Skip to main content

Imagining the Cold War: popular culture and the making of contemporary Europe


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor and tutor: Dr Rui Lopes
  • Assessment: a 1500-word film analysis (15%), two 2500-word essays (25% each) and a 3500-word portfolio (35%)

Module description

At a time when Cold War rhetoric and imagery are gaining renewed prominence in the media and public discourse, it is important to consider the historical origins of this way of imagining international relations. Scholars have increasingly framed the Cold War as an ‘imaginary war’: not because it had no tangibility, but because imagination was a key realm where war was fought through simulations, metaphors (‘iron curtain’, ‘domino theory’, the ‘cold war’ itself), and perceptions of danger and deterrence. In Europe, popular culture helped people visualise elusive processes such as ideological competition, secret operations and remote proxy wars, disseminating tropes that continue to resonate today.

How did films, novels, ads, performances, TV shows, comics and music depict the Cold War’s multiple facets? How did they envision the reconfiguration of Europe’s position in the world in the context of bipolarity and of the end of traditional empires? How did the superpowers and Europe’s own governments seek to influence culture? And how much of the ensuing depictions resulted from internal dynamics, including each medium’s specificities, labour relations and commercial strategies? Did the transnational production and circulation of cultural artefacts contribute to a more connected Europe? How did consumers interpret and reappropriate those artefacts across the continent?

We will explore these questions through the analysis of Eastern and Western European cultural artefacts, paying particular attention to their material construction and mediation. You will engage with fundamental debates about the making of contemporary Europe by examining the lingering tension between nationalism and transnationalism, attitudes towards America and Russia, shifting values and icons of modernity, the institutionalisation of liberal market economy, the role of social forces beyond the political elites in driving European integration, and the continent’s historical ties with authoritarianism, from the dictatorships in the East and West to the illiberal elements of liberal regimes, including in the colonial and postcolonial world.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction: an imaginary war?

Foundational myths

  • Empires by invitation? Europe’s occupation
  • Drawing the iron curtain: Europe’s division
  • Dystopias: a call to arms
  • Utopias: visions of modernity
  • The crosswinds of decolonisation

Geopolitical entertainment

  • Espionage abroad: globetrotting adventure
  • Counter-intelligence at home: moles and the panoptic state
  • Socialist screens: was revolution televised?
  • Updating World War II

Stability and détente

  • Banal Europeanism: the momentum of integration
  • Staging rapprochement and circulation
  • From orientalism to Maoism: the rise and fall of the Third World
  • In the name of freedom: authoritarianism in the East, South and West
  • Paranoia and mind control

Disrupting the status quo

  • Nuclear nightmares
  • Enter the New Left
  • Punk aesthetics
  • Looking forwards: anticipating the Cold War’s end


  • Looking backwards: recreating the Cold War in the twenty-first century

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • identify and analyse major European strands of popular discourse about the Cold War, problematising their legacy in the present
  • critically assess and explain the Cold War’s articulation with the development of European cultural production and consumption
  • recognise and evaluate the latest historiographical interpretations and debates about this topic
  • interpret and critique a variety of primary sources, drawing on interdisciplinary methods to incorporate popular media into a discussion of contemporary European history.