Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain: From Russia with Labour

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 must 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.

It’s one of Winston Churchill’s most celebrated and epoch-defining speeches.

Certainly the greatest piece of oration from his post-World War II career, Churchill’s 1946 ‘Sinews of Peace’ address at Westminster College in Fulton, USA vocalised the uneasy mood that was spreading in the West as Eastern European states ‘liberated’ from the Axis powers remodelled themselves in the image of Stalin’s oppressive Soviet Union.

In his various government roles before becoming prime minister, Churchill had long been an opponent of the USSR in particular – interfering in the Russian Civil War in favour of the Nationalist ‘Whites’ in 1918 – and of anything that carried even the slightest whiff of socialism generally – infamously sending in the army to tackle striking miners in 1910 and 1911.

His hatred for the left was so all-consuming that while he captured the mood in warning against it in 1946, he got the mood so absolutely wrong just the year before when he pulled the same trick, claiming in the run up to the 1945 General Election that prospective Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee would be certain to fall back on “some sort of Gestapo” secret police to enforce his policies.

The 'Iron Curtain' is brought to life in this memorable cartoon from the Daily Mail on 6 March 1946.
The ‘Iron Curtain’ is brought to life in this memorable cartoon from the Daily Mail on 6 March 1946.

But the irony is that his evocative “Iron Curtain” metaphor may have been absorbed from any number of sources, perhaps even from his political enemies in the left-wing Labour Party or his fiercest foes in Nazi Germany.

Though the phrase “Iron Curtain” in one form or another been used as early as 3-5 CE in the Babylonian Talmud to describe a particularly insurmountable divide, in Victorian Britain the phrase came to refer to the literal iron curtain that would lower in theatre to protect the audience from fire on stage. This convenient visual metaphor was used in rhetoric across the early 20th Century to describe events as traumatic and wide-ranging as the division of Europe by the First World War in 1915 to the controversial French occupation of Germany’s industrialised Ruhr Valley in 1924.

Legendary science fiction author – and friend of Churchill – HG Wells used it in his 1904 book The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth to describe enforced privacy. Wells, who shared many of Churchill’s more hardline views on eugenics and social Darwinism, may have even inspired The Gathering Storm, the title of Churchill’s first volume of World War II memoirs, as the phrase appears twice in Wells’ 1897 classic The War of the Worlds.

“I owe you a great debt,” Churchill once wrote in a letter to the SF pioneer. He was complementing him on his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, which he echoed in a speech in Glasgow on 9 October 1906, promising a “utopia” in which, as in Wells’ tome, government pensions and welfare would act as a safety net for the working man. (Though, not at the expense of competition and hard work, mind – that sort of tommyrot reeks of socialism!)

HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds
HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds

While HG Wells may have slipped the “Iron Curtain” into his subconscious via Churchill’s vice for tall tales, Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov (1856-1919) has full credit for using in the context that Churchill then popularised with his rousing oratory. Rozanov wrote in Apocalypse of our Times in 1918, mere months after Lenin’s 1917 seizure of power in the October Revolution, that “with a rumble and a roar, an Iron Curtain is descending on Russian history.”

The “Iron Curtain” dividing the Communist east from the Capitalist West arrived in the English language just two years later in 1920 when Ethel Snowden, suffragette, activist and wife of evangelical socialist and Labour MP Philip Snowden, penned Through Bolshevik Russia, a frequently inane travel memoir of her trip as part of the British Labour Delegation.

Largely critical of what she saw in the so-called worker’s paradise (though full of praise for Lenin himself), she described her arrival in the country by saying that “we were behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ at last!”

Churchill may not necessarily have troubled himself with Snowden’s account for its own sake, although its anti-Bolshevik tone (“Everyone I met in Russia outside the Communist Party goes in terror of his liberty or his life”) inspired furore from many outraged commentators on the British left that may have brought it to his attention.

After all, having one of Labour’s own slam Lenin’s blessed “dictatorship of the proletariat” might have made for a useful barb or two in the Commons.

