WikiVoyage: Cold War Europe

From the end of World War II in 1945 until the revolutions of the 1980s, Europe was divided between two political blocs; east and west. The border was figuratively called the Iron Curtain, and is to some extent visible today, through former military and border security installations across the continent.


While the war and necessity had bound the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and later free France into an uneasy alliance, the lack of a common enemy after the war and different ideologies triggered a break between the Soviet Union on one side and the “Western allies” on the other. This break not only affected the politics between those countries, but also the treatment of the defeated axis members and some neutral countries who had held sympathy for either side. While all four allies initially agreed to try the main war criminals in Nuremberg and “jointly” administer occupied Germany and Austria, the facade of a joint administration began crumbling as early as 1948, when Stalin decided to blockade West Berlin and the British and Americans organized an airlift to break the blockade. Eventually, the former Axis nations would be absorbed into the Western bloc and NATO (West Germany, Italy, Japan) or the Warsaw pact (East Germany, Hungary, Romania, etc).

One of the most notable events of the early years of the Cold War besides the airlift was the Marshall Plan that was supposed to provide aid in the rebuilding of Europe and was soundly rejected by the Eastern Bloc countries. Much of the architecture of the 1950s (now mostly regarded as rather ugly) was built with funds from the Marshall Plan, whereas the Soviet Union popularized its own style that can still be seen in cities like East Berlin (especially Karl Marx Allee) or Eisenhüttenstadt.

The 1950s and 1960s saw unprecedented economic growth in most of Europe, especially West Germany, where the period came to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder(“economic miracle”). From the 1970s, relationships across the Iron Curtain improved, with Ostpolitik implemented by West German chancellor Willy Brandt.

Starting around the 1970s, the need for cheap housing led to a construction boom of a particular type of mass produced pre-fabricated housing. While those residential buildings got a different name in almost every country they were built in (Plattenbau being the German term), they were mostly the same everywhere and were also built in the West to a certain extent. Even though they were regarded as ultimately modern and innovations like central heating or direct road/public transport access made them popular at the time of their building, they have become negatively associated with socialism since 1990 and entered a decline in both perceived value and prestige. However, in some countries neighborhoods built in this style are making a comeback and even hints of a beginning gentrification can be be found in isolated cases.

Especially the 60’s and 70’s were marked by counterculture and pop culture. A lasting expression was the rise of British pop music.

Finland had an unusual history during the cold war, as – in the words of a political cartoonist – they wished to “bow to the East without mooning the West”. Amazingly, they managed to maintain a democratic, multi-party free market economy on good terms with the West without offending the East. All that despite the fact that Finland had fought two separate wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1945 and had been a de facto ally of Nazi Germany in one of them.

The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had become weakened by the 1980s, and civil rights protests brought down many Communist governments. Since then, most European nations east of the Iron Curtain have become democratic market economies.

Though Europe has seen regional conflicts in the Basque Country, Corsica and Northern Ireland, the Cold War was a remarkably peaceful period in European history. Peace was broken in Yugoslavia in 1991, where a lengthy series of wars went on until 1999. As of the 2010s, the main line of conflict is between Russia and the European Union.


The German word Ostalgie describes the nostalgia for East Germany and other socialist states. Some icons, such as the Ampelmännchen pedestrian signal, have a cult following. In the Balkans there is a certain amount of “Yugo-nostalgia” for things associated with former Yugoslavia.

Czech Republic

  • Prague. Best known for the event known as the Prague Spring. In 1968 the Czechoslovakian government decided to allow the citizens some more freedoms. The Soviet Union and the other countries of the Eastern Bloc regarded this as a threat and invaded the country a few months later.


  • Stevnsfort Cold War Museum (Koldkrigsmuseum Stevnsfort) (Stevns Cliff). A coastal fortress dug into the limestone cliff, which played an important role in the cold war defense of Denmark and NATO.
  • Museum of the Cold War Langelandsfort (Langeland). Off-the-beaten-path museum in the 1950’s fortress of the Danish naval defense offers a great self-guided tour through bunkers, anti-aircraft gun, submarine, minesweeper, figter planes, and more.


