Commemorating a War That Never Came: The Cold War as Counter-factual War Memory

in The Twentieth Century in European Memory


The Cold War never became the global World War iii. It was a war that never broke out. Nevertheless, in some countries like for instance Denmark it is commemorated as exactly that: a war. This is particularly apparent at museums and heritage sites, where the narrative and mnemonic frame works used and activated in the representations stem from cultural memories of the Second World War. In the proccesses of establishing this Cold War cultural memory as a war memory, it has become part of a transcultural passion for memories of traumatic pasts. But, the Cold War as cultural memory is a counter-factual war memory. In Denmark, the Cold War has, moreover, become part of a fierce competition between rivaling memory communities, preventing a common commemoration culture caracteristic of transcultural war commemorations. This article reveals a number of paradoxses related to the notion of absence: the absent war is remembered as a war; it is a war memory without victims or traumas; a national war commemoration culture in connection to the Cold War is absent; and the war memory is received without contestation in spite of the competition between the various memory communities.

The fall of the Berlin Wall made the Cold War a historical era. It does no longer exist as an ideological and security policy challenge, but as cultural memory and imaginary, political guideline and moral compass, it has a lingering contemporaneity. Still, the Cold War has not received much attention within the field of memory studies.1 Whereas scholars of this discipline have long had a strong commitment to studies of war memory and commemoration of conventional ‘hot’ wars, such as the First and Second World Wars,2 the Cold War has not been a popular topic. It has been argued, by among others Jan-Werner Müller, that the Cold War does not easily lend itself to commemoration because it was a cold war.3 Though it involved fierce rivalry in politics, economics, culture, and, not least, in the military arms race, it never became a war in a classical sense: declared, open and armed warfare between armies of adversarial political communities.4 To add to the Cold War’s peculiar character as an absent war, it lasted half a century, it was a war without a clear and undisputed beginning and ending, and the losing side never suffered total defeat like Nazi Germany. The Cold War, thus, lacks some of the most important and powerful lieux de mémoire, which usually function as facilitators of cultural memory and as occasions for mediating myths and narratives, thereby confirming the unity and identity of the community adhering to them.5

Yet, this article argues, in Denmark the Cold War is remembered and commemorated, to a great extent, as a war.6 And, in the proccesses of establishing this Cold War cultural memory as a war memory, it has become part of a transcultural passion for memories of traumatic pasts: war, violence, catastrophes, loss and victimhood.7 In this article, I will present a brief overview of commemoration of the Cold War as heritage, and more specifically war heritage. I highlight the notion of absence, both in relation to the character of the Cold War itself and in terms of reception, remembrance and commemoration. However, instead of considering the absence of war and destruction an obstacle that renders the Cold War unfit for memory work, I contend that this anomaly actually makes the Cold War a very usable past. I call the war memory of a war that never happened a counter-factual war memory. I also argue that the Cold War as cultural memory is multi-directional in the sense that it cannot be understood without paying attention to the Second World War as narrative and mnemonic template.

As case studies, I examine Danish museums and heritage sites. In the last decade, the Cold War has officially been embraced as Danish heritage, and concurrently there has been a remarkable multiplication of Cold War museums, many opened on the initiative of local communities. Even though ‘heritage’ and ‘memory’ tend to be treated as separate, even occasionally mutually exclusive concepts, I contend that they can fruitfully be employed in the same analysis, because ‘heritage’ is a form of (problematic) identity building and memory structuring. Hence, I consider heritage sites and museums powerful agents of cultural memory. The memories, narratives and interpretations endorsed at such institutions are awarded a certain legitimacy, because they are sanctioned by sites that signify knowledge, authority and power. They are, therefore, potentially very influential in the processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.8 Furthermore, museums and heritage sites constitute an intersection where political, public and academic narratives meet. Thus, it is a field particularly useful for examining the construction, contestation and reception of narratives and memories of the Cold War.

