How the Cold War Became Heritage

9 November 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

From its construction in August 1961, the wall that divided the city into West and East became a powerful physical symbol of the bipolar Cold War world of western Capitalism pitted against eastern Communism.

Today, the buildings and relics of the Cold War (1946-1989) have become historically significant aspects of heritage in countries around the world.  Senior Investigator, Wayne Cocroft, explains more.

The Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Documentation Centre. To the left, marked by the steel walls, is the monument by Kohlhoff & Kohlhoff to the city’s division and victims of Communism. To its right is a reconstructed section of an earlier cemetery wall and to its right a section of the wall pecked with hammers by souvenir hunters © W D Cocroft

30 years ago on the evening of Thursday 9 November 1989, in an off the cuff remark, East German politburo member Günter Schabowski announced that restrictions on travel visas to the West would be lifted ‘immediately, without delay’. 

For some hours confusion reigned at the border crossings, but later that night the barriers were raised and East Berliners, many separated from family and friends for nearly three decades, flooded into the West.

It was a moment that redefined European history.

East Side Gallery, Mühlen Strasse, Berlin, ‘Tolerance’ by American artist Mary Mackey, first painted in 1990 © W D Cocroft

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall the desire was to sweep away all traces of the barrier and reunite the city.

Some people argued that sections of the wall should be preserved and remarkably in the last months of the ailing East German regime its Institute of Conservation protected a number of sections of the wall for their historic significance.

After unification, further parts were protected, but it was another 10 years before surveys were undertaken of the surviving remains. Today, in addition to the Documentation Centre and surviving fragments, the wall’s line is marked by cobble stones, plaques and trails.

A section of the Berlin Wall on display outside the Imperial War Museum, London © W D Cocroft

Such was the strength of the Berlin Wall as a contemporary icon of the Cold War divide that its commercial value was quickly recognised.

The East German government (through its trading company, Limex-Bau) sold around 360 segments. Many individuals took hammers to the wall to collect personal souvenirs or pieces for sale. Other enterprising individuals bought sections of the wall and continue to chip away to create souvenirs.

Sections have also been spread around the world as diplomatic gifts and as trophies in museums. Today, through the dispersal of these segments and the thousands of small personal souvenirs the Berlin Wall has spread to encompass the globe.

Defence Land Sales

The Former Royal Naval College Greenwich was released from government service in 1998. Many of the buildings are now occupied by the University of Greenwich © Historic England Archive BB96/07646

In the months following the fall of the wall, the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc of Communist nations and the Soviet backed Warsaw Pact military alliance, major reviews of military spending began on both sides of the divide. 

Military forces were drastically reduced and the largest programme of defence lands disposal since the end of the Second World War began. 

In England, some of the first places to be given up were sites of national historical significance including the Royal Naval College Greenwich, the Royal Arsenal Woolwich, the Royal Gunpowder Mills Waltham Abbey, and sections of the royal dockyards.

In the event of war, the Cambridge Regional Seat of Government would have housed hundreds of civil servants to administer the East of England. Today it is Grade II Listed © Historic England AA99/01980

Throughout the Cold War and unbeknown to most of the public, England’s towns, cities and the countryside had been heavily militarised, prepared to fight and survive a nuclear war. 

Construction was so extensive that few people lived more than a mile or two from a Cold War civil defence or military facility. 

During the 1950s Britain’s wartime civil defence measures were reactivated, headquarters were established, stores filled, vehicles held in garages, and local wardens appointed. Networks of emergency central and local government protected bunkers were also built.

Across the country, at intervals of a few miles, underground Royal Observer Corps posts were constructed to measure the paths of radioactive fallout in anticipation of a nuclear attack.

In other parts of the country there are remains of Cold War anti-aircraft gun positions, missile sites and airfields. This vast system was co-ordinated by anonymous hilltop wireless masts.

Heritage Protection

Royal Observer Group Headquarters, Acomb, York, is protected as a scheduled monument © Historic England

Historic England was amongst the first national heritage agencies to begin to document and protect the built legacy of the Cold War. 

