Post-War Soviet Union & Eastern Europe: The Descent of the Iron Curtain

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  • 0:05 What Is the 'Iron Curtain?'
  • 2:06 The Origins of the…
  • 3:53 The Berlin Wall
  • 4:50 The Fall of the 'Iron Curtain'
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about some of the dynamic events that followed World War II in Eastern Europe. We will explore the descent of the Iron Curtain, and learn about the formation of the Eastern Bloc states.

What Is the 'Iron Curtain?'

Alright, let's jump right into this lesson and talk about the 'Iron Curtain.' The term 'Iron Curtain' usually refers to the coalition of communist countries that emerged in Eastern Europe following World War II. Because Soviet-backed communist governments had been established in countries like East Germany, Poland, Romania, and others, the people living in these states were said by the Western democracies to 'live behind the Iron Curtain.' The term thus connotes a barrier between oppressive communist regimes and the freedom of liberal democracies.

Many people mistakenly believe the term 'Iron Curtain' was coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In fact, the term had been used in a variety of contexts way before Churchill used it. But what we need to understand is that it was Winston Churchill who popularized it, and gave it its current meaning as a reference to the region of Soviet-backed states. In 1946, while visiting the United States, Churchill gave a famous speech in which he said, 'An iron curtain has descended across the continent.' The term has propagandistic value, and usually connotes the brute strength and oppression that characterized communist government.

The term 'Iron Curtain' is sometimes used synonymously with the Eastern Bloc, Communist Bloc, or the Warsaw Pact. All of these terms are references to the group of countries who, in one way or another, came under the influence of Soviet Russia. Among the most notable countries 'behind the Iron Curtain' were the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, and Bulgaria.

The Origins of the 'Iron Curtain'

Now that we can define the 'Iron Curtain,' let's look briefly at how it came into existence. If you remember from World War II, the Soviet Union attacked through Eastern Europe in order to invade Germany. When the war ended in 1945, Soviet troops occupied countries like Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc. The Soviets also occupied the eastern half of Germany, while the Americans, British, and French occupied the other half. Seeking a buffer zone of friendly states, the Soviets moved quickly to establish communist puppet governments in occupied countries.

Okay, so maybe you're wondering why the U.S., Britain, and France allowed the Soviet Union to set up such a vast expanse of puppet states throughout Eastern Europe. Well, it's complicated. The Western Allies certainly tried, but failed to curb Soviet expansion. At the Yalta Conference in February of 1945 and at the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, the Allied powers met to discuss the composition of post-war Europe. Under pressure from Western democracies, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin pledged to refrain from Sovietization and insisted he would allow free elections in occupied countries. Stalin failed to keep his promise, and through falsified elections and other secretive means, the Soviet Union helped install communist governments. Unwilling to risk outright war, there was little the Western democracies could do except stand by and watch as Eastern Europe fell to communism.

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