Friday, December 16, 2011

Very Interesting Article About The Historical Origins of a Modern Border

The December 12, 2011 New York Times has an article titled, "Zombie Borders," about how the old boundary line between East and West Germany (now thankfully largely disappearing, except for a few monuments) reflects a traditional boundary between German and Slavic peoples:
The line that separated the Federal Republic of (West) Germany from the (East) German Democratic Republic is a zombie border: it’s been dead a few times in the past, and that hasn’t stopped it coming back. The line between east and west existed long before the postwar split.

The German part of what was called the Iron Curtain started on the Czech border at an old tripoint between the ancient kingdoms of Saxony, Bavaria and Bohemia [3]. On its northward course it largely followed the borders of German princely states as they had existed since the Middle Ages.

If the 20th-century border was ideological, and the 18th-century one dynastic, the separation in the Early Middle Ages was ethnic. Almost exactly a millennium before Stalin staked his claim to East Germany, a weirdly similar border divided the East Francian kingdom of Henry I the Fowler, first king of all Germans (919-936) from the Slavic lands in the east.

Around that time, most of what became the German Democratic Republic was settled by Slavs. Indeed, the Slavic history of what is now eastern Germany has been caught in the amber of its toponymy: Any town name ending in -ow (Treptow), -au (Spandau) or -itz (Chemnitz) most likely has a Slavic root. Even Berlin refers back to “berl,” ancient Slavonic for “swamp” (near which the original settlement was built), and not to Bär, German for the bear that really has no business gracing the city flag [5].
 Well worth reading--and it is so nice to see a newspaper article with footnotes!


  1. Interesting article!
    So, Kurfurstendamm, a region within Berlin means "Princely Region", or "Region of the Prince-electors". See footnote 4 in the article.

  2. It looks like the article is riddled with inaccuracies.

    Saxony and Bavaria were not "ancient kingdoms"; both became Kingdoms during the Napoleonic Wars.

    The "tri-point" at the western tip of Bohemia was really a "quadri-point": Bohemia to the east, Bavaria to the south, Saxony to the north, but to the west, Franconia: the Bayreuth and Anspach domains of a branch of the Hohenzollern family, the Imperial City of Nuremberg, and the Prince-Bishoprics of Wurzburg and Bamberg.

    Also, something very relevant:
    "Some Myths of World War Two" (

    a transcribed lecture by renowned historian Gerhard Weinberg.

    Weinberg sez the interzone border in Germany was drawn by British diplomats at Churchill's direction. Churchill wanted the border farther west to entice Stalin to push deep into Germany. The British proposed it, much to Stalin's surprise, and he gleefully accepted.

    It follows the border between Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, and Saxony on the east, and Lubeck, Hanover, Brunswick, Hesse-Cassel, and Franconia on the west.