Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Iron Curtain: twenty years gone

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Yes, just twenty years. Twenty years ago crowds of demonstrators defying the infamous Stasi East German secret police took hammers, chisels and pickaxes to the Berlin Wall and tore down the final legacy of the monumental defeat of Hitler’s Germany. The Cold War – Act Three of Europe’s horrifying twentieth century tragedy that began in 1914 – had finally ground to a halt. The weapons may have fallen silent in 1945, but the fear had only subsided, not evaporated. In East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 the Soviet Red Army reminded the world that a secure peace based on individual and national freedom remained a dream.

But what was this final act like? And why did it end with a whimper and not with the much-feared World War III? The Cold War is receding into memory even though our fascination with retro design, fashion and living is breathing new life into our selective memories of the 1950s and 60s, a time when we all lived under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The Cold War was a time of monumental change the outcomes of which we are still living with.

In the West these were the glory days of democracy. The de-mobbed soldiers returning from the devastated cities of Europe were not going to accept a return to the old social structures of the 1930s. In Britain the new Labour government introduced a universal health care scheme and brought public education into the twentieth century. Black GIs returned to the US with their eyes opened about racial segregation. Many Afro-American GIs had experienced more civil liberties as members of the occupations forces in post-Nazi Germany than they had ever know at home in the “land of the free”. The civil rights movement was heating up.

Ancient power structures were under threat and technology was aiding and abetting the new trend. The age of mass communication was dawning. The march of the radio, record player and the TV set had begun. Popular opinion among the entire population was becoming important as everyone now had the vote; man and woman, rich and poor. And mass public opinion was being shaped by the new player on the political football field: the media. As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, in this new world order revolutionaries no longer head for the Bastille. It is the TV and radio stations you need to control.

The Cold War world was also a period of burgeoning personal wealth for the common man. Automobiles, refrigerators, televisions and holiday travel became affordable for the average wage earner. The world began to shrink and the global village was born. In Europe people became tourists in nearby countries that had been enemies a generation before. Tourism and international travel became an important source of inter-cultural exchange and understanding.

This was also the golden age of cultural diplomacy. The Cold War was a battle for hearts and minds and culture became a potent weapon. Film, radio and popular music were all important elements in the Western message about how good life was in the "free" West. In the early years of the Cold War the US occupation included exhibitions of American consumer products and domestic wares. An idealised image of ‘the way America lives’ was projected into Germany’s ruined cities and accompanied by a unique amalgam of democracy, consumerism and mass-communication technology. It was a potent mix and became the essential tonic in the attempts by the Western allies to rehabilitate Germany as a member of the international community.

Twenty years on, some feel that the triumphant West has gone from "moral supremacy" to decadence and arrogance. A glorious age of peace has certainly not materialised. International cultural exchange remains important if we are going to reach a sustainable peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment