A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War


Read 24/11/2019-12/12/2019

Rating 4 stars

A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse legacies of the Cold War is a collection of academic essays on the material culture of the Cold War and a multidisciplinary approach to its history. It makes a case for the influence that the Cold War has had on the world, from the domestic lives of those living under its psychological shadow in Europe and the USA, to those living alongside nuclear power stations (also sites of manufacture of weapons grade nuclear material) and nuclear test sites. It takes in archaeology, history, art, architecture and cultural studies in its examination of material culture and what that material culture can tell us about something that has been hidden behind military classification for so long.

A colleague lent the book to me ages ago, as the result of a conversation about how fascinated I am by places like Dungeness and Fylindales. We were working on an exhibition about electricity and chatting about the architecture of intrusions in the landscape like pylons and nuclear power stations, structures that have been designed to be beacons of modernity with a nod towards sympathy for the natural environment around them.

When I finished Escape from Earth, which has sites of technology and the Cold War among its themes, I remembered this book. It’s a lot drier than MacDonald’s history of rocket development, but interesting all the same.

I’m not a Cold War historian. I’m not an archaeologist, either. Nor am I a curator, for whom the interpretation of material culture is  part and parcel of the job. I’m an archivist. I deal with the written and the drawn, the filmed and the recorded. The message more than the medium.

I do curate exhibitions as part of my job, though. The one I’m currently curating is about a moment in musical history that happened forty years ago. The first essay in this collection makes the point that the Cold War is within living memory and is still impacting on how we live our lives today. In putting together this music exhibition, I’m aware that it, too, is a story that started within living memory. It has ongoing impact on how the city where it happened sees itself and is seen by others, and how the cityscape has developed over the past forty years.

The collection was published 12 years ago, so theory and practice will undoubtedly have moved on. One of the points made in the opening essay is that the Cold War is too recent an event to be fully understood or fixed as an era.

The past is never over, never finished, but continues to live in the present, and it usually has a much stronger life when it is so recent and remains the subject of heated political and moral debate.

A handful of my friends at university took a module in International Politics called ‘Is the Cold War over?’ It was 1991. The Berlin Wall was down. Gorbachev had received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Soviet Union was about to collapse. Yugoslavia was on the edge of civil war, soon to be culturally and geographically torn apart. Roughly a decade later, the West entered into a new war, one against terrorism perceived as originating in the Middle East. The introductory essay questions whether this new war is simply an extension of the Cold War, given the history of the USA and USSR arming rebels in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other essays brought me new knowledge. I’ve visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome). I’ve understood it as simultaneously a reminder of the consequences of Japan’s aggression in the Second World War and a symbol of the need for an ongoing global peace. I hadn’t connected it to the start of the Cold War. Even though it represents the birth of atomic/nuclear weaponry, I hadn’t appreciated its significance in representing the US’s first Cold War message to the USSR.

Contemporary wartime accounts have revealed that the major motivation for dropping the bomb was to send a sign to Stalin and the Soviet Union by showing the US’s atomic power. It was intended that this would prevent the Soviet Union’s aspirations for gaining a power share in the division of postwar Eastern Europe and the Far East.

The opposing views of the Japanese and US delegations to the International Council on Monuments and Sites during Japan’s 1996 attempt to have the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) inscribed on the World Heritage List fascinated me. The site was added to the List, but not without a lot of politically motivated push back from the Americans.

I also learnt about the wanton disregard for the human rights of the people living in Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Polynesia. In my ignorance, I hadn’t thought of the Pacific atolls used as nuclear test sites in the second half of the 20th century as being habitable. They are, and entire populations of people with cultures and livelihoods directly connected to the landscape they lived in were uprooted by the British, French and Americans to make space for nuclear testing so destructive that these atolls are now, at best, so radioactive that nobody can return to live there and, in two cases, were entirely obliterated. These displaced people are now nuclear nomads. The Western habit of invasion and colonial appropriation is a never ending nightmare of arrogance and brutality.

The best essays were those where the author came across as invested in their subject matter. For some, it was a political and emotional connection. For others, it was an opportunity to share an aspect of their working life, be that a specialist working for English Heritage or an artist responding to the tangible legacy of the Cold War in the landscape.

In the essay on ‘Defining the national archaeological character of Cold War remains’, the question of whether the Cold War was too recent to be considered as heritage is raised. In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, British military institutions divested of former Cold War sites that had become surplus to requirements.

On most sites prior to disposal, the majority of structures were stripped of their furniture, fittings and equipment, leaving vacant spaces often devoid of meaning.

I understood the archaeologist’s need to have structural, material evidence of Cold War sites of activity, but my archivist brain questioned whether intervening to influence the survival of structures was the appropriate thing to do. In documenting the past, it’s not our place to influence the shape that past takes. Our role is to preserve what survives, because the path of survival and the failure to survive is as much a part of the record as the physical evidence itself. If we try to second guess what future historians might need to see, we run the risk of dictating the route their studies should take. We insert ourselves too much into the record.

For organisations that continue to function after an aspect of their work has ended, there must be freedom to do with their property as best suits their needs. Repurposing the tools used for an earlier output to meet current requirements might be necessary. So might selling property in order to invest in new facilities and equipment. To the organisation, the fact that their previous activity is of great historical importance is irrelevant. It’s their present and future existence that matters.

A number of the essays in the book referred back to this outlining of how to approach Cold War monumental remains archaeologically. As I read the chapter on Greenham Common, I found myself wondering what is the point at which rubbish, the abandoned detritus of everyday life, becomes historical record. The boots and coffee pots, the shreds of tarpaulin, the ephemera from the lives of the women in the Greenham peace camps seemed like rubbish to me. And yet, without the middens and rubbish heaps of the past, there’s much we wouldn’t know now about how people lived centuries before our society evolved. The same will no doubt be true centuries and millennia down the timeline from us. Something jars for me, though, at the thought of presenting our recent past to future historians through a neat and tidy archaeological survey and heritage status listing. Where’s the thrill of discovering something unexpected in that? I preferred the chapter on the Nevada Peace Camp, which reflected more on the symbolism of what the peace protestors left behind in the way of art, graffiti, symbols and markers than on the race to preserve these things as monuments. It gave a sense of the camp residents as people with a connection to the planet who created a community in opposition to military and political powers that didn’t have their interests in mind.

My favourite essay was about the Berlin Wall. Its focus was on East German perceptions of the Wall and the propaganda from the GDR aimed at its own citizens to establish a culture of fear. The thing I found most interesting was what the authors had to say about negative space. When sections of the Wall came down, they left behind spaces in the form of weaker plant growth in rural areas along the line of the Wall, or peculiarities in buildings in urban areas, or ancillary structures like the flower bowl barricades. I also understood the point they made about the different viewpoints on the wall and its place in history. For many outside of Germany, the Wall is now a symbol of the reunification of Germany. For Germans, it’s a reminder of a terrible time in the country’s history and representative of the difficulties that reunification has brought.

There’s also an excellent essay by the German Film historian Reinhild Steingröver that attempts a cinematology of films about the end of the Cold War as characterised by the reunification of Germany. It begins with a description of a scene from one of my favourite films of the last 20 years, Good Bye Lenin!, made over a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, before moving on to consider how the effects of reunification has been captured on film at the time of change and after a period of reflection. The author touches on the way West German sensibilities took precedence over acknowledgement of an East German identity as a valid sense of self. West Germany, she says, was quick to cleanse the reunified nation of any traces of its socialist past with the result that East Germans lost their unique cultural identity. Steingröver also makes the point that the optimistic socialism depicted in Good Bye Lenin! is derived from a West German unlived appraisal. She cites the films made in East Germany at the time of Good Bye Lenin!’s setting, which portray “the devastating social and personal effects of censorship and the secret police” and which examine “the validity of the founding myth of socialism-antifascism”. The section of the essay that explores these films had personal interest to me. In 2009, my husband temporarily and briefly relocated to Berlin to work on an animated film. He worked at a film park in Babelsburg, the former home of the East German state film studio DEFA, on a film starring the East German TV character Sandmännchen. The film park has also been the production site for films including The Pianist, The Bourne Supremecy, V for Vendetta, Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds and The Hunger Games. It has a history stretching back to 1912 and films such as Metropolis and The Blue Angel. In the period of unification, while decisions about the studio’s future were being made, around 30 final feature films were made by DEFA, most of them dealing with the end of the GDR. The filmmakers were directors who had been stifled by state imposed restrictions during the 1980s and who now had the chance to make the films that interested them. Steingröver focuses on two films, Jörg Foth’s Letztes aus der DaDaeR (Latest Things from the GDR) and Herwig Kipping’s Land hinter dem Regenbogen (Land Behind the Rainbow). Foth examines the East German past, filled with empty promises, and looks ahead to what might come with reunification, while Kipping uses the origins of the GDR utopia as a way to understand the present. For Steingröver, “the films underscore the crucial difference between utopia and experience as a warning against the exploitation of abstract ideologies.”

