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Give me back the Berlin Wall - Give me Stalin and St. Paul

Updated Thursday, 22nd November 2007

Stuart Mitchell reflects on the influence of subjective feelings on a historian's perspective.

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I am not a communist: far from it, in fact. In recent years, however, I have found myself missing communism. In reality, perhaps what I’m really yearning for is the Cold War. This unusual feeling, I think, has three essential causes. First, and most prosaically, I have an enthusiasm for espionage in popular culture, by which I mean Le Carré, Ambler, and Deighton, rather than Fleming. I suspect that in itself would not explain my affection for the Cold War, though – I don’t pine to live in wretched nineteenth century urban poverty, despite an equal love of Dickens.

The Berlin Wall

Of more importance is probably intellectual pride. When the Berlin Wall was broken down, I was an undergraduate. The wall’s collapse formed a more-than-occasional, albeit frequently beer-influenced, topic of conversation amongst my peers. At that time, I was almost entirely alone in suggesting that, momentous as events in the Eastern bloc were, they did not signify the end of the Cold War, only the removal of its ideological substance. After a decade or so in which that view has looked, let’s say, steadily more unsustainable it’s strangely pleasing to see Russia’s current leaders being uncommonly obliging in their efforts to restore the trappings of post Second World War geopolitics.

Nice as it is occasionally to have a prediction come true, or at least not proved entirely false, I believe that the most significant reason for my hankering after the Cold War stems from my childhood. I grew up in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when relations between the USSR and the West were at one of their chilliest points. Whilst I cannot claim to have had any reasonable grasp of politics some thirty years ago, nonetheless the Cold War existed in the background of my existence. And, in an odd way, that brought with it a certain level of tranquillity. I had a mostly happy childhood, and I suspect therefore that I have a tendency to look with fondness upon not only my personal memories but also on those things that were occurring in more remote arenas. The Cold War may not have been all that pleasant, but it could be rendered simple enough to be fairly comprehensible to a child, whilst simultaneously being sufficiently far away not to pose an authentic threat to kicking a football around or fishing about in the stream that ran through the farm behind our house. And, unlike some of my friends, my memories of ghastly state panic-mongering such as the Protect and Survive information films are sufficiently vague not to disturb my overall sense that the Cold War betokened a certain calm.

Almost certainly, with global affairs seeming to become ever more diffuse, unstable, and threatening in the last ten years, the period has assumed for me a sort of halcyon glow. Deliberately, I titled this blog with a quote from a 1992 Leonard Cohen song, because when I first heard it (in the late 1990s) I found myself curiously predisposed to the sentiments in the line. In the song, the narrator (it’s unclear whether it is intended to be Cohen himself) predicts with unnerving accuracy a world becoming increasingly fractured and menacing as the old cap on the system – the Cold War stand-off – is broken open.

However, the point here is not that the Cold War was a good and happy time for most people, but that (for me) it is symbolic of one of the great human needs: safety and security. And this is in itself dangerous for an historian, since I know that this view is largely subjective. If I was to write anything on the Soviet era, it would be likely to bias my findings unless I made a clear and conscious effort to separate personal feelings from whatever might be revealed by the balance of evidence.

The foregoing is not intended to make light of the grim events suffered by those who became involved in the Cold War’s many extrusions – the Vietnams, Afghanistans, and so forth – nor of the similarly cruel experiences endured by those who lived under the blank and sombre dictatorships of Eastern Europe. What I intended to show instead was that many different perspectives (even those of a child) can be brought to a study of recent events, but that they all contain peculiar snares about which the serious student of history needs to be aware. In reading history, we can frequently become maddened or disgusted by some wrongdoing in the past, and we are taught to try to put aside such reactions of moral outrage. But historians, to fulfil their craft and to get as close as possible to historical truth, need to be just as wary of subjective feelings of sympathy or pleasure as they do of emotions of censure, repugnance, or anger.

Further reading from OpenLearn:

How important is America? - The Big Question examines how America coped with the loss of its old, dependable opponent

The Rotter's Club - The Book Club considers another view of growing up in the 1970s

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