Mapping the Contemporary Iron Curtain

Last winter, an intern at Facebook created the above graphic, which represents ten million “friendships” on the social networking site with a thin blue arc connecting the real world locations of the users. The result was astonishing. By plotting this data, Paul Butler created a recognizable world map, which displayed not only Facebook friendships, but also continents, oceans, and countries. Paul wrote about the project and commented, “What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships.” Yet, a cursory inspection of the map is enough to realize that the lines often DO imitate political boundaries. Although they do not represent borders themselves, the Facebook map reinforces their presence and significance in our lives, which is perhaps more profound than we realize.

Look at this map carefully and you can clearly see the shadow of East Germany in a significantly less-dense field of Facebook users. This map suggests that despite our increasingly globalized civilization, political borders still determine the way we live, work, and socialize in a way that is self-perpetuating. By examining a variety of contemporary maps, it will become clear that although the Iron Curtain fell 21 years ago, it is still a deeply felt reality beyond the traditional political map of Europe.

Consider this map of Europe (above) during the Cold War and compare it against the subsequent maps. You’ll see startling similarities.

Contemporary Maps and Statistics

The most startling examples are economic. Unemployment is higher, and income is lower almost across the board in areas once behind the Iron Curtain. Most strikingly, note the presence of our phantom East Germany, sharply distinguished from its western counterpart in each map.

Unemployment Rate

Average Weekly Hours

GDP per Inhabitant

Internet access and broadband connections in households

The map to the left is about internet access, and how prevalent it is an given region. Again, notice the significant gap behind the Iron Curtain. This statistic seems like the odd man out, but is likely rooted in the economic struggle Eastern Europe faced under Communist rule, and the subsequent discrepancy in technological and industrial development. It also goes a long way toward explaining our Facebook graphic-it’s difficult to have online friendships when you don’t have internet access.

Pupils at primary and lower-secondary education, as a percentage of total population

Here’s another off-topic statistic: countries once behind the Iron Curtain are more likely to have a lower percentage of their population in school at the primary and lower-secondary levels. What does this mean? There are fewer young people in the East. Especially, less young, educated people. The problem of young talent fleeing the East was a large factor in the construction of structures like the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall. It continues to plague these regions today, and the trend will probably continue as long as GDP and economic well-being (and internet access!) is at stake. And this time, there’s no physical border to stop them, only this invisible one, which lures migrants across.

It’s also important to note that there are a lot of maps and statistics from Eurostat that DO NOT show any sort of lingering east/west divide. These include things as diverse as: farming structure, transport infrastructure, and fatal diseases of the respiratory system. And, many statistics can be attributed to things like climate that are much larger than any political border.

However, the maps and the data they represent suggest that overall, Eastern Europe, specifically countries that were east of the Iron Curtain, are still behind their Western counterparts, economically and technologically. Furthermore, it is the lingering effect of Europe’s division that is to blame. Quite frankly, many people would not find it surprising that countries like Poland, Belarus, even the Czech Republic are a bit behind. Yet, the repeated appearance of the phantom East Germany on these maps is strong evidence that the gap is directly related to the Iron Curtain and its continued legacy.

The Recession and Conclusions

This issue has been dragged into the spotlight in European responses to the recent recession. As bailouts and debt were first hotly debated in 2008, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek both voiced their fears of a new divide in Europe. Their countries’ economies are struggling, yet they desperately wish to avoid more debt owed to Western Europe. Gyurcsany actually invoked the term “iron curtain” while Topolanek warned against “new dividing lines” and a “Europe divided along a North-South or an East-West line.” Unsurprisingly, the recession hit hardest in weak economies once behind the Iron Curtain. As the Eurozone struggles to pull itself together, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore this touchy fact.

What can we learn from these maps?

  • The Iron Curtain lives on as an economic and social gap between East and West Europe and remains tied to an identifiable place on the map.
  • Political borders go way deeper than bureaucracy and citizenship. They permeate all aspects of economics, society, daily life, and will continue to do so long after their demise.
  • Is the gap self-perpetuating? When considering the data represented in the above maps in conjunction with the Facebook graphic, it’s easy to make the case that the Iron Curtain has spilled into a younger generation, despite the march of globalization. If this is true, it’s hard to predict when its legacy will no longer negatively impact the present day economics and overall well-being of Eastern Europe, especially in under the pressure of a global recession that threatens the stability of the European Economic Union.