My findings reveal a paradox: the museums and heritage sites in Denmark present a war narrative of the Cold War, yet, beyond these official memory institutions, I find that a public culture of war commemoration of the Cold War is largely absent; the war memory is not reflected in a larger war commemoration culture. Moreover, from a perspective of memory reception, it is remarkable that the museums and the heritage project, though popular, do not seem to foster any particular reaction in society, either from politicians or citizens. The article therefore ends with a discussion of some paradoxes of the counter-factual war memory. However, to begin with, some remarks about the context of the discussion are necessary because the commemoration of the Cold War as a war is not uncontested and consensual.

Contestation of Cold War Memory in Denmark

Despite Denmark’s, for the most part rather insignificant and uncontroversial, involvement in the Cold War, a fierce debate has raged since the fall of the Wall over how to interpret the period. The Cold War is a very contested past in Denmark, not least in comparison with the other Scandinavian countries.9 The conflict has increasingly become entangled in contemporary party politics, and political and cultural elites (as well as the population) are divided into different memory communities. The tensions that have risen from memory clashes between these communities have had direct political consequences and have lead to a large scale political showdown. The Cold War was, for instance, a major part of the discussions about the Danish involvement in the war in Iraq in 2003, and more generally about the Danish foreign policy profile, and sins and errors of the past were used to legitimize contemporary policy options. The show down has also taken the form of a trend that can be called ‘truth on demand’: The Danish Parliament has so far commissioned specific Cold War research for more than 13.5 million euros to ‘set the historical truth right’.

It is not just a simple ‘right-wing versus left-wing’ conflict. There are, in fact, three competing Cold War narratives. The first I call the conflict narrative. The Cold War is interpreted as an all-embracing ideological war between the good, democratic West and the evil and communist East, where neutrality was not an option. The Cold War is seen as a war against totalitarianism, and thus a continuation of the Second World War. In stark opposition, we find a protest narrative, which understands the Cold War as an ordinary geo-political and economic super power conflict (and, importantly, not a war) between two imperialist countries. Also in this narrative it is crucial that totalitarian Fascism was not beaten in 1945, but seen to have survived inside the Western so-called democratic states. In between the two narratives, there is a third, the consensus narrative that shares characteristics with both of the others. The Cold War is here understood as conflict both in terms of ideology and super power realpolitik. Denmark’s role is seen as that of a balanced, responsible and morally superior small state.

These three narratives are employed by the competing memory communities to structure, interpret and make sense of the past. They also function as mobilization for actions in the present, with the past used as a guide. This became particularly apparent in Denmark in the 2000s, when the then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen re-appropriated the conflict narrative to legitimize Danish participation in the ‘war on terror’.10 During both the Second World War and the Cold War, he argued, Denmark had failed our allies by leading a cowardly policy of neutrality. In the eyes of Fogh Rasmussen, the war on terror was a direct continuation of the wars against totalitarianism. Because of the ‘double shame’ of the past, Denmark now had the moral and political duty to assist those who had saved us twice.11

This example illustrates that Cold War remembrance and the reappropriation of it as a war can have direct political bearings. Furthermore, the contestation of narratives and competition between memory communities is of consequence for the paradoxical and counter-factual war memory examined below. Now, we will turn our attention to how the Cold War is being narrated, mediated and aestheticized as a war memory.

Cold War Heritage

In the last decade, but in particular the last three or four years, the number of Cold War related museums in Denmark has increased noticeably. There are now a total of seven Cold War museums, which is quite a large number for such a small country.12 In general, the Danish Cold War museums portray the Cold War in the way ‘hot’ wars usually are presented in historical tourism both nationally and internationally: with a strong focus on the political-military perspective of the conflict, on weapons, technology, soldiers and major political and military decisions (although, in contrast to other war museums, there is an obvious absence of battle decriptions). Five of the museums are even located in former Cold War military and civil defence fortifications. It is the hypothetical and counter-factual war that forms the basis of their Cold War narratives. For instance, at Odense Bunkermuseum, which is located in a former command centre, the whole exhibition is concentrated on the military and civil defence of Odense during the Cold War and, importantly, how it would operate during war. It is the ‘during war’ or if-perspective that rules the exhibition: the military threat scenario, the phases of state of emergency, and the procedures for how to operate during ‘hot’ war.

