19 October 2009

The 'iron curtain' descended from Russia via Goebbels to Churchill

In an interesting post on 'What PowerPoint can't show you' yesterday, Martin Shovel poses the excellent question of whether it would have improved the famous metaphor used by Winston Churchill in his speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he said “.. an iron curtain has descended across the continent”:

‘Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.’

Although 'iron curtain' was a perfect metaphor for summing up the Cold War division of Europe, this ‘strikingly original idea’ wasn't Churchill's. Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists had used it before him, as too had others in England and Russia before that.

The most succinct summary of the metaphor's history that I’ve come across is on About.com:

‘Churchill had previously used the term in two telegrams to Truman. However, the term, which dates back to the nineteenth century, was probably first used in regard to Russia by Vassily Rozanov in 1918 when he wrote "an iron curtain is descending on Russian history". It was also used by Ethel Snowden in 1920 in a book called 'Through Bolshevik Russia' and during WW2 by Joseph Goebbels and German politician Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, both in propaganda.’

None of which is to belittle the power of the metaphor or Churchill’s success in making it part of the language of the Cold War – which is why I still use the video clip below when teaching about the importance of imagery.

This is a question I blogged about back in March and is something that will no doubt continue to fascinate me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. The 'iron curtain' speech arguably fits with where I've got to so far from looking at some of the speeches that people mentioned most frequently as 'memorable' :

'The best I’ve been able to come up with is that, in each case, the speaker managed to hit the jackpot by saying something that struck just the right chord with just the right audience in just the right place at just the right moment in history – which means that it’s more or less impossible to predict ‘memorability’ with any certainty in advance of any particular speech...'

You can see the list of 'memorable' speeches and comments on the discussion HERE. And, if you feel like continuing the discussion, please feel free to do so.


1 comment:

Colin McLean said...

It may have irked Churchill himself, who knows, that the term 'iron curtain' wasn't his own. I suspect, though, that it didn't. One other snapper up of unconsidered trifles also did rather well in the plagiarism (and other) department(s).

Perhaps you rather answer your own point when you talk about the memorability of a particular moment and therein a particular phrase. It's all about the right audience, right place and right time. No-one can have had quite so many opportunities in that regard as an an articulate war-time prime minister. His success was to recognise and take those opportunities - with one eye on the history books as well, no doubt.