two sister cities – similar in many respects, apart from which side of the border they fell – Neustadt bei Coburg and Sonneberg. Consisting of around 50,000 total, together, they were the largest population center outside of Berlin to be divided.

“I received an Atlas as a wedding present,” Sheffer recalls. “I remember seeing these two towns drawn on the map, sitting practically on top of each other, and thinking ‘I wonder what happened there?’”

Visiting 14 different archives, as well as pouring over U.S. military records and city and county documentation, Sheffer also undertook a full year of field research in the region. While there, she conducted over 50 interviews with locals and gained access to private, and as yet untouched, archive materials such as people's memoirs and diaries.

"Very early on, people's opinions of what east and west meant were already forming,” says Sheffer. “In as early as a year, people were beginning to see each other as either easterners or westerners.” As the years went on, local governments in the west began taking action to stem the exodus of easterners to border towns like Neustadt bei Coburg, while such migration bred resentment in the east.

One woman, Sheffer recalls, found herself begging in the streets of Neustadt after being turned away from work opportunities because her father, a glass maker, had been wooed over to the west where there was greater demand and compensation for his services. Such acts of discrimination were not tolerated and marked entire families as effective traitors.

"To me, this suggests that you can create differences on a dime,” says the scholar. “There were no preexisting differences to be had, here. It goes to show how quickly you can create these categories."

Indeed, Sheffer finds that, even in later decades, only 15% of the arrests made by eastern authorities against escapees actually occurred at the border fortifications themselves. Compare this number to the 25% of arrests made as a result of reports of intended desertion by ordinary residents and voluntary border helpers.

The Persistence of Difference

The early borderland was so chaotic that East Germany deported over 8,000 potentially “unreliable” residents further inland, away from the borders through which there was increasingly one-way traffic.

Burned Bridge, the name of the checkpoint from which Sheffer’s book takes its name, speaks to the porous nature of the Iron Curtain itself in its early years, as well as to the arbitrary means by which the country was divided. One of the scholar’s interviews was with a man whose father’s family was distributed on both sides of the crossing. With three of seven siblings living on the section of the family property designated as part of East Germany, smuggling across a shared cellar became routine.

Slowly, however, family members grew apart and developed different identities and ways of life. Some relatives in the west founded a successful business in Neustadt, while one man in the east became responsible for upkeep of border fortifications in the region.

It goes without saying that the infamous Iron Curtain was not as impenetrable as is often believed. Over the years, of course, the invisible barrier was lined with fences, which themselves gave way to mine fields. But even in 1982, at the height of the fortifications, one man managed to cross the border illegally for smuggling purposes 23 times before authorities were even aware of his actions.

Today, a branch of McDonald’s stands where the Burned Bridge crossing used to lie, a telling sign of not only Germany’s unification but of its emergence as one of the modern era’s most politically and financially influential countries.

Yet the differences that prompted the ideological divide between Germans in 1945 have not disappeared.

“The wall went down, and yet there are still these divisions. In some ways, tensions are even stronger,” says Sheffer. In a survey conducted across the two sister cities, only 35% of teenagers expressed any willingness to date people belonging to the other town.

“The fact that people would so readily admit to such prejudice is interesting from an American perspective,” says the scholar, who expresses concern for how artificial divisions can produce long-term differentiation and discrimination. Considering the walls that divide peoples today, she says: "Fortifications are a short term answer to greater structural problems, and they often create problems of their own.”

Perspective-shifting as a Gateway to Understanding

This desire to explore how social phenomena are born in the daily experiences of individuals has in part informed Sheffer’s methods in the classroom. In her first course at Stanford, the historian’s students were given the opportunity to experience German history firsthand.

During the first week of class, students were each assigned a character whose life they would direct over the course of the quarter. Each born in 1900, what direction these characters’ lives took was up to the students entirely, documented through weekly diary entries. “They could have become fascists, communists, anything they wanted,” says Sheffer. “The important thing was for them to have ownership of these people and to explore the aspects of German history that interested them the most.”

And own them they did. The responses to her prompts, in the form of diary entries, averaged over 1,100 words. “One of my students was interested in colonialism, so her character spent time in German southwest Africa, before becoming a Nazi,” recalls Sheffer. When the student became politically active against Proposition 8, her character was revealed as gay and she delved into the issues surrounding homosexuality in Germany.

Students’ rich interactions with the characters and of the key moments in German history, Sheffer says, are telling of how ordinary people adjust to events beyond their control, and of how such moments can have effects that linger well beyond those of politics and physical barriers.

“The everyday actions of ordinary people can have far reaching results.”