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The Icon Curtain

The Cold War’s Quiet Border

The Iron Curtain did not exist—at least not as we usually imagine it. Rather than a stark, unbroken line dividing East and West in Cold War Europe, the Iron Curtain was instead made up of distinct landscapes, many in the grip of divergent historical and cultural forces for decades, if not centuries. This book traces a genealogy of one such landscape—the woods between Czechoslovakia and West Germany—to debunk our misconceptions about the iconic partition.

Yuliya Komska transports readers to the western edge of the Bohemian Forest, one of Europe’s oldest borderlands, where in the 1950s civilians set out to shape the so-called prayer wall. A chain of new and repurposed pilgrimage sites, lookout towers, and monuments, the prayer wall placed two long-standing German obsessions, forest and border, at the heart of the century’s most protracted conflict. Komska illustrates how civilians used the prayer wall to engage with and contribute to the new political and religious landscape. In the process, she relates West Germany’s quiet sylvan periphery to the tragic pitch prevalent along the Iron Curtain’s better-known segments.

Steeped in archival research and rooted in nuanced interpretations of wide-ranging cultural artifacts, from vandalized religious images and tourist snapshots to poems and travelogues, The Icon Curtain pushes disciplinary boundaries and opens new perspectives on the study of borders and the Cold War alike.


“Komska’s work on the part of the Iron Curtain further to the south is a welcome addition. It is not often that a forest forms the centrepiece in historical writing. The Icon Curtain is one of those instances. Komska’s research focuses on the Bohemian Forest on the border moving up and down between the western side of Czechoslovakia and the West German border. Her work not only explores a less-studied locus of Cold War tension, but it also aims to deepen our understanding of the Iron Curtain by looking at representations rather than events, and by looking at literary texts and religious artefacts rather than experiences. . . . Komska’s research persuasively shows how the character of the Iron Curtain was far from uniform throughout its length. . . . The content is enlightening and she demonstrates how using geographical, literary and visual sources can greatly enhance our understanding of this era.”

Hester Vaizey, University of Cambridge, author of "Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall" | Times Higher Education

“An intriguing, interdisciplinary study of the particular contours and content of a discrete, less known segment of the Iron Curtain. . . . A number of scholarly audiences will find reading Komska’s The Icon Curtain to be worthwhile and rewarding. Among others, this book is recommended to historians of postwar Czechoslovakia and Germany who focus on Sudeten Germans or Central European borderlands; experts in the construction and character of borders during the Cold War and in other contexts; researchers interested in methods for the study of narrative, memory, and material culture; and analysts seeking to understand ways in which people cope with the trauma of forced migration. Theoretically informed students and practitioners of heritage tourism will also find much of interest in this enriching, provocative study of culture and the local construction of the Iron Curtain.”

Cathleen M. Giustino, Auburn University | H-Diplo

“Komska is a gifted writer. Her book’s title—The Icon Curtain—announces a work that looks at the destruction, preservation, and production of symbolic and religious artifacts that both traverse and solidify the ideological barrier. Through a series of different frames—iconic religious figures and images of expellees, border travelogues, photography of rubble—Komska unravels a cultural genealogy of the Iron Curtain beyond its military, political, social, and economic functions, closing the gap between fields of visual, literary, and religious studies. She examines borders as sites of creative cultural production, and also how these productions shape the peripheries into centers. The Icon Curtain will contribute greatly to border studies and Cold War studies, particularly from the cultural studies angle.”

Anna Grichting Solder, Qatar University | coauthor of "Stitching the Buffer Zone"

“A truly excellent book. The Icon Curtain is part and parcel of an expanding literature on the making of the border in Cold War Germany. But Komska’s book is distinct and highly original. Komska examines the ways in which former Sudeten Germans narrativized the border in both text and image. She analyzes, in other words, the cultural productions and practices of Sudeten Germans themselves. In so doing, she excavates a body of sources that has thus far completely eluded the attention of historians, anthropologists, or literary critics. With considerable skill and energy, Komska deploys a multiplicity of disciplinary perspectives to her multifaceted source body. What emerges from this analysis is not a series of loosely related case studies but rather a specific and quite coherent set of cultural practices and representations. Komska’s study reconstructs an imaginary world, a set of fantasies that sought to reconcile traditional attachment to an always contested homeland with the new reality of an increasingly impermeable Cold War border. This is one of the most erudite, well-written, and original analyses of the cultural history of the Cold War that I am aware of. I have no doubts that it will have a defining impact on a variety of fields.”

Frank Biess, University of California, San Diego | coeditor of "Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective"

"[Komska] does not explore interactions across the East-West boundary. Instead, she concentrates exclusively on the Western side, emphasizing the activities of a particular population group: the Sudeten Germans, somewhat over 2 million of whom had, during and after the war, fled or been expelled from what became post-1945 Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly, the Sudeten Germans had a particularly keen interest in both the
West German–Czechoslovak border and the territories beyond it, and Komska stresses their role in creating, in the West, “an international Cold War symbol” that was “very tightly . . . bound up” with the boundary itself (18). That symbol was the “Icon Curtain” of Komska’s title: not the notorious Iron Curtain but a parallel structure in its immediate proximity in Bavaria, with Sudeten German expellees as its chief architects and champions."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Conditions: Ruins of the Cold War
Chapter 2. Cornerstones: Iconoclasm and the Making of the Prayer Wall
Chapter 3. Infrastructure: Civilian Border Travel and Travelogues
Chapter 4. Uses: Visual Nostalgia at the Prayer Wall

Epilogue: Tragic Frames

List of Archives


Modern Language Association: MLA Scaglione Prize for Studies in Germanic Languages and Literatures
Honorable Mention

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