One ship drives east and other drives west by the same winds that blow. It’s the set of the sails and not the gales that determines the way they go… Ella Wheeler Wilcox


Burned Bridge : how East and West Germans made the Iron Curtain Edith Sheffer ; foreword by Peter Schneider New York : Oxford University Press, c 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xvii, 357 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 325-342) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 shocked the world. Ever since, the image of this impenetrable barrier between East and West, imposed by communism, has been a central symbol of the Cold War.

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Based on vast research in untapped archival, oral, and private sources, Burned Bridge reveals not the hidden origins of the Iron Curtain, but an example of how the West had to protect itself from the East. Historian Edith Sheffer’s  account focuses on Burned Bridge – the intersection between two sister cities, Sonneberg and Neustadt bei Coburg, Germany’s largest divided population outside Berlin.

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Sheffer demonstrates that as Soviet and American forces occupied each city after the Second World War, townspeople who historically had much in common quickly formed opposing interests and identities. The border walled off irreconcilable realities: the differences of freedom and captivity, rich and poor, peace and bloodshed, and past and present. The differences between the lawlessness of a closed society stifled by regulation – and the crimes committed to circumvent that regulation – and a free society.

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Sheffer describes how smuggling, kidnapping,  and killing in the early postwar years led citizens to demand greater border control on both sides – long before East Germany fortified its 1,393 kilometer border with West Germany turning itself in to another Soviet gulag. It was in fact the American military that built the first barriers at Burned Bridge, which preceded East Germany’s borderland crackdown by many years. Indeed, Sheffer shows that the physical border between East and West was not simply imposed by Cold War superpowers, but was in some part an improvised outgrowth of an anxious postwar society. What seems to be missing is the analytical insight that smuggling – and the acts of lawlessness that it engenders – is a response to both military occupation and a closed society both of which describe East Germany from 1945 until 1989. What is clearly here is an attempt to conflate the protection of the West with the enslavement of the East – something that requires a great deal of equivocation.

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Ultimately, the defensive measures gave a public excuse to one of the most horrible prison barriers in history. East and West Germans became part of, and helped perpetuate, the barriers that divided them. From the end of World War II through two decades of reunification, Sheffer traces divisions at Burned Bridge, presenting a stunning portrait of the Cold War – if an inaccurate and incomplete one.

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