Remember the Cold War? Yeah, I thought so. We’re so busy with our so-called War on Terror that we don’t even think much about that one any longer. I lived in Germany back then, the - so the narrative went - future battleground of World War 3, where on both sides of the Iron Curtain (it looked more like a pretty massive fence to me) hundreds of thousands of soldiers were held in an almost constant state of readiness. Thinking back, it wasn’t all that different from today where we’re living with colour-coded “threat levels” (those we didn’t have). But we knew who were dealing with, the enemy was well-defined and very visible. In fact being visible was part of the Cold War. It was a bit like in the animal kingdom where part of the game was to prance around, looking as strong and determined as possible. Except, of course, that in the end, we were all gonna die anyway, because of the thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at us (and them). (more)
It was a pretty crazy time. People who had spent a lot of time at universities or military academies were talking in all seriousness about “mutually assured destruction,” abbreviated MAD. If you lived in Germany, you were subjected to all kinds of debates about whether or not you could contain a nuclear war to Germany, Europe, or whether you’d end up destroying the whole world. You also knew what the “Fulda Gap” was.
It was all a big, violent fantasy.
We should be glad that it’s over now, except that the War on Terror has replaced yesterday’s MADness with today’s madness. But that is a story for another day.
Given that so much money was spent on preparing for a massive, ultimately nuclear war, it will come as no surprise that a lot of the infrastructure has survived - bunkers (many of them buried deep underground to survive nuclear strikes), barracks, storage depots, missile bases… This infrastructure, now for the most part neglected, is subject of Martin Roemers’ Relics of the Cold War (the artist’s website contains a large selection of the photographs).
It is a sobering book, and for me the most disturbing aspect is that everything looks as if it belonged to a different era. That different era, that’s only twenty five, thirty years ago! I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that. Relics of the Cold War feels like an archeological study, and I suppose it will definitely look that way if you’re just ten years younger than I am. It’s not the time aspect that’s disturbing me (ask me in ten years whether I’ll still be so casual about aging), it’s the fact that something that was treated as the ultimate risk to humanity simply vanished into thin air - yet we don’t feel any safer now!
So I think what we need to do is to view Relics of the Cold War not just as a book about a different era, a past that already feels very distant. We also need to view it from our new perspective, with our “threat levels”, our constant alertness of terrorist: Are things really all that different now?
Relics of the Cold War, photographs by Martin Roemers, essays by H.J.A. Hofland, Nadine Barth, 144 pages, Hatje Cantz, 2010