[lg policy] Zombie Borders
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Tue Dec 13 16:15:52 UTC 2011
Zombie Borders By FRANK
the global map, one line at a time.
cold war <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/cold-war/>,
Maps <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/maps/>, place
June 13th, 1990, was a historic day for weather forecasting in Germany. For
the very first time, the weather map on the Tagesschau
the newly reunited country’s international borders.
Before, German meteorologists made do with merely topographical maps of a
borderless Europe. This was to keep ideology out of meteorology: showing
(or not showing) the border between East and West Germany would have meant
acknowledging (or denying) that this too was an international border.
Now defunct by just over two decades, the border between the two Germanys
already seems like a surreal relic from a much more distant past. Was there
*really* ever a 540-mile Strip of Death separating the two halves, from the
Czech border to the Bay of Lübeck? There was – and it was quite hermetical,
and very deadly
but today a visitor might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Joe Burgess/The New York Times
These days, the so-called innerdeutsche Grenze is almost completely erased
from the landscape, marked only by the occasional memorial placard along
the Autobahn. The fences, the spotlights, the guard dogs and the tanks have
all been withdrawn. But that doesn’t mean it’s gone. 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 <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/zombie-borders/#ftn3>.
On its northward course it largely followed the borders of German princely
states as they had existed since the Middle Ages.
Admittedly, the view is complicated by the proliferation of small states so
typical for pre-unification Germany, but squint at a map of the Holy Roman
its latter centuries, and you’ll see the 20th-century intra-German
border prefigured. It’s right there, at the western edge of Thuringia,
Magdeburg, the Altmark and Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
But why? After flattening much of Germany, why would the Allies pay any
heed to medieval demarcations when occupying it? The border between FRG and
GDR started out as the line where the Soviet zone of occupation in the east
met the British and American zones. Not only did the Soviets have a bone to
pick with Germany, but communism itself seems antithetical to the feudalism
that shaped those borders.
The answer is, most likely: convenience. Many if not most “new”
international borders, which we take to be the result of recent politics,
are in fact older, subnational ones. Drawing completely new borders means
having to negotiate and compromise, exchanging territorial tit-for-tats.
Plus, by taking over old administrative units in their entirety, you’re
inheriting an established capital with a centralized administration that
has a reach covering the entire territory. Relying on old borders, already
familiar to the locals, saves the occupier a lot of bother.
But there is an even deeper historical layer to Germany’s East-West divide.
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
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
Henry founded the powerful Ottonian dynasty – his son Otto would be the
first German emperor – and started the tradition of German eastward
expansion. In the centuries up to the world wars of the 20th century,
German conquest, settlement and acculturation had pushed back the
Slavosphere hundreds of miles. Even today, pockets of ethnic Slavs still
exist within German borders, most notably the Sorbs, who live in and around
the Spreewald marshlands southeast of Berlin and speak a language closely
related to Polish. Hitler explicitly placed his quest for more Lebensraum
in the east in the tradition of that Drang nach Osten
he even sent German anthropologists into Poland and Russia to find evidence
that ethnic Germans had once occupied those territories.
Stalin, too, saw the contemporary conflict with Germany in a millennial
context. In his victory speech to the people on May 9, 1945, he said: “The
age-long struggle of the Slavonic peoples for their existence and
independence has ended in victory over the German aggressors and German
This might explain why the Soviets were the first of the Allied quartet to
propose the borders of their occupation zone
they had studied their historical atlases beforehand, and were
to roll back German eastward expansion from its high-water mark at the
gates of Moscow to its earliest beginnings, on the banks of the Elbe. As
the Swiss historian Walther Hofer wrote, “The Third Reich did not turn out
to be a thousand-year empire, but in the twelve years of its existence, it
managed to undo the historical achievement of a thousand years”
But this was hardly the end of things: the Red Army’s advance to the Elbe,
once indeed the border between Germanic and Slavic tribes, turned out to be
the Soviet Union’s own high-water mark. By 1990, state communism had
retreated from Central Europe. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, the
Soviet Union was about to collapse as Germany’s two halves re-unified
The Iron Curtain that divided Europe (and Germany) is gone. The European
Union now includes much of Eastern Europe, and indeed some bits of the
former Soviet Union. In Angela Merkel, Germany has its first chancellor
raised in the former East Germany. Although many socio-economic indicators
for the ex-GDR are still not up to par with the western half of Germany,
the border itself has been thoroughly erased from the landscape.
So is that the end of Henry the Fowler’s thousand-year-old border? Maybe
not. Erased borders are like phantom limbs – sometimes it feels like
they’re still there, even when they’re manifestly not.
For one of the most remarkable examples of this revenant quality of former
borders, we need only hop across the Oder-Neisse line to Poland. On the map
of post-communist Poland’s election results, one curious division keeps
cropping up: the old imperial border between Russia and Prussia/Germany, as
it existed when Poland did not, from 1848 to 1918.
In the electoral districts west of that border, it’s usually the more
liberal candidates and parties that win a majority. To the east, with the
notable exception of Warsaw, the more conservative ones mostly carry the
day. This map shows the geographic distribution of majorities in the first
round of the most recent presidential elections, in 2010, pitting Bronisław
Komorowski (candidate for the liberal Civic Platform party) against
Jarosław Kaczynski (candidate of the conservative Law and Justice party).
Mr. Komorowski, who defeated his opponent 53 percent to 47 percent, won
majorities mainly in the formerly Prussian part of the country, with Mr.
Kaczynski winning mainly in the formerly Russian part.
Read previous contributions to this series.
The fit between modern election result and ancient border is almost
perfect. But how can this be? The ethnic composition of the region has been
shaken up thoroughly since the border last was in effect: following the
Second World War, Germans were expelled from areas east of the Oder-Neisse
line, and Poles moved in from former Polish areas to the east, now annexed
by the Soviet Union.
Yet in spite of these completely different demographics, the former border
keeps resurfacing at Polish national elections – a zombie border indeed.
Earlier treatment of this question
offered up a few intriguing hypotheses: The resettled Poles haven’t
the time yet to “get conservative”; the newer Polish areas have richer
farmland (or a denser rail network), are thus more likely to have liberal
politics. But an answer that fits the question as snugly as the old border
fits contemporary election results remains elusive.
It may seem overly deterministic to link modern election results to ancient
borders that no longer exist; but similar claims have been made about
election outcomes in France, Ukraine and the United States, to name but a
The Web site Electoral Geography <http://www.electoralgeography.com/> is an
excellent place to lose a few hours looking for evidence of old borders, or
any other social patterns, in election result maps. And when all those
shifting boundaries get a bit too much for you, maybe it’s finally time for
the Tagesschau’s soothing weather
where the only lines moving across Europe are the cold fronts.
*Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about
cartography, but only the interesting bits.*
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