In particular the smaller museums present an exclusively military defence-dominated Cold War narrative, whereas the two largest museums, Stevnsfort and Langelandsfort, attempt to make the presentation more complex. Langelandsfort used to be a museum primarily of interest to those with an intellectual passion for military hardware. The exhibition was mainly concerned with bunkers, cannons, missiles, jet fighters and submarines.13 However, this has changed in recent years. Today, the museum is keen to situate the fort in a broader Cold War framework, connecting the island of Langeland to the nato defence system and the development of the conflict, thus connecting local, national and global history. At present, both Langelandsfort and Stevnsfort place considerable emphasis on presenting, on both a national and international level, the cultural, social and political developments that influenced life in the forts and in Denmark. Yet, they do this without relinquishing the military perspective. The forts were built for war, crewed by marines and visited by nato generals. Their whole existence was based on imminent war and, as such, the war is present as a master narrative.

This representation of war is important because, firstly, objects, events and interpretations are provided with a particular legitimacy when they are displayed at a museum. The history and narratives that are institutionalized in this way often have at least the potential to become dominant in the visitors’ construction, adaptation and reception of memories.14 Secondly, it reflects a tendency, deliberate or not, to represent the Cold War along familiar narrative memory frames. Specifically, the representations resemble the way the Second World War is exhibited in Danish museums at, for instance, the Resistance Museum in Copenhagen and at museums in former German bunkers along the West coast of Jutland such as the Hanstholm Museum. In the way the ‘war’ is presented at Cold War and Second World War museums, there is much cross-referencing and borrowing of exhibition formats, aesthetics and narrative templates: the presentations of themes, soldiers, weapons and the geo-political and military context are strikingly similar – even though the Cold War never became hot. Instead of finding a novel and original way of constructing the past as cultural memory, old templates are reused. Arguably, what we witness is the Cold War as a remediation of the Second World War. As a lieu de mémoire, it seems to refer not only to the actual event, the Cold War, but to the canon of representations of the Second World War, the ‘established’ way of how to represent war memory.15

However, there are two major differences compared to war exhibitions in general: Firstly, the museums’ representation of a war memory lacks an important characteristic of ‘classical’ transcultural war memory: there is no display of death, loss or suffering, and there are no victims or martyrs. Negative consequences of war are totally absent, so what remains is a purely celebratory, not a mourning, commemoration.16 The actors are presented as stereotypical heroes: brave and jolly Danish soldiers constantly on the look out for, even at times engaging with, the enemy or spies (significantly it is only occasional contact, never actual combat).

Secondly, the museums go to great lengths to make the visitors’ experience transgress the lines between observing and participating. Indeed, I would argue, they go further than would be generally accepted at museums dealing with the Second World War. At Langelandsfort, for instance, a whole bunker is dedicated to a thematic exhibition of the counter-factual Third World War and the Danish preparations for it. Most spectacularly, visitors can push two buttons on a screen showing a quote by a famous lieutenant general about the possible nuclear attack on the island of Langeland: The visitor has unleashed a nuclear attack. Suddenly, hidden loud speakers in the roof make a terrible noise, the light flickers, then goes out and the floor begins to quake. The video on the screen shows footage of nuclear explosions, the blasts and the terrible destruction it causes, all the while the visitors can ‘hear’ the explosions and ‘feel’ the blast waves.17 This is a remarkably transgressive interaction with the past. Whereas it would be unthinkable that a museum would allow its visitors to interact with the Second World War to an extent that included the possibility of, for instance, denying the Holocaust or pretend to release gas over prisoners, there is apparently no similar hegemonic moral and ethical paradigm concerning the loss of human lives in a nuclear apocalypse.18 I suggest this is because it is already counter-factual. Precisely because the Cold War never became a hot war, it lends itself so easily to the counter-factual play and imagination of what could fill out the absence of war if