  • Berlin. Berlin symbolizes the Cold War more than any other city. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, and most of it was torn down in the 1989 revolution. Bits and pieces of it have been sold around the world and you can still buy postcards with an “original” piece of Berlin Wall in it. However, some parts were deliberately left standing or re-erected at certain sites to serve as memorials or art installations. The DDR Museum in Berlin/Mittealso may be of particular interest, as it gives insight into the daily lives of people in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
  • Potsdam. The site of the Potsdam Conference. Later, the park came to contain a KGB prison.
  • Mödlareuth (Partly in Franconia and partly in Thuringia). Therefore divided by a wall and nicknamed “Little Berlin”.
  • The Ruhr area was the industrial powerhouse of Germany. Though damaged during World War II, and partly dismantled after the war, the Ruhr fueled the West German economic miracle, until the manufacturing crisis of the 1970s. Many closed mines and industries remain as museums.
  • Bautzen. The very name still makes some Easterners shudder, as Bautzen was the site of a notorious prison run by the Staatssicherheit or Stasi of East Germany and the place where most political prisoners ended up, many being “sold” to West Germany for what can only be called ransom money. The former prison has been turned into a memorial and can be visited in guided tours, guided by former inmates on certain occasions.
  • Bonn. Bonn was the de facto capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990/1998. As it was seen as a provisional solution by most politicians, former government buildings in the city don’t look all that impressive. The Bundestag decided on reunification while seated in a former water supply plant, for instance. Ironically many buildings were either upgraded or replaced in the 1980s when it seemed as if the temporary solution would become a permanent one. Today some of the former government buildings have been turned into museums and can be visited – including the former residence of the Chancellor.


  • Budapest. The Hungarian capital saw the bulk of the fighting in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The earliest major revolt against the Soviet control of Eastern Europe, the event is commemorated by a contemporary monument on Dózsa György út near the City Park (Városliget), which was the site of a Stalin statue before it was toppled by the demonstrators during the uprising. Nearby House of Terror on Andrassy utca, once the headquarters of the Hungarian version of KGB, exhibits the excesses of the socialist system, how it affected daily lives, and the propaganda associated with it in a deeply emotional way — the reconstructed internment cells at the basement are especially depressing. For a less distressing experience, head to Szoborpark in the countryside just out of Újbuda, which has a collection of socialist-era statues removed from Budapest and all over the country after the democracy was restored, and where you can try fitting inside a Trabant, the quintessential socialist car produced in East Germany.


  • Gdansk. The Lenin shipyard was the cradle of the Solidarity movement, which challenged and then replaced the Socialist government.
  • Warsaw. Among the cities ravaged by the war, restored with Stalinist architecture.


  • Parliament Palace (Palatul Parliamentului), Strada Izvor 2-4 (near Piaţa Unirii (Union Plazza) in Bucharest – M1, 3 ‘Izvor’ – entrance is on the north side),  +40 21 3160300. The world’s second largest building (after the US Pentagon), formerly named “Casa Poporului” (People’s House). The building, which was built in 1984 on orders of Nicolae Ceauşescu, spans 12 stories, 3100 rooms and covers over 330,000 sq m. 1/9 of Bucharest was reconstructed to accommodate this magnificent massive building and its surroundings. There are 30-45 minute tours every half hour which lead through the building’s vast collection of marble rooms and culminates in an impressive view from Nicolae Ceauşescu’s balcony. The marble and all the original decorations are 100% from Romania. The basic tour includes the halls and the balcony, worthwhile is the terrace addition for the wonderful view from the top of the building. The basement addition on the other hand is not worth the money. They only show two rooms containing airducts, no additional facts and it lasts only 5 minutes. Different Tours ranging in price from 25 lei (15 lei for students, proof required) up to 43 lei.


  • Swedish Air Force Museum (Linköping). Sweden was officially non-aligned during the Cold War, though they had secret contingency plans with NATO. Though a country with a small population, Sweden maintained a world-leading air force, with many aircraft developed at SAAB in Linköping. The Air Force Museum features many of these planes, as well as an exhibition about the preparations for a war that never came.
  • Femöre Fort (Femörefortet) (Oxelösund). A coastal fortress with an extensive Cold War museum.

United Kingdom

  • Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker (near Braintree (Essex). Access is from the A128 Chipping Ongar to Brentwood road at Kelvedon Hatch. If you have GPS then use CM15 0LA),  +44 1277 364883fax: +44 1277 372562, e-mail: . 10AM-4PM. £6.50 Adults, £4.50 children 5-16 inc.

Historical Travel:

WikiVoyage: Cold War Europe was originally published on Something Different

This entry was posted in History.