Patrick Wright: Long before Churchill ... The surprising origins of the expression, "The Iron Curtain"

[Patrick Wright, Professor at the Institute for Cultural Analysis, Nottingham Trent University, is the author of Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War (Oxford U. Press, 2007).]

When I started researching the Iron Curtain, I shared the widespread assumption that this symbolic device first descended into the world on 5 March 1946, when Winston Churchill went to the small town of Fulton in Missouri and, standing in a college gymnasium with President Truman at his side, gave the famous speech in which he warned of the new division of Europe: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent . . ."

I assumed that the story of the Iron Curtain reached forward from that inaugural moment, through four decades of cold war to the events of 1989, when the Berlin wall was breached, the wire that had long divided Austria and Czechoslovakia was twisted into a great heart-shaped sculpture, and "people power" seemed to triumph at last. This was indeed the reality of the Iron Curtain as experienced by many millions, but it wasn't long before I realised that it was also a formulaic conception, and one that remained tightly framed by cold-war attitudes....

Shortly after returning to England from Missouri, I happened to go to Grantchester, the little village just west of Cambridge, in order to visit a distant cousin. David Roden Buxton was very elderly by then, and we sat by the fireside as he reminisced over some albums of photographs. He had travelled alone in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s, studying and photographing medieval churches, including many marvellous examples of both stone and wood that had been destroyed later in the Stalinist period. Asked how he had come to assemble this evocative record, he explained that he had first gone to Russia with his sister and parents in the summer of 1927. The family had visited Moscow and other cities, and also walked considerable distances through the countryside.
During the course of this conversation, he produced a copy of a book written by his father, a now forgotten Labour politician, humanitarian and colonial reformer named Charles Roden Buxton. In a Russian Village contained a description of the days its author had spent, seven years earlier in 1920, exploring conditions in several villages near Samara on the Volga. It was a work of vivid testimony, rendered all the more poignant by the fact that the settlements Charles Roden Buxton observed in their early encounter with Bolshevism had been overwhelmed by famine in the months between his visit and the completion of his book.
Yet, this was not all. Pasted inside this battered family copy was a newspaper article clipped from an edition of the New Leader, the paper of the Independent Labour Party. Headed "Behind Russia's Curtain" and published in October 1927, this yellowed fragment contained Charles Roden Buxton's reflections on his more recent second visit to Soviet Russia. The title alone caught my attention and I was further surprised by the first paragraph, in which Buxton quoted an earlier condemnation of the "iron curtain" written by a certain Vernon Lee.
At that time, I was vaguely aware that a woman named Violet Paget had lived behind this pen-name and that, in the 19th century, she had written aesthetic studies and also stories concerned with history and the supernatural. Yet here was Vernon Lee as a political writer, lamenting the isolation, ignorance and hatred into which the "iron curtain" had plunged its violently separated peoples, and doing so some three decades before Churchill went to Fulton.

To begin with, I resisted this discovery as a meaningless coincidence of language: a verbal snare that should have had a large sign stating "Digression" posted beside it. I tried to shake off the idea, returning to the later story of McCarthyism, rereading the spy novels of the time, and flying to Lübeck in northern Germany to walk along the little beach at Priwall where, from 1952, the fence dividing East from West Germany had joined the Baltic Sea. Yet that reference to Vernon Lee persisted in my mind and I eventually decided to track it down.

It took me the best part of a year to locate the original article by Vernon Lee. By then, I had found several other instances of the phrase "iron curtain" being used in this earlier period. I had also come to the conclusion that these usages could not be dismissed either as trivial accidents or relics of an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant prehistory. It was surely they, and not the Missouri ground supporting Fulton's transported Wren church, that indicated the true foundations of Churchill's famous expression....

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Patrick Wright - 11/12/2007

I do actually cite Goebbel's usage, in the book if not in the two short articles mentioned. This precursor to Churchill's Fulton utterance didn't interest David Horowitz alone in the sixties. It was also cited by Hewlett Johnson, the notoriously credulous 'Red Dean' of Canterbury, who saw it as proof that Churchill's real aim was to consolidate 'Right Wing forces' against the Soviet Union.

George Wilmers - 11/4/2007

Patrick Wright's blog on the origins of the phrase "The Iron Curtain", and his article in the Guardian (3/11/07) on the same topic, contain a remarkable omission.

While it is indisputable that the phrase in question has a long history
antedating WW2 by many years, the first use of it in its late twentieth century usage almost certainly belongs not to Churchill's 1946 Fulton speech but to Hitler's propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. In a rambling tirade against the allied powers written in February 1945 as the Third Reich was collapsing, Goebbels fulminated:

"If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered......"

A translation of Goebbels article "Das Jahr 2000," from Das Reich, 25 February 1945, can be found at

The origin of this quote may be familiar to some historians of an older generation. Ironically the surprising antecedence of Churchill's phrase was popularised in the 1960's by the now rabidly neoconservative ideologue David Horowitz, who at that time was a radical socialist writer and historian.

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