Alongside the musealization of the Cold War, it was also officially declared ‘Danish national heritage’ in 2013 by the state Agency for Culture. This was the climax of a project, inspired by smiliar projects in Germany and the United Kingdom, that aimed to map all Danish Cold War installations and areas and subsequently designate and preserve 33 of them estimated to be of ‘national significance’. The results were published in a book called Kold krig [Cold War] and online.19 The project had been underway since the turn of the millennium with the full political, if not economic support, of the Minister of Culture 2001–08 Brian Mikkelsen (Conservative). Mikkelsen was very interested in the Cold War and had been a keen participant in Cold War related discussions in public debate.20 At a conference in 2008, the Minister explained why it was so important to him to designate this specific past ‘heritage’.21 The Cold War was central to Danish identity and for the Danes’ ability to manoeuvre in the contemporary world, he claimed. The Cold War had been a battle of values, and the war on terror was a continuation of that battle. Only by understanding the present conflict in a Cold War perspective could the clash between the West and Islamist terrorism be fully understood, according to Mikkelsen.

The selection and designation of heritage is a normative action. Heritage is not something that ‘exists’ as independent entities of the past, but something we socially and culturally create in the present by selecting objects, events and traditions (among other things) from the infinite amount of traces of the past and elevating them to a special status, heritage, because we consider them to be vital to our history and our identity.22 Like the museums, the Agency presents a master narrative of war. With the possible exception of a conscientious objector camp, all 33 areas and installations chosen were part of the ‘total defence’: the military and civil defence. On the list are e.g. the two major forts at Stevns and Langeland (which are now museums), the nato head quarter in Western Denmark, a naval station, Thule air base in Greenland, barracks, control centres, depots, air defences as well as stations of civil defence. All the sites were constructed with a view to the war that never came. Some were operational during the Cold War, others were on standby, ready for the worst case scenario. In addition to the material sites, the Agency included a number of chapters in the book about Denmark’s integration into nato, war technology, protection of civilians, the intelligence services, military architecture etc. It is the (absent) nuclear, catastrophic and counter-factual war that is the symbolic and narrative structure for the Cold War experience.

Altogether, the project conveys the image that during the Cold War, in contrast to 1940, Denmark was ready to fight in the war. The Cold War is in this project reappropriated through a narrative of a heroically fighting Denmark (or at least a Denmark prepared to do so). The war narrative must be understood in light of the collective memory of the German occupation during the Second World War, of the shame of collaboration, as well as heroization of the Resistance movement.23 Since the 1970s, historians have steadily deconstructed the glorifying master narrative by breaking down myths of widespread resistance, of the strategic value of sabotage and of the heroic and democratic motives of the freedom fighters and the Danes who saved Jews. The Agency’s reappropriation of a heroic narrative of a war and battle-ready Denmark can, in this light, be seen as a national redemption project.

Reception of the War Memory

Langelandsfort and Stevnsfort each has approximately 40,000 visitors per year, which is a relatively high figure for a Danish historical museum.24 The interest in the material landscape of the Cold War is part of the constructions and negotiations for a cultural memory, and it is therefore significant that both the museums’ and the Agency’s efforts can be seen as an aesthetization of war memory. Moreover, this seems to be perceived and received by the public as unproblematic, convincing or even natural – or perhaps of no consequence. It does not result in any noticeable reactions from the visitors. Only Stevnsfort has made user surveys among their visitors. These are primarily statistical analyses of how satisfied the visitors are with the general experience of the museum, the exhibitions, the atmosphere, the level of service etc., as well as demographic, gender and motivation analyses of the visitors themselves. They have not made qualitative reception analyses, so in order to examine the visitors’ reactions to specific exhibitions or the war narrative, we have to rely on a sparse and relatively limited source material from the public sphere, for instance newspapers or social media. On the online travel review-site Trip-Advisor, only 39 Danes have rated Langelandsfort in the period 2014 (July)-2016 (October).25 The reviewers were in general excited about the museum, and in particular they mentioned the submarine, the jet fighter, the thrill of being inside military installations, as well as the pretty grounds. None of them mentioned the interactive exhibitions, and none of them reflected on what kind of Cold War narrative they had been told.26 Stevnsfort received 64 reviews on tripadvisor from 2014 (August)-2016 (October). Like the reviews of Langelandsfort, they were very positive. The visitors were especially thrilled that many of the guides were former marines who had worked at the fort. It gave them a feeling of getting a close and personal connection to history. One of the visitors called it ‘a jump back to the time of war, which comes really close to you’.27 It is also noteworthy here, of course, that the visitor talks of ‘the time of war’. He does not reflect on this, however. The visitors are also fascinated by the military hardware, canons, tanks, missiles etc. and Stevnfort’s role in nato. Only one visitor comments directly on the war narrative he is presented with: ‘… exciting stories, but, as usual, with a fascination with war and military tradition’.28

