Conference Report: “Debating the Cold War” 

February 5, 2016 at Birkbeck College, University of London

Report by David Bryan and Francesca Piana 

Debating the Cold War

The Debating the Cold War workshop took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on Friday, 5 February 2016. It involved around 35 scholars from Europe, the United States, and Asia, who took part in a day of lively debates about some of the ‘myths’ of the Cold War, reflecting on current developments and future directions in the historiography, and their implications for research and teaching.

The first panel discussed the global nature of the Cold War. Although the Cold War is still commonly understood in terms of a US-Soviet binary, the impact of the conflict was felt in all corners of the globe. Anne Deighton (Oxford) argued, however, that there was not a single global Cold War and that we needed to think about the multiple ‘global histories’ of the conflict. The challenge for historians was to both tease out these histories and integrate overlapping developments which took place during the period, from the Sino-Soviet split to decolonisation and changes to the global economy. Many participants argued that these overlapping histories called into question traditional periodisations of the Cold War. The relationship, for example, between communism, decolonisation and development both began before and continued after the Cold War era. Much of the discussion focussed on the idea of the Cold War as a conflict between multiple competing models of modernisation or development, taking place within a post-war global economy in which western capitalism both adopted ‘socialist’ practices, and exerted increasing influence over the internal dynamics of communist states.

The second panel examined the role of ideology in the Cold War, and in particular the traditional binary between the ‘ideological’ East and the ‘non-ideological’ West. Most of the speakers focussed on the complex role of ideology in everyday life in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Ideology, whether defined in terms of ideas, language or everyday practices, was a transformative force which helped to shape socialist societies and individuals within them. Its impact varied over time and place, but did play an important role in the construction of communist societies in post-war Eastern Europe, re-mobilising Soviet citizens during the 1960s and 1970s, and shaping educational practices during the apparently ’apathetic’ period of late socialism. Despite the unwillingness of historians of Western Europe and the West to engage with ‘ideology’ as a category of analysis, some of the speakers aregued that such ideas and practices shaped life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Dina Fainberg (Amsterdam) showed how journalists from the United States and the Soviet Union who covered the two systems were both producers and products of ideology, engaging in forms of comparative writing which invited readers to contrast the Cold War ‘other’ with an idealised version of their own country. Anatoly Pinsky (St Petersburg/Helsinki) argued that the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a turn towards a romantic interpretation of Marxism in the Soviet Union which drew on shared intellectual traditions between Russia and the West.

The third panel addressed the role of the state through the lens of welfare in the Cold War, and how citizens both in the East and in the West understood, appropriated, and reshaped questions of national security, education, welfare, social mobility, and consumption. Sandrine Kott (Geneva) argued that, in order to understand the socialist bloc we should use the language of the ‘social state’ in which social expenditure was higher than in the West. Dean Vuletic (EUI) argued that it was more productive to think in terms of national frameworks in the Eastern Bloc rather than generalisations about the region as a whole. On this, Vuletic was joined by Peter Romijn (Amsterdam), who reflected on the national reconstruction projects in Europe after WWII and on the different ways societies returned to ‘normality’, through humanitarian programmes, and economic and political recovery. The discussions that followed focused on exchanges between the two blocs, often through the circulation of expertise, and interest in ‘models’ which at times cut across the Iron Curtain.

The forth panel reflected on science during the Cold War, and particularly on the idea of a fundamental difference between scientific practices in the two blocs. Moving away from the highly researched issues of nuclear power and the atomic bomb, the panelists brought a set of different sciences into the discussion, from mathematics to social sciences, medicine, psychiatry and technology. Some of the speakers focussed on the role of ‘pure’ science in shaping the Cold War. Alma Steingart (Harvard) discussed the role of mathematics and of scientific rationality in the battle of the Cold War, reflecting on how science influenced the Cold War and vice versa. Waqar Zaidi (Lums) stressed the importance of the Cold War in encouraging ‘big science’, such as electronics, satellites, computers, and internet, through the examination, scrutiny, collection and dissemination of data, often connected to state-driven and military efforts. Much of the discussion focussed on the connections among scientists, the circulation of expert knowledge and data, the ‘language’ of sciences, and the role of translation in enabling scientists to access foreign-language research from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The workshop ended by addressing the legacies of the Cold War, and asking how we understand and communicate its history to younger generations who did not directly experience it. Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College) highlighted the violent legacy of the Cold War in 1990s Yugoslavia, the way it has shaped current ideas about the efficacy of ‘peoples’-led’ revolutions such as the Arab Spring, and its effect on current notions of freedom and the promotion of democracy. Angela Neilson-Nagy (Blackheath High School / Birkbeck MA student) provided a fascinating insight into the extent to which new historiographical approaches have informed, or, more frequently, failed to inform, current teaching materials and curricula in UK secondary schools. The challenge, panellists agreed, was to integrate the complex, heterogeneous and multi-centred historiography of the Cold War, showcased during the workshop, into a narrative which remained comprehensible and engaging for students and the general public.



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