Feeling the Cold War
When you think of the Cold War, you probably picture ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba, the legendary ‘red telephone’ linking Washington and Moscow, or possibly the Berlin Wall. However, even during the Cold War, these were metaphors for something much bigger and far removed from most people’s everyday lives and concerns. The Cold War itself was a metaphor for a range of situations – from hot wars in third countries to the division of Europe and an unprecedented arms race. Now that it has ended the Cold War seems even more distant and unfathomable. What did the Cold War actually mean for ‘normal’ individuals who were not in the hotspots such a Berlin? What was its impact on society? How did it feel? What is its legacy?
Traces and places
If you know where to look, you can still find many physical traces of the Cold War. This was the starting point for Martin Roemers‘, who, from 1998 to 2009, set out to take photographs of these physical remnants of the conflict across Europe. He wanted to understand the ‘infrastructure of the conflict’ – ‘its different layers’. A recent exhibition in the German History Museum (Berlin), entitled Relics of the Cold War has them on display.
Most of the photographs are of structures and landscapes linked to the militarisation of Europe: ruins of military grounds, as well as facilities and installations – such as tunnels, shelters or submarine bases. Yet there are also more discreet objects too, such as hidden statues, chipped wall paintings and the gravestones of occupying soldiers. Roemers’ work is a motley collection, ranging from the moving to the grotesque. If nothing else, the display is fascinating by virtue of its randomness.
There is a growing trend to seek out vestiges of the Cold War and turn them into tourist attractions. Bunker tours, such as those on offer in Berlin, for example, have been a popular for several years now; Iron Curtain museums have been multiplying too; there is even a nuclear bunker you can visit in Newcastle upon Tyne. Yet I would argue that if one wants to make sense of the Cold War, Roemers’ exhibition achieves more than any of these attractions.
Who would readily admit today the Cold War actually often felt very warm? Perhaps the physical legacy can offer a new way in.
For one thing, the geographical reach of the photographs pictured in this exhibition provides a different perspective. Indeed, the Cold War is often viewed in bipolar terms. If you visit any of the sites mentioned above, you will read about the ‘evil Russians’ and the value of self defense. But what Roemers’ shows is that the legacy of the Cold War is not about ‘us’ and ‘them’; rather, the two opposing camps shared a lot. People lived and live among the remains of the conflict in both East and West. With this, Roemers’ points to how much the societies involved actually had in common during the conflict. The exhibition offers a kind of topography of the Cold War: a journey across those territories affected – and highlights how, ironically, this was a borderless terrain.
The photos also succeed in conveying the incongruousness of the Cold War – a conflict that at least in its main theatre, never ‘got hot’. These photographs are not of the ‘real thing’. These are mostly abandoned sites, often in a process of deterioration. Places which might have once been important or even frightful are now empty, decaying and defunct. Besides, they are decontextualised, aestheticised and studied representations. Brought into a museum and placed against a clean black or white backgrounds like pieces of art, neatly aligned and organised by type; their accumulation captures both the scale of the conflict and its absurdity. With this, they exemplify both the illusory threats, as well as a false sense of security that characterised the Cold War.
History, art and curiosity
The aesthetics of the photographs are remarkable. In the first room, which contains pictures of tunnels, a visitor wandering in inadvertently could be led to believe s/he had entered a modern art exhibition. The colours, the interplay of light and darkness, and the symmetry are engrossing and truly beautiful. In the following rooms, the photographs are of buildings – both ruined and intact. But the angle from which they are taken foregrounds stunning natural landscapes, such as forests or the sea. The overgrowth around the depictions of Lenin in the military hospital outside Berlin, for example, suggests the calm peacefulness of a place where nature has taken over. There is an unquestionable retro-modernist appeal to the spaces with once state-of-the-art technology and a post-modernist quality to its disintegration and redundancy. This is what Roemers calls the ‘beauty of decay and the destructive purpose’.
The photograph of a deserted Soviet army base is perhaps the most striking. Sheets remain on the beds and food on the plates, suggesting it had been abandoned in great haste. Yet the dirt and destruction of the room indicate it has been in this state for many years. This strange contradiction of presence and absence is evidence of the site’s simultaneous importance and insignificance: once a vital location, now nobody cares. For the viewer, it is both an object of curiosity and an allegory for the abrupt and unexpected end of the Cold War.
As the curators explain, the collection seeks to shed light on the banal coexistence of normality and crisis during the Cold War. The Cold War was like a constant state of emergency that one got used to, lived with and accepted. Facilities such as the listening station in West Berlin, or the nuclear bunkers studded all across the continent, were incredibly demanding in terms of money, technology and human resources. What these images communicate is the level of distrust and aggression, the very real threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ and its far reaching impact on daily life and our environment.
At the same time, the collection constitutes a reflection on the contradiction between the scale of mobilisation and the comforting thought, in hindsight, that this threat never became real. This ambivalence is something difficult to grasp with the help of conventional historical approaches. Human memory is keen to erase negative emotions such as fear and deny misconceptions. Who would readily admit today that the Cold War often actually felt very warm? Perhaps the physical legacy can offer a new way in. And perhaps, as the picture of the Crimean naval base in Sevastopol reminds us, the past is not as distant as we might think.