With the exception of the quote above, the tripadvisor reviews represent uncritical reception and engagement with the war narrative presented at the museums. In addition, they are rather limited fora that you visit if you have been to one of the museums and have an opinion you would like to share with other visitors or, of course, with the museum staff. They speak primarily to ‘those already in the know’, not the general public at large, and they do not generate a public discussion of how Danish museums represent the Cold War. Such a discussion could perhaps more likely be found in newspapers, either in review articles or in letters to the editor. However, a search in the Danish online archival system for newspapers, infomedia, results in many articles about the forts, but no discussions or critical engagements with their exhibitions. The reporters and visitors seem to either just absorb and receive the war narrative uncritically or agree to an extent that they do no feel the need to critize or object to the narrative. This is, of course, a tentative conclusion as the source material is very sparse.

The museums and heritage sites are popular, but even with the above reservation in mind, it seems safe to conclude that they do not cause any significant reation or debate in society. This is perhaps surprising, when it is taken into account that the Cold War causes much conflict in the political sphere. One explanation could be that Danish museum visitors are uncritical and easily satisfied. Another is that the world of museums and heritage has succesfully managed to stay clear of the political and ideological Cold War battle.29 A third possibility is that the war narrative presented here is sufficiently vague to be acceptable to both the conflict and the consensus narrative. One the one hand, it does aestheticize the Cold War as a war and the threat as a real threat, which is a key point in the conflict narrative. On the other hand, it portrays a Denmark that was prepared to fight for sovereignty and democracy and that took its defence responsibilities seriously. Thus, it complies with the consensus narrative in stressing that Denmark was a loyal nato ally. The Cold War as a war is acceptable, plausible and fascinating to the heritage and museum visitors.

The fascination of the Cold War as a war is matched by a generel popular interest in war history, which is reflected in the large sales of books on war history, visits to war museums etc.30 This should probably be understood in connection with the present status of Denmark as a country at war. Since the end of the Cold War, most fervently in the 2000s, Denmark has assumed a new role of being at the front line of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as in hunting pirates on the coast of Somalia and fighting against isis. The current militarized foreign policy is a profound change in the country’s ‘small state mentality’ (an expression used by, among others, former Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen), a self-perception as a bridge-builder, the ‘un’s best friend’ and a stout advocate of diplomatic solutions and dialogue.

On an existential level, as humans, we often project the challenges of the present onto the past. In times of war – with the cost of dead and wounded soldiers – it comes as no surprise that we find war history interesting and relevant, because we can use the past to explore what it means to be ‘at war’ and how to handle this as a nation and as humans. On a more practical and political level, Liberal and Conservative politicians have repeatedly compared the war on terror with the fight against Nazism and Communism in newspapers and speeches, thus making the connection between past and present wars explicit.31 The past experiences of Communism and Nazism are reappropriated to frame and make sense of the war on terror.

Both on the existential and the political level, linking the Cold War to the Second World War is necessary in order to make the Cold War function not only as orientation and explanation (the Cold War as a universal, essential and existential war between ‘good’ and ‘evil’), but also to mobilize action in specific contemporary settings. There was an absence of war in the Cold War, as the Western world never went to hot war for democracy and freedom – unlike in the Second World War. However, the narrative frames and memory templates used to make a previous war a cultural memory are transferred to the Cold War, and the cultural memory of the Cold War becomes a remediation of the Second World War, thus the Cold War memory can be used to call for action.

