The 1980s were a tense time in the United Kingdom. There was the bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA that almost succeeded in assassinating Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who brought neoliberalism to the shores of Great Britain. There are two other things from that period that linger in the memory: the miners’ strikes and the burgeoning gay rights movement.

Those last two are more connected than you might think. To make a long story short, one of the reasons that the gay rights movement in the country got as big as it did was due to a campaign by London-based gay and lesbian activists to support the miners, who were being targeted by the Thatcher government. This became Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which raised money for those on strike. The National Union of Mineworkers reciprocated by using its clout in the Labour Party to bring about support for gay rights.

This struggle is dramatized in the 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus. It’s a film that starts among the gay community of London, revolving around a number of activists who take the bold move of finding solidarity with those who are unlike them. One of its central characters is Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), the firebrand of our set of characters who brings with him a fuming rage against societal injustice. He is the sort of activist that brings about real change, one who is willing to get his hands dirty and speak truth to power.

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The Art of Roy Gjertson

Roy Gjertson studied art in Minnesota and Los Angeles before serving as a B-24 radio operating and gunner during World War II. After the war, he resumed his career as an illustrator for aviation companies in California.

Gjertson is best known for the work he did for General Dynamics in San Diego. During his two decades there, he drew everything from commercial airliners to futuristic space shuttles for the company’s advertisements and proposals.

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Deutschland 86

Deutschland 86

Babylon Berlin is said to be the best drama series to ever come out of Germany. I disagree. My vote goes to Deutschland 83 (review here), in which border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by East German intelligence and thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The series wasn’t hugely popular in Germany, but it found enough viewers abroad to warrant a sequel. Deutschland 86 takes place three years later. Martin has been exiled to Angola. His aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), who is also a spy, is working on an operation in South Africa. Naturally they run into each other again.

The ten episodes masterfully weave together the events of the time in a compelling narrative: the slow collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Angola, Muammar Gaddafi’s support for international terrorism, the La Belle disco bombing in Berlin — all against the backdrop of the American-Soviet Cold War.

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Cruise Missiles Cause Division in Europe

Two rounds of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States had managed to reduce tensions in the Cold War. But the talks did not cover tactical nuclear weapons delivered by midrange ballistic missiles, a loophole the Soviets exploited to deploy SS-20 mobile launch platforms in Central Europe.

When, in December 1979, the Soviet Union also invaded Afghanistan, the West felt it had to respond.

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Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Cold War Germany is often reduced to the playground of the colossi of the postwar order jostling above the abyss that was nuclear annihilation. As the old joke goes, “a tactical nuke is one that goes off in Germany.” In many ways, the two German states were the foremost pawns in a great geopolitical game, but just as much they were their own countries, contemporary incarnations of a culture that can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of Roman times. They had their own business during the Cold War, and some of it was violent.

West Germany in the 1960s and 70s was subjected to much of the same social unrest that happened in other Western countries during those years. This was over Vietnam in the United States and Algeria in France. The period was a violent one. There were bombings by left-wing radicals in both countries.

In West Germany, that violence took the form of the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group), named for their leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They caused great chaos in the West Germany of the Cold War. Their actions are dramatized in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.

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Resurrection Day

Resurrection Day

In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white GIF of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.

Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.

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The Problem of Détente

The late 1960s were a time of upheaval in the transatlantic relationship. Charles de Gaulle had withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military structure and was seeking equidistance for France between the Soviet Union and the United States. Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first center-left chancellor, was pursuing Ostpolitik. Britain had finally been admitted to the European Economic Community, which — in Washington — raised fears of a united Europe challenging American primacy in the West.

Mired and later defeated in Vietnam, America’s prestige was at a postwar low. The oil-producing countries of the Middle East were starting to use their economic power for political gain. Japan was emerging as a global powerhouse in the East. The Atlantic alliance looked divided and exhausted.

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The Devil’s Alternative

The Devil's Alternative

Frederick Forsyth wrote the outstanding Cold War thrillers The Day of the Jackal (1971), which was made into one of the best spy movies of all time (our review here); The Odessa File (1972, our review of the film adaption here) featuring an underground organization of former Nazis; and The Fourth Protocol (1984, our review here), about a Soviet plot to kick Britain out of NATO.

He demonstrates his mastery of the genre again in The Devil’s Alternative.

The story begins in Turkey, where an Ukrainian nationalist recovering in hospital is recruited by Andrew Drake, an Anglo-Ukrainian determined to strike a blow against the Soviet empire. Drake’s machination will set in motion events that bring the superpowers to the brink of war.

He is aided by hardliners in the Politburo, who are pushing for war to avoid making concessions in negotiations to buy wheat from the United States. A fungicide has inadvertently poisoned the Soviet wheat crop. Without imports, millions will starve.

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Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday

Northern Ireland can feel far away from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its political party system is different from Great Britain’s. Its politics are intensely sectarian in a way that seems out of place in modern Europe. The level of violence it sustained in the twentieth century makes it an outlier in post-1945 Western Europe.

We tend to think of the United Kingdom as a peaceful Western democracy committed to the values of justice and peace. Those of us who have studied its history know that the truth is more muddled. That postwar period saw the birth of the National Health Service and other aspects of the welfare state, but it was also the time Britain left Palestine in civil war, employed a brutal system of concentration camps in Kenya and did much the same in Malaya.

But none of that violence was as old as the one that plagued Ireland.

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