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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American Cruise Missiles Divide 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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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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De Gaulle’s Cold War

European countries generally welcomed American involvement after the Second World War. From the Marshall Plan to NATO, the United States was seen as a benevolent influence.

But American help came with a price. European governments were expected to keep the far left out of power, accept the rehabilitation of West Germany and curtail trade and other relations with the Soviet Union.

France took exception to being treated as an instrument of American foreign policy. Charles de Gaulle famously blocked Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, believing it would be a Trojan horse for America. He refused to give up France’s independent nuclear deterrent and even pulled out of NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966.

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How the CIA Waged Cultural Cold War on Communism

Fear of communist infiltration in the United States preceded the Cold War. So-called “popular fronts” — anti-fascist and anti-imperialist — were active in the 1930s and attracted various well-meaning progressives. As Hugh Wilford puts it in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008), everyone from the “Jewish fur-worker dismayed by the rise of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany” to the “student inspired by the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War” to the “African American protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.” Support for the Soviet Union was usually far down their list of priorities, but Soviet influence, and Soviet money, nevertheless played a role.

After the Second World War, Moscow played up its efforts to spread communism abroad. It focused primarily on Europe (France and Italy had large Communist parties) and the Third World.

In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency was created amid the Red Scare and tasked with countering Soviet subversion.

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How to Turn the Cold War Hot

Most World War III fiction wasn’t written as alternate history. During the Cold War, many authors and filmmakers imagined how East and West might end up in a (nuclear) war. Because the two sides never did, these stories have become counterfactual.

A Third World War was seldom portrayed as the outcome of outright American or Soviet aggression. More often, the war happened as a result of miscalculation, escalation of a proxy conflict or the Soviets feeling the West left them with no alternative. These were cautionary tales and reflected the fear, widespread at the time, that global thermonuclear war might occur, and kill billions, without either side wanting it.

Video games are an exception. Typically made in Europe or North America, they are more likely to make the Soviets simple villains and give the player the power to unleash nuclear catastrophe just for the heck of it.

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That Was Too Close… Five Times Nuclear War Didn’t Break Out

It is two minutes to midnight at the time I’m writing this article.

It is also 8 in the evening British Summer Time.

The first statement is from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and refers to how close we are, as a species, to the end of the world. The second is, more prosaically, the actual time.

The Doomsday Clock was invented in 1947 and set to seven minutes to midnight. By 1949, it was three minutes to midnight. In 1953, we got to two minutes to midnight. Since then, it has moved away (as far as seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991) and back in again. With Trump, Putin, Middle East unrest, tensions in Kashmir, coupled with climate change concerns, we’re as close to the end as we ever have been.

When you’re this close to Armageddon, sheer bad luck can take you over the edge. It has nearly done so in the past. Once again, as with so many of my articles, I’ve had difficulty keeping the number down to five. I’ve used my standard method of looking at which event had the greatest chance of changing history — in both probability and impact. 

(I have skipped over some incidents where I felt precautions being taken were likely to stop war breaking out, but we learned from them, for example: don’t leave training tapes in live equipment without telling the next shift unless you want them to stare in horror at screens telling them hundreds of missiles are coming over the pole.)

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