(Absence of a) Cold War Commemoration Culture

However, now we encounter a paradox: On the one hand, cultural memory of Cold War is part of a transcultural fascination with war memories, and is constructed in much the same ways. On the other hand, compared to ‘classic’ culture of war commemoration, Danish Cold War remembrance lacks many important features. Modern wars have given rise to in many ways similar forms of cultural remembrance: memorials, traditions, national holidays etc., in the Western world.32 Danish Second World War commemoration includes all of this. However, there is nothing of that kind specifically connected to the Cold War in Denmark. There is not a Cold War commemoration culture. This is not a uniquely Danish phenomenon, though. In other countries, such as Britain and Canada, authors have noted that the Cold War is largely ‘uncommemorated’.33 Germany seems to be the only European country with a firmly established commemoration culture.34 In Central and Eastern Europe, the picture is more complicated. The Communist period, not the Cold War, is commemorated and repressed at the same time. One line of explanation stresses a discourse and memory not of war but of terror and victimhood. Often, the Communist past is repressed and instead a (post-Communist) democratic identity and a return to Europe is emphasized.35 Another explanation focuses on a certain form of (n)ostalgia or disappointment with the developments following the fall of Communism that is not conducive to commemoration or anniversary celebrations.36

What makes the Danish case interesting is that in spite of the lack of war commemoration culture, the Cold War is commemorated at museums and heritage sites and commemorated as a war. Besides the Cold War museums and the numerous Cold War installations scattered around the country, other typical physical commemoration symbols are absent. For instance, there are no memorials or statues commemorating events or people from the Cold War.37 In this way, the Cold War as cultural memory becomes both event-less and face-less. Equally strikingly absent are immaterial or temporal sites of memory; there are no traditions connected to the Cold War experience and no calendar of commemorative dates. Not even 9 November, the day of the fall of the Wall, has become a generally accepted historic date to be commemorated. Nor does Denmark celebrate 23 August as commemoration of the victims of totalitarianism.

The absence of a traditional culture of war commemoration can, I believe, be attributed to a set of interrelated factors. One of them is that national cultures of commemoration are usually unifying and homogeneous, and such commemoration is difficult to institutionalize in countries like Denmark, where there is a continuing competition between memory communities. There is no politically and publicly shared master narrative, no agreement on what or who should be commemorated, or what form the commemoration should take. Right-wing politicians have fought for the erection of a Reagan statue, which would fit perfectly with the conflict narrative, but the American president and his role in the ending of the Cold War is still too disputed in Denmark to reach the necessary political consensus on the need and propriety of a celebratory commemoration. A statue would mean recognition of him as a hero, and this is incompatible with the consensus and protest narratives. The left-wing and Social Democrats cannot allow it; it would imply that they were wrong then and wrong now in their analyses of why they Cold War started, why it ended and what lessons there are to be learned and implemented today. This dispute can perhaps seem odd in a broader European context. Former Warsaw Pact capitals such as Budapest and Warsaw have erected Reagan statues. Hungary and Poland, of course, are cee countries who quickly and successfully embarked on a ‘return to Europe’. Honoring Reagan and emphasizing a national parallel to the conflict narrative seem logic in that regard.

Besides the lack of a unified Danish remembrance community in the present, another factor can be found in the historical past. One issue here is the relatively peaceful and in many ways ‘un-war-like’ experience of (Western) countries such as Denmark in the Cold War. War, yet alone apocalyptic war, was never part of the Danish Cold War experience. The Danes managed to participate in the conflict with the least possible effort in terms of military spending and military engagement. The country did not experience any losses, and still, in contrast to the Second World War, it was on the ‘right’ or winning side all the time. Commemorations of war memories often seem to be intimately connected to national catastrophe, loss, trauma, sacrifice and heroes and, in particular after the Second World War and the Holocaust, victimhood and genocide.38 The role of victimhood has, according to Lowe and Joel, become a central element in the politics of war memory: ‘Once shunned as both a bitter reminder of the past or continuing domination and a signal of historical or enduring inferiority, victimhood now has become a prized commodity.’39 This transnational and transcultural obsession with victims and trauma is difficult to internalize or reappropriate to fit Danish (and Western European in general) Cold War experience, because there are no losses to commemorate. Furthermore, because of the peculiar character of the Cold War as an in many ways absent war, there is no memory paradigm, such as the Holocaust paradigm, to set the limits for how and what to communicate and commemorate. This makes the counter-factual potential unlimited.