One of Snowden’s fellow travellers (literally and figuratively) Charles Roden Buxton, meanwhile, made use of the “Iron Curtain” line seven years later. He had written his own account of the 1920 trip – In a Russian Village, a bucolic account of a week spent in the countryside away from the rest of the British Labour Delegation – but it wasn’t until the October 1927 issue of the political magazine New Leader, under the headline “Behind Russia’s Curtain”, that he shared his thoughts more frankly.

Confusingly, Buxton attributed the phrase to one of the earlier uses, that referred not to the barrier between East and West, but the battle lines of World War I. Nonetheless, the Curtain had been drawn and it was Britain’s Labour Party who were holding onto the fabric.

Philip Snowden speaking at Honley Labour Club in 1907
Philip Snowden speaking at Honley Labour Club in 1907


The Snowden couple were influential within the Labour movement and soon would be more influential in the political culture of Britain. When Ramsay McDonald was appointed Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister just four years after Ethel’s expose, in 1924, Philip Snowden joined him as Labour’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer and as his stock rose the phrase “Iron Curtain” was shared through the party’s inner circle.

Later that year, Snowden was replaced as Chancellor by one of the big beasts of the Conservative Party – Winston Churchill. A favour Snowden would then repay in 1929 when McDonald and the Labour Party formed their second minority government with Liberal support and Churchill was ousted from the Treasury.

It seems very unlikely that Churchill would be unfamiliar with his predecessor and successor, his worldview and the circles he travelled in, given the combative, adversarial nature of British politics and polar nature of their individual worldviews.

Indeed, the two did meet at least once as a handover to settle any outstanding Treasury business and Churchill later wrote wearily of his left-wing rival’s time at the purse: “The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of two long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began.”

Labour's 1929 cabinet with Philip Snowden fourth from the left
Labour’s 1929 cabinet with Philip Snowden fourth from the left

As the bells of World War II rang our their death knell, the phrase “Iron Curtain” returned.

With the tide turned against them, German propaganda began to bark about the threat poised by the Soviet Union, not just to the German people, but to the entire world. As 19th Century German theatre tradition apparently being very similar to its British counterpart, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels warned in the pages of Das Reich of “ein eisener Vorhang” which was reported and translated by The Times on 23 February 1945 as “an iron screen” that would follow the Soviet battle lines as they drove West toward Berlin.

With the phrase clearly capturing the mood of paranoia, injustice and encirclement in Hitler’s doomed dictatorship, German foreign minister Count Schwerin von Krosig was reported in The Times speaking of “an Iron Curtain, behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on.”

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933
German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933


Churchill had made use of the term in a telegram to US President Henry Truman on 12 May, with another telegram to follow before “Iron Curtain” made its first airing in Parliament on 16 August 1945.

Now no longer just a political buzzword for Labour insiders, Nazi powerbrokers or Russian exiles, an article from the Sunday Empire News on 21 October 1945 described “an iron curtain of silence” that had “descended across the continent.”

Meanwhile, Churchill was already making the words his own and as he stepped up to the Westminster College podium in 1946, history would follow in its echoes.

Asked in 1951 if he had heard of any of these earlier uses of “Iron Curtain” before he added the words to his repertoire, the wartime PM replied, “No. I didn’t hear of the phrase before – though everyone has heard of the ‘iron curtain’ that descends in theatre.”

We can’t know exactly where Churchill did hear it, but given how prominently it had been used in his proximity – by rivals, arch-enemies and beloved authors – his claim is very unlikely to be true.

Whether through fiction, conversation, briefings or newspapers, the “Iron Curtain” may have permeated his consciousness as early half a century before the electrifying address that set the stage for a further half-century of frozen conflict.

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  • The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose
  • The Real History of the Cold War: A New Look at the Past by Alan Axelrod
  • Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later edited by James W Muller
  • Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words that Shaped Our Age By John Ayto
  • Churchill and Company: Allies and Rivals in War and Peace by David Dilks
  • Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War by Patrick Wright