Across 3,000 miles and over eight decades, this epic new people’s history of the Cold War makes eye-opening sense of a defining 20th-century conflict—and how it continues to shape our world today.
Initially a victory line where Allies met at the end of World War Two, the Iron Curtain quickly became the front of a new kind of war. It divided Europe from north to south for a staggering forty-five years. Crossing it in either direction was always a political act; in many cases, it was a crime to even talk about doing so. New generations have grown up since these borders came down, freed from the restrictions of the Cold War era. But what has the Iron Curtain left in its wake?
Timothy Phillips travels its full 3,000-mile route—from inside the Arctic Circle to where Armenia meets Azerbaijan and Turkey—to craft this epic new people’s history of a defining 2oth-century conflict. Here, in the borderlands where a powerful clash of civilizations took form in concrete and barbed wire, he uncovers the remarkable stories of everyday people forever imprinted by life in the Curtain’s long shadow.
Some look back on the era with nostalgia, even affection, while others despise it, unable to forgive the decades of hardship their families and nations endured. A director recalls the astonishing night his movie premiered in East Germany—November 9, 1989, the very night the Berlin Wall fell. And a railroad worker recounts the 1951 hijacking of a passenger train from Czechoslovakia that breached the Curtain, granting those aboard immediate asylum in the West. These narratives, by turns harrowing and heartening, paint a vivid portrait of the new Europe that emerged from the ruins. Phillips reveals the Iron Curtain’s profound impact on our world today—even as he punctures the fault lines we draw.
Publisher’s note: This book was published in the UK under the title The Curtain and the Wall.
Timothy Phillips holds a doctorate in Russian from Oxford University and has written and spoken widely on British and Russian history. He’s a contributor at BBC News and the Irish Times and the author of Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 as well as The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians, and the Jazz Age. He grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London.
A Guardian best history and politics book of 2022
“Engrossing. . . . As Mr. Phillips travels alongside a largely vanished barrier, he sees some tangible remnants—a watchtower here, a missile silo there. And he succeeds in conveying the everyday barbarism that did so much to sustain the Iron Curtain. . . . Such stories and the recollections of those he meets produce an excellent depiction, not only of the Iron Curtain but also of key elements in Europe’s Cold War and, for that matter, some of what came next.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Remarkable. . . . By turns painful and poignant, Retracing the Iron Curtain is much more than a simple travelogue or history: it is a love letter to human kindness and a plea for decency in the face of indecent, inhumane government oppression. A fascinating, nuanced travel narrative about the history and legacy of Europe’s most infamous border.”—Foreword
“A poignant journey through the towns, streets and even cemeteries once divided by the Cold War.”—The Times
“As borders reappear all over Europe, and as war once again begins to smudge the continent’s atlas, Timothy Phillips’s book arrives just when it is needed. This is an account not only of how the Cold War frontiers were drawn, guarded, or penetrated by brave escapers, but—more importantly—of how often they were rendered discreetly porous by all kinds of compromise. He travels equipped with a mass of fascinating prior research, but also with a gift for instant befriending, which brings stories and secrets from everyone he encounters.”—Neal Ascherson, journalist and author of Black Sea
“A brilliant book, not only based on an inspired idea, but also written with a keen eye for human hopes, fears, and tragedies.”—William Hague, MP, Leader of British Conservative Party
Acclaim for Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1
“Fine and subtle . . . The book, based on extensive interviews, rouses pity and horror.”—Financial Times
“Timothy Phillips . . . has done a heroic and . . . impossible job: He has reconstructed from the testimony of many hundreds of witnesses the hellish events of that September. . . . His work is a fit memorial to the dead.”—Literary Review
Acclaim for The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians, and the Jazz Age
“A welcome and fascinating study of a pivotal yet under-explored aspect of history. Using previously unseen files, Phillips illuminates the growing role of espionage as suspicions grew about the threat from the new Soviet state—all set against the glamour of 1920s London. It is an intoxicating combination.”—Martin Pearce, author of Spymaster