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What Red Deer Tell Us About Our Dangerous Iron Curtain Obsession

The way the media mishandled a years-old story about the behavior of wildlife where Germany and the Czech Republic meet feeds and legitimizes many people’s visions of impermeable physical borders or solid inter-ethnic lines.
Red deer stag with velvet antlers. (Photo: Mehmet Karatay/Wikimedia Commons)

Red deer stag with velvet antlers. (Photo: Mehmet Karatay/Wikimedia Commons)

Why wouldn't the Czech deer cross the former Iron Curtain? What sounds like a botched first-grader joke is an old story that again made headlineslast month. At its heart lies a real zoological conundrum that has long occupied wildlife researchers in two adjacent national parks, Germany's Bavarian Forest and the Czech Republic's Šumava (Bohemian Forest). How come "the deer on either side of the former Iron Curtain roam along" but not across the one-time border? Since 2005, Czech and German professionals, in search of answers, have employed telemetric collars to map the animals' migratory patterns, publishing their first study in 2011. But we are not talking about just any recalcitrant fawn. As taxonomic irony would have it, at stake is none less than the red deer, Cervus elaphus. And media reports, mostly based on the same Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) release, were quick to latch onto the three-letter adjective and expose the species' "brainwashed" nature for readers far and wide. The resulting press narrative is thus not about the deer—it is about us.

At a time when the media world is abuzz with the "new Cold War" speculations over Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty in Crimea, and with accounts of border violence elsewhere (the increase in deadly shootings at the U.S.-Mexican border is but an example), the red deer narrative speaks to the fraught political potential of the age-old romantic penchant for projecting our thoughts and emotions onto nature. At the same time, it suggests that nature is well ahead of us—at least where borders are concerned.

What are we looking for when we dramatize the story of the red deer, stripping the animal of instincts to endow it with a "mental wall"?

The language of the story's news coverage invites us to picture animals with strong traditions and beliefs—essentially, to imagine the deer as our anthropomorphic alter egos. There is no mention of instincts. Rather, the Iron Curtain still "lives on the minds" of these four-legged inhabitants of mid-continental Sylvania. Most "wouldn't dare jump the border," since they "infallibly respect" the separation. If one were to believe the papers, not even fauna is free from the so-called "mental wall," a term for the psychological impact of the decades-long East-West separation. Even though such a wall is, in fact, ours entirely.

What exactly accounts for the global resurgence of a study already profiled in 2009 and published in 2011? For one, there is our enduring (and disturbingly cross-cultural) fascination with Cold War drama—especially its Iron Curtain variety. We are addicted to revisiting the divide's dark and suspenseful effects: double agents, fractured families, heroic escapes, villainous patrols, tragic bodies trapped in barbed wire. They satisfy a range of our habits and needs, from purifying emotional catharsis to voyeuristic disaster porn. During the Cold War, a vast arsenal of such stock images helped propagate Iron Curtain awareness in the West (the East remained mum, by comparison). Since 1989, a similar reserve has continued to drive tourist economies in such cities as Germany's capital Berlin. As things stand, we'd better hope to never see this reserve activated for a new Cold War.

Even back in the day, the catalog of dire calamities and vibrant hopes was hardly universal. All Iron Curtain segments, it turns out, were not created equal. The infamous inter-German border, in the news almost constantly, regularly obliged with thrills and chills. But our deer's habitat, the spruce-covered hills between Germany and Czechoslovakia, failed to titillate to the same extent. It belonged to Central Europe's largest forested area—a sparsely populated and sleepy neck of the woods. Occasionally, these environs and nearby areas did set the stage for some spectacular escapes, publicized in Germany and the U.S. But more often than not, as I discovered while writing a book about western civilians' interventions in this Cold War landscape, the locals had to dramatize "their" part of the border. Some kindled new religious cults around Eastern-bloc crucifixes, vandalized and tossed across the border by "godless communists." Others turned to pagan folklore, predicting that the region's spooky saga characters—kobolds and their ilk—will return to haunt the red offenders. These people hoped to draw attention to their economically depressed homes, underfunded and rendered remote from the traditional markets. They sought to attract visitors and to cast themselves as guardians of the West's limit. Their motivations are explicable. But what are ours? What are we looking for when we dramatize the story of the red deer, stripping the animal of instincts to endow it with a "mental wall"?

There is more to it than either catharsis or disaster porn. Cold War nostalgia—the longing for certainty, "moral clarity and superiority" that has flickered on our TV and cinema screens for a while—is yet another possible explanation for our lasting obsession with all things red. And the Iron Curtain continues to stand for one such certainty, no matter how hard historians labor to uncover its porosity and constructedness. Not even academics are immune to this certainty's allure: A reviewer of my national grant application a few years ago was outraged that I dared to debunk "the entire concept of the 'iron curtain' as the symbol of the Cold War." Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, I wondered why anyone would want to hold on to such a symbol in the first place.

Alas, Cold War nostalgia is not all fun with The Americans, new James Bond novels, or Mr. Peabody (a canine expat from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, 1959-1964), coming to theaters near you this month. As any longing, it is rarely satisfied with marveling at the comforts of the past. It begs us to move them into the present. This is why indulging in our Iron Curtain fantasies, whether with humans or animals as protagonists, is dangerous in a world where new borders rise faster than the old ones fall. Recent examples are neither few nor far between.

On February 9th, Swiss citizens voted to restrict immigration and free movement of people, despite the treaties the country had signed with the European Union to assure the contrary. At the U.S.-Mexican border, the death toll had risen so steeply that the U.S. Border Patrol chief Michael J. Fisher had to announce new rules for handling incidents on March 7th. Anti-Roma sentiments are "unprecedented" in such countries as Hungary. The list could go on. Against this political backdrop, the worldwide diffusion of the red deer story feeds and legitimizes many people's visions of impermeable physical borders or solid inter-ethnic lines.

We can tell this story differently—the way Czech and German zoologists have been for years, homing in on unity, not separation. This plot has yet to make it into the papers. For the red deer project coordinators Marco Heurich and Pavel Šustr, the goals have been to reconstruct a single ecosystem of the Bavarian and Šumava Forests and improve trans-boundary cooperation. And what about the Bambies? To double-check, I contacted Heurich, whose quotes the DPA report had pulled to overly dramatic effect. Certainly, he wrote back, the deer, doe in particular, have strong behavioral patterns that they pass on to their offspring. But everything else is sheer "anthropomorphization."

It all started, Heurich clarified, with the exact opposite of the last month's media headlines. In the early 1980s, if not earlier, the deer actually crossed into the border instead of stopping at it. At the time, the Iron Curtain—a land strip with a series of physical obstacles sandwiched between the actual state border and the fence on the eastern interior, often several hundred feet wide—became a safe haven for wildlife. Inside this space, there were no hunters and plenty of fodder. After 1989, hunting resumed, which is why the red deer have since eschewed the former partition: Safety and food come first. The deer, Heurich underscores, "have no border instincts." It's time we followed suit.