Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Commentary, History

Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

“Can civilians make borders better?”
by Yuliya Komska, author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (2015)


Received wisdom contends that borders and walls are the work of states and supra-national bodies eager to regulate security, the movement of populations, and the flow of commodities. Not surprisingly, the construction and enforcement of these zones rely on weaponized technologies, substantial armed presence, and the use of surplus materials. Whether skimming the European Union’s southeastern edge, snaking between Israel and the West Bank, or cementing the line between the United States and Mexico, borders coalesce as militarized spaces, ostensibly antithetical to those inhabited by civilians in peacetime.

The concomitant impression is that civilians can humanize borders by channeling creative energies to subversive effect. Think of the colorful graffiti on the western side of the Berlin Wall, or the works of the elusive artist Banksy, who brought the divided German city’s visual motifs (such as the iconic trompe-l’oeil barrier breech or the make-belief scenic vista) to Gaza in 2005. Consider also the shrines and crosses at the Mexican border, which commemorate the thousands who died in US Border Patrol operations, or the more choreographed incentives that reimagine this emergent border wall, several devised by the architect Rael San Fratello. The most quixotic include a porous wildlife habitat and a built-in burrito stand, where customers would sit down to lunch or dinner, feet touching through the wire between them. Maybe, as San Fratello insists, such interventions can erode these barriers over time. If not, maybe they can at least make borders “a bit better.”

Can they? The magic ascribed to the light civilian touch dissipates when we journey to the world’s last outsized border—the Iron Curtain. Its substantial 2,200-mile course and its endurance over some four decades would suggest ample space and time for subversive acts, first and foremost along the accessible western side.

Some certainly occurred, but the big picture was more complicated. Contrary to legend, the borderlands’ residents in neither West nor East appear to have mounted much notable opposition to the oncoming division. Instead, they acquiesced slowly but surely, some out of apathy, others motivated by prospects of gain. “The brutal barrier,” the historian Edith Sheffer notes, “emerged not just from coercion but also from the mundane attitudes and actions of ordinary people.”[i]

Places with less glaring drama—just west of the Czechoslovak–West German border, in the shadow of Central Europe’s largest nature preserve (the Bavarian Forest in the West and the Bohemian Forest/Šumava in the East)—did bustle with creative civilian activity, but its outbursts and outcomes were more ambiguous still.

This was where many Sudeten Germans—a nearly three-million-strong ethnic minority expelled from postwar Czechoslovakia as uncooperative and allegedly treacherous—had settled down or returned regularly since the late 1940s. To fortify the Iron Curtain and to clear the adjacent security strip at the onset of the 1950s, Czechoslovak troops razed scores of the now emptied Sudeten German villages, tearing down houses, schools, and churches. Some religious paraphernalia survived and made it into the West, and legends of these objects’ miraculous endurance sparked the Catholic imaginations of those expelled, feeding them for years to come.

Devotees huddled around these so-called “mutilated Jesus” and “expelled Madonna” figures, heralding new cults and building borderland chapels to house them. Visitors arrived in droves, and West Germany’s cautious ecclesiastical authorities shuddered at the thought of the deregulated and potentially heretical expressions of popular piety in the immediate proximity of the Cold War hot spot.

Between 1950 and 1985, about a dozen new sites sprung up, inciting clerics to bundle the bunch into one imaginative construct: a prayer wall. This wall was neither solid, nor was it particularly conspicuous—Cold War lore had it that the Berlin Wall was visible from outer space, whereas each prayer wall station (as this author learned the hard way) was as obscure as could be. But in the minds of those devoted, the whole came together as an expressly Christian antidote to the “atheist” Iron Curtain.

With the prayer wall beckoning, the border became a destination not only for secular tourists but also for religious pilgrims. Familiar with both sides—thanks to past connections in the East and deepening ties in the West—Sudeten Germans expanded their improvised bastion. Lookout towers and monuments soon surrounded several of the borderland chapels. Graphic Stations of the Cross, one series depicting Jesus tormented by uniformed Czechoslovak soldiers against several recognizable borderland backdrops, dotted the bucolic hills. Sudeten German periodicals swelled with photographs, travel reports, and poems, many titled simply, “At the Border.”

But the prayer wall also had the unintended effect of re-enforcing the Iron Curtain. It fed off the same misguided binaries as the divide itself—religion against atheism, civilization against barbarism, West against East. Sudeten German attachments to their former homes east of the border shaped the finer points of their interactions with the barrier, but not enough to discount the opposition between the purportedly godless Czechs and virtuous Germans.

Sudeten Germans often viewed the prayer wall’s cornerstones as explicit counterpoints to “the watchtowers of the Kremlin’s marauding soldiery,” mushrooming ominously in the East. But their opposition had its own historical and political causations. They had yearned for this border to vanish long before it overlapped with the Iron Curtain. When it did, between 1938 and 1945, it was only thanks to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Wishing a border away, their story suggests, is not always an innocent civilian fantasy.

History is no destiny, and not every creative civilian challenge to borders is doomed to failure. However, neither is success guaranteed when often contradictory investments collide under pressure on already contested land.

[i] Edith Sheffer, The Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.


Yuliya Komska is assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College.

To read more about her book The Icon Curtain, click here.