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6 responses to “Mapping the Contemporary Iron Curtain”

  1. Bart says :

    Hi, it is an interesting article. The only mistake is that what you mean by Eastern Europe is in fact what we call former Eastern Bloc; similarly – Western Europe is actually “former Western Bloc”. Try not to use these terms anyway because they come up as really offensive, because Europe came through a lot to re-unite itself. It comes up as offensive to speak of bothe of them, but a real faux pas is to relate to counries with strong Central European identity (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary) as Eastern Europe rather than Central Europe. Remember-Europe ends where the Ural mountains are, and Caucasus; the centre of Europe is there:,25.316667&ll=55.627996,28.388672&spn=22.583166,62.578125&t=m&z=4 which makes it even more perplexing but one’s brain can explode learning that Russia has 2 parts: European (in Europe) and Asian (in Asia), divided by Ural Mountains. European Russia is 40% of Europe’s landmass, so it leaves 60% for all other European regions like western Europe, Northern Europe, Southern Europe… and Central Europe? Maybe Russia is in Eastern and a bit in northern Europe, then? Additionally, to some European institutions, and firms, and UN agencies, and economic organisations, Europe ends where Russia ends…

    Anyway, the idea is – please, please, please – never call Eastern Bloc countries Eastern Europe. There is one country that is in Eastern Europe but the rest is in either Central Europe or the Balkan region of Southern Europe 🙂 Always try to avoid Western/Eastern Europe faux pas and life will be nicer, even when you visit Europe 🙂
    Greetings from the UK!

    • ktrenerry says :

      Dear Bart,

      Firstly, thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate hearing from you.

      To respond to your point bluntly, I have never, ever heard that the term “Eastern Europe” is offensive. I have not come across this in studying under a Ph.D. in Modern European History, traveling in Europe on 3 separate occasions and speaking with Europeans (including the Czech Republic and Poland). I’ve also been writing about Eastern Europe and Western Europe on this blog for more than a year and have never come across your concern before.

      In fact, it seems to me that substituting “Eastern Bloc” for “Eastern Europe” would be even more offensive, since it unequivocally refers to the former communist states/Soviet-occupied states, which most people agree were pretty terrible.

      You raise a good point about the boundaries of Europe. Many geographers would agree with you that the physical entity of Europe ends at the Ural Mountains, while others would say that Europe extends across all of Russia. Others still, the EU for instance, maintain that Europe ends at Poland’s eastern frontier. It depends on who you ask, which is why it’s so fascinating to talk about and explore.

      But to claim that the middle of Europe is in the middle of Lithuania (where your link points) without discussing the different decisions that led to this calculation is, in my opinion, misleading. For example, did you include Iceland in that calculation? What about Greenland, which is under Danish rule? French Guinea? That would probably re-distribute the weight of the map a bit. My point is that there’s not a single right or wrong answer to this and pointing to a single center of a body that is as amorphous and problematic as Europe, without explaining yourself, carries no weight.

      Finally, you say that the reason Eastern/Western Europe is an offensive term is because “Europe came through a lot to re-unite itself.” Well, the entire point of the post you responded to is that Europe isn’t very united at all; there’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the divisions created by the Cold War still exist today in some forms. Given this, it seems appropriate to study why this is, and yes, use terms that distinguish different regions from one another.

      I would be interested to hear more about why you find the term “Eastern Europe” offensive. Although I have not heard this before, I am certainly open to hearing opinions based on facts and outside sources of information. I would be especially interested to hear on who’s behalf you are writing. You say ‘we’ in the beginning of your post. If you want to continue this conversation, could you explain who this group is and why you feel this way?


  2. andrew james says :

    Couldn’t this whole analysis simply prove that Facebook doesn’t have a big presence in the former former Eatsern bloc, or in parts of Asia (western & eastern) due to multiple factors, not least among them a lower level of English language skills? Or, alternatively, it could also indicate where censorship at a governement level is more profound?

    • ktrenerry says :


      Thanks for your comment. However, I’m afraid you missed the point of the post. My argument was that these “multiple factors” you cite (represented in my post as income, unemployment, internet access and secondary school pupils, amongst others) are in fact all related to the Iron Curtain’s presence in Europe, and the maps that represent discrepancies between the above factors point to a continued legacy of division in Europe, which is even visible in Facebook usage and the way Facebook relationships exist or do not exist across this divide.

      Take your example: lower level of English language skills in the former the Eastern bloc. Here’s a contemporary map of the prevalence of the English language in Europe: You’re right, there is a lower level of English language skills in the former Eastern Bloc. Now, please note that learning Russian was obligatory in East Germany after 1951 and similar conditions prevailed throughout the Eastern Bloc.
      I can’t prove it beyond a doubt, but I think it’s pretty obvious that there is a correlation between these two facts.

      Additionally, I’m not convinced that English language use is even a valid argument for lower Facebook usage, considering it’s available in a huge variety of languages (including pirate, last I checked). However, your example reinforces my point that the divide between East and West still exists-you’ve just identified another way its presence is felt.

      You are correct in your observation that censorship at a government level definitely is a factor in the omission of a number of countries from this map, most notably China, Russia, and more relevant to the region I examined, Belarus. It’s certainly not the case in former East Germany and I don’t think it’s a valid explanation for the division in the density and distribution of Facebook friendships that we see between the former East and West Germany.

      Does that answer your questions? You’re right that there are “multiple factors” involved in the Facebook map, and the others I posted, I’m just saying that the boundaries they reveal suggest that the former borders of the Iron Curtain still have a very real impact on lives in Europe.

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