The work was carried out as part of a programme to protect key 20th century defence sites and to date around 60 Cold War sites and buildings have been protected in England. 

These range from small three or four person monitoring posts, to atomic bomb stores, sections of airfields, and government bunkers large enough to house hundreds of officials. 

In York, a former Royal Observer Corps Group Headquarters was sited in the grounds of a former English Heritage office. It survives relatively intact and today is managed by English Heritage and presented exactly as when it was abandoned in around 1990.  

Greenham Common, West Berkshire. During the 1980s, through the actions of peace protesters, the GAMA cruise missile shelters became one of the most well-known symbols of the Cold War © Historic England Archive 24638/003

In the early 1990s hundreds of sites were declared surplus to defence needs, some of which were no more than a few years old. 

In the years leading up to the fall of the wall, arms control negotiations had begun to ease military tensions in Europe.  One of the most significant was the Intermediate Forces Treaty (INF) signed in December 1987 and aiming to eliminate short range nuclear weapons in Europe. 

One of the provisions of this treaty was that identified facilities in the West had to remain available for examination by Russian inspectors until 2001. 

Two years later the Greenham Common cruise missile shelters were one of the first Cold War sites to be protected as a scheduled monument. 

Other Perspectives

Titan Missile Museum, Tuscon, Arizona. The square hole in the missile’s nose cone confirms its deactivated status to reconnaissance satellites © W D Cocroft

One of the distinctive features of the Cold War was the huge expansion of nuclear stockpiles by the two superpowers. Under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction to deter a first knock-out attack each side deployed increasing numbers of nuclear weapons poised to deliver a massive retaliation. 

Under the provisions of some arms control treaties weapons and deployment sites may be demilitarised for historical interest and public display. 

In the United States one of the largest displays is of a 21m Titan II intercontinental missile in its silo. In southwestern Dakota the National Parks Service has preserved a later Minuteman missile control facility and launch complex. 

The Soviet Union had its own missile systems, examples of which can be visited at Pervomaisk in the Ukraine and Plokstine, Lithuania.

Regan West, Denmark. In the event of war the Danish government would have operated from one of two bunkers furnished with elegant Scandinavian style © W D Cocroft

Elsewhere in Europe different approaches have been taken to the protection of Cold War heritage. 

In Denmark, a group of heritage professionals, historians, and former military professionals established the main themes of Denmark’s experience of the Cold War and selected 25 sites to reflect these stories. 

These included Denmark’s role as a NATO member and front line state; its coastal gun batteries acting as the ‘cork’ in the Baltic to prevent Warsaw Pact naval forces entering the North Sea. 

Denmark’s geographic position made it vulnerable to attack and examples of civil defence and emergency government facilities have also been protected.

Gdansk, Poland. Sections of the Berlin Wall and the Gdansk Shipyard wall symbolise important moments on the roads to freedom for Eastern Europe © W D Cocroft

In former communist states in eastern Europe the Cold War is viewed as a period of social and political repression and subservience of nation states to the Soviet Union rather than as a military stand-off.

In Gdansk a section of former dockyard wall has achieved mythical status as the spot where in August 1980 Lech Wałęsa climbed over to take charge of a dockyard strike, culminating in the founding of the free trade union Solidarity. 

This was an important milestone in the timeline of former Soviet states regaining their independence. Lech Wałęsa later became the first democratically elected president of Poland.

Project 816, Chongqing Province, China. A model of China’s first atomic bomb and the Malan Xinjiang Uygur Region test range © W D Cocroft

Internationally, the tourist potential of recent historical events is widely recognised. For example in Vietnam, scene of one of the bloodiest wars of the Cold War, tunnels dug by the communist guerrillas are open to the public.

As China develops its internal tourist economy, sites associated with the Communist leaders and the founding of the People’s Republic are being presented as so-called ‘red tourism’.

A handful of former defence sites including part of a nuclear test range in Xinjiang province and an incomplete underground plutonium factory (called Project 816) offer out of the ordinary experiences, while fostering the Chinese patriotic spirit and the national memory of the country’s route to modernisation.

Further Reading

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