What does the phrase “iron curtain” mean and Where does it come from?

Not often is a phrase, coined for a particular occasion, immediately seized upon, and widely used.

The phrase “iron curtain”, however, so aptly described a condition which was disturbing half the globe that it achieved immediate popularity.

It was coined by Winston Churchill who, as prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, had an unequaled view of European politics during those critical years. The rise of Russian influence over eastern Europe disturbed him, accompanied as it was by rigid censorship and closed borders.

When, no longer prime minister, he visited the United States in 1946, he felt free to express his misgivings. In a speech on March 5 at Fulton, Mo., where he was receiving an honorary degree from Westminster College, he expressed his concern in the following words:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of central and eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I might call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

1 thought on “What does the phrase “iron curtain” mean and Where does it come from?”

  1. It is true that most people associate this pithy metaphor with Churchill’s speech in 1946, but by no means did he coin the phrase. Safety curtains in European theatres were actually composed of iron. Stage fires caused by faulty gas lighting were common, so having a heavy fire resistant curtain ready to lower at a moments notice was a necessary safety precaution. For “Iron Curtain” to emerge as an apt metaphor for an impenetrable political barrier was not too much of a stretch in the first half of the 20th century in the European “theatre of war” of both WWI and WWII. Prior to Churchill’s use of the term, Joseph Goebbels used the term in the weekly edition of Das Reich on February 25, 1945, “An iron curtain [ein eiserner Vorhang] would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered.” In December of that year, London newspaper writers had picked up on the phrase, using it frequently in articles and editorials about the worsening situation in a divided Europe, particularly Germany.

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