Both of these essays made me think about Paul Scraton’s excellent novel about Berlin, Built on Sand. In it, Scraton draws on the way  memories and stories of place help us to come to terms with the past, especially a past as complex and brural as Germany’s. Coincidentally, Scraton has recently written on this same subject for LitHub. In it, he talks about the death strip, one of the negative spaces left behind by the demolition of the Wall.

I enjoyed most of the essays written by artists who have responded to Cold War remains in the landscape. Film maker Louise Wilson’s account of her project to document the English Heritage archaeologists documenting Spadeadam was fascinating. She immersed herself in the lives of those who worked and lived at Spadeadam, trying to understand the emotional, human meaning behind the lumps of concrete and tarmac left behind. Photographer Frank Watson’s contribution is a photo essay showing the bland uniformity of Cold War airbase architecture that is menacing in its banality. Bleak buildings occupy bleak landscapes and the ugly functionality of the structures stands as a symbol of the testing and war preparation that went on inside them.

Not everything was compelling or convincing reading, but that’s the nature of a collection of academic essays. Some of the essays felt tokenistic, containing ideas roughly sketched out that needed more work or a longer form to do justice to the subject. Others took the form of a literature review that pulled examples from existing research but didn’t provide anything new to challenge or surprise the reader. Some had subject matter that could have been interesting if only the authors had chosen a different style in which to deliver their research and theories. The essay by the musician on two of his performance pieces that reflect on the division of Cyprus and the role of the UN in maintaining peace confused me, mainly because his assertion that the Greek Cypriot coup and subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was part of the Cold War wasn’t robustly backed up. It’s difficult to render into words an abstract art/performance piece, and the chapter author failed to engage me with his concept.

It was interesting for me to read a book that had formed part of someone else’s study. Some pages had been dog eared but lacked any further marks, notes or comments that revealed why their corners had been turned down. Other pages contained the lurid sweep of a highlighter pen across blocks of text, grease spots where food consumed while studying had fallen on the page, scribbled notes that linked to the student’s own writing, and a weakening of the binding where the pages of the book had been forced flat. There’s a commonly held belief that books shouldn’t be mistreated in ways that mark them irreparably. Some bookish types venerate their literary possessions in a fetishistic way. Books, though, are functional objects. The way in which we handle them and use them leaves behind something that adds to the character of a book. A conservator once taught me a method of relaxing the spine of a typical glue-bound book in order to prolong its life and prevent damage to the glue that leads to loss of pages. It’s a practical thing to do. It makes the book easier to handle. And yet, there’s something about feeling the ridges on the spine of a less well treated paperback that tells you there has been human contact with its contents. The same is true of dog ears and marginalia.

I finished the book on the night of the General Election. I woke to the news that a majority of the British electorate has chosen another five years of Tory government. Reading about the Cold War in this book and the previous one reinforced for me how hard it is to talk about socialist politics and the idea of acting in the benefit of everyone rather than for yourself. It is harder now because of that 45 year period of Cold War fear and indoctrination that Red is bad, the politics of the enemy of freedom. This has been a feature of the campaign on the right in this election, with Corbyn and McDonnell presented as dangerous men for wanting to tax the rich and spend more on health, education and public transport. It makes me sad that people who have suffered most under Tory governments in 1979-1997 and 2010 to date, and who will suffer more under the continuation of the current regime, have chosen leaving the EU as more important than securing the public services we all need. I doubt that it’s even that they’ve believed the lies about Tory plans to repair part of the damage they’ve done over nine years of austerity. I expect that the mythical good of Getting Brexit Done has blinded them to all other considerations. The Cold War might be over, but its psychological effects linger.

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