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‘As soon as the Iron Curtain came down’: when did the Cold War begin?

East German construction workers, supervised by border guards, building the Berlin Wall, 1961. © IWM HU 73012.

The official history of the Cold War holds that the military and political divide between Eastern and Western blocs was cemented in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War as allied relationships cooled.

… during the war of course… um, the Russians were good chaps because they were fighting the Germans.… I suppose it’s as soon as the sort of the Iron Curtain came down that um we began to realise… these were not really very nice people… [National Serviceman, retired policeman]

My Collaborative Partnership PhD uses oral history to research broadly how the first stage of the Cold War, 1945-1962, was interpreted by British people. Interviews show that attitudes towards the Soviet Union revolved around uncertain and varied perceptions of politics and values in the period. Unravelling postwar events created an atmosphere in which perceptions of sides’ became contingent on, and embodied by, realities.

A longstanding other ‘side’

I can remember during the war when the Russians were our allies… I remember going out shopping … they’d got a lot of Russian flags flying out … and I I said to my dad I wanted one of these and oh no no you don’t want one of those [laughing] so even he was suspicious against the Russians, even then… [Retired ambulance driver]

The postwar generation grew up with an inherited suspicion of the Soviet Union. Governments were unsettled by the Communist revolution in Russia and feared similar uprisings across Europe. The principles of Soviet statist politics were questioned as the Communist government asserted itself in regional affairs. In 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a pact of non-aggression, adding fuel to a British impression of Soviet aggression and belligerent territorial expansion. Though the Soviet Union allied with the West, after Hitler’s defiance of the agreement, the above interview participant’s memory demonstrates the extent to which the Soviet Union was always perceived to be on the other ‘side’.

Perceptions intensified

After 1945, increasing tensions over Europe and the postwar settlement intensified existing interpretations of ‘sides’. Events including the Berlin Blockade in 1948 and the Hungarian coup, 1956, justified and legitimised perceptions of Soviet expansionist aggression, brutality and dictatorial Communist politics.

… the Hungarian uprising was the big event of 1956 as far as the world was concerned, it was the first time that Russia had really shown her true light as to what she was capable of doing… um yes it did have quite an effect on me the Hungarian uprising. [Royal Observer Corps volunteer]

Beyond divided ‘sides’

For a few Britons there was a refusal to accept that there was a Cold War enemy at all. This position often revolved around a pacifist position endeavouring to campaign for a British withdrawal from the nuclear arms race. Rhetoric often highlighted international brotherhood and unity as a rationale for breaking down the barriers of Cold War.

… I personally never had a hate about it because Russia had been our allies during the war so we were not prepared to countenance anything that would um count them as our enemy now.  [1950s peace campaigner, wife to an Anglican reverend]

To conclude, official histories often have a starting point. However the Cold War, despite ending as a very clear conflict between Eastern and Western blocs, had ambiguous origins, unfolding in a way that reacted to perceptions and contributed further to polarisation. Oral history research is a useful tool for interrogating nuances in these official histories. Memories show that ‘high politics’ had far-reaching implications in the everyday lives of the British public.

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