Tag Archives: Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain speech

Churchill and the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

On the 5th March 1946, Winston Churchill described the post-war division of Europe as an “iron curtain” in his “Sinews of Peace” address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Often interpreted as a key event in the origin of the Cold War, Churchill’s speech played a significant role in changing Western perceptions of their former Soviet ally.

Churchill, as the British Prime Minister, had led Britain to victory in the Second World War but in the General Election of July 1945 suffered a landslide defeat to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Despite now being in opposition, he continued to be highly respected abroad and visited the United States in 1946. During this trip he was invited by Westminster College in the 7,000-person town of Fulton to deliver a speech to an audience of 40,000 people.

Churchill was introduced at Fulton by President Harry Truman, and opened his speech by complimenting the United States as standing “at the pinnacle of world power.” As the speech progressed, he became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union’s policies in Eastern Europe. Churchill was not the first to use the term “iron curtain” as a metaphor for a strong divide since versions of its had been in use for many centuries, and nor was the “Sinews of Peace” speech the first time that he himself had used the term. However, his use of the term in a speech with such a large audience thrust it into wider circulation and associated it directly with the post-war situation.

Stalin accused Churchill of warmongering, and defended the USSR’s relationship with eastern Europe as a necessary barrier to future attacks.

Hungary / East German Refugees

When Hungary opened the Austrian border to East German refugees

On the 10th September 1989, the Hungarian government announced the opening of the border with Austria to allow thousands of East Germans to leave the Communist Bloc. Met with incredible anger from the East German government, Hungary’s decision was a major step on the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hungary had been inundated with East Germans since the government began removing the border fence in May that year. Inspired by the Hungarian government’s moves towards a more democratic political system, East Germans had travelled to Hungary as tourists but then sought refuge in the West German embassy. A ‘friendship picnic’ held on the Austrian-Hungarian border on the 19th August had already seen East Germans using the border as a way to escape and, before long, thousands of East Germans refugees were living in Hungary.

Unwilling to “become a country of refugee camps”, Hungarian Foreign Ministrer Gyula Horn made the announcement that the East Germans would be permitted to enter Austria. As well as allowing the refugees to cross the border, the announcement led to an exodus of an estimated 70,000 more East Germans who made their way to Hungary.

The first of what were to become weekly ‘Monday demonstrations’ had started in the East German city of Leipzig earlier that week, and the Hungarian announcement encouraged others to begin protesting in favour of democracy. Within a month up to 70,000 people a week were making their way to the Leipzig protest, and by the end of October over 300,000 were taking part. The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th November.

First McDonald's in the USSR

The first McDonald’s in the USSR opened in 1990

On the 31st January 1990, fast food chain McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in the Soviet Union on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Rather than the expected 1,000 customers on the first day, some news outlets estimated that 30,000 people passed through the doors. Even Boris Yeltsin visited the store on the opening day.

By 1990 the Iron Curtain was in tatters. The Berlin Wall – the very symbol of the East-West divide – had fallen in November the previous year, and the communist governments of other eastern European countries had fallen. McDonald’s had already opened restaurants in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and the Hungarian capital Budapest in 1988. However, the expansion into the Soviet Union was evidence of the enormous changes taking place within the USSR itself. Glasnost and perestroika had already brought about enormous changes, and the Soviet government even owned a 51% stake in the new McDonald’s venture.

Interestingly, however, McDonald’s in the USSR was developed by the Canadian branch of the company, independent of the chain’s American headquarters. To keep the supply chain separate, completely separate farms and factories were developed to provide the ingredients: by the end of 1989 a reported 50 million Canadian dollars had been invested in the infrastructure.

At the time, the average monthly wage for a Russian worker was 150 roubles. When McDonald’s opened, a standard hamburger cost 1.50 roubles – the price of ten loaves of bread. Despite this, thousands of people walked through the doors of what remained the largest McDonald’s restaurant in the world until a new restaurant on the London 2012 Olympic Park opened 22 years later.