It might also be a factor that even though we live in a globalized age, Danish culture of commemoration in general still to a large degree remains intimately linked to the national state and national identity. There is no complete register of Danish memorials, but the Agency for Culture has registered more than 2,000 erected between 1830 and 2000, and they commemorate exclusively Danish historical events and persons. The, sparse, existing scholarship on the topic confirms the image that Danish commemorative culture is nationally localized and oriented.40 Many of the major Cold War events with the potential of becoming significant transcultural lieux de mémoire, such as the Berlin Wall, the uprising in Hungary 1956, the Vietnam War and the Gulag are not received and reappropriated in a Danish context and not treated as part of a common heritage. If a commemorative act that does not carry an explicit reference to Denmark is difficult to bring about in the current circumstances, there could be many ways to make international experiences part of a cultural memory in Denmark. One could have imagined, for instance, a memorial to refugees from East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, who drowned in the Baltic Sea heading for Denmark, or an exhibition about Danish communists who became victims of Stalin’s purges. However, like the Holocaust, which in Danish cultural memory is seen as something that happened ‘elsewhere’ (whereas the Danes in cultural memory are proud to have saved (most of) the Danish Jews), the catastrophes of the Cold War were far away and not directly and unambiguously related to Denmark. It is indeed a narrow, even nationalistic, perspective, yet, because memory is closely related to identity, the past must be seen as relevant to the identification of the community in question in order to ‘function’ as a lieu de mémoire.


The last few years have witnessed a remarkable multiplication of Cold War museums in Denmark. At the same time, the state Agency for Culture has recognized the Cold War as national heritage. This testifies to a desire to institutionalize the memory and narratives of the Cold War from ‘above’ and ‘below’ and to a fruitful merging of interests.

This article demonstrates that the Cold War is, to a large extent, commemorated as a war at these sites; war in a narrow political-military understanding. It is generally military and deference-related aspects of the war that have become institutionalized in the Cold War museums and in the official list of Cold War heritage – even if actual warfare was not part of the Danish Cold War experience. The representations centre on the hypothetical war situation, and the starting point is the total defence, which does not make sense without a war aspect. The history of the Cold War is modelled to follow the templates of the history of the Second World War, but with one crucial difference: it is a heroic and positive history without one of the most important characteristics of war commemoration of hot wars: victims, loss and sacrifice. The Danes manage to celebrate a war memory without having to deal with the unpleasant sides of warfare. There are no victims or veterans to take into consideration.41 It is an interesting commemorative strategy: reappropriation, heroization and militarization but without victimization. The public who is arguably the most interested in the Cold War apparently receives and perceives the war memory as unproblematic, if they notice it at all, in spite of the context of heated discussions about the past in the public sphere.

The article claims that the absence of war makes it a malleable and usable past, while at the same time finding a paradox in the counter-factual war memory that becomes the result of commemorating a war that never happened. Most importantly, the article discusses the lack of a war commemoration culture. This paradox reflects, I suggest, on the one hand, the lack of a generally accepted master narrative of the Cold War in Denmark, which is a result of the continuing ‘memory war’, and, on the other hand, the peculiar character of the Cold War as a war that never broke out and the absence of a fixed memory paradigm.

The article has revealed a need for examining in more detail the Cold War as cultural memory, and the degree to which memory communities’ competition impedes a functional commemoration culture. There remains likewise a need to embed the analyses of national cases of memory culture within a transnational or transcultural comparative framework to examine to what degree countries and communities share a similarly structured terrain of Cold War memory sites, perhaps in opposition to other memoryscapes. Also, the layers of memories and the dynamics and durability of mnemonic templates merit further examination, and provide an excellent opportunity for deepening our understanding of cultural memory.


David Lowe and Tony Joel: Remembering the Cold War: Global Contest and National Stories (London & New York: Routledge, 2014). The Vietnam War is a major exception to this rule, though it is often treated as a “separate” event, and not in a Cold War context.

See i.e. Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 [1995]); Ashplant et al.: The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (London & New York: Routledge 2000); Martin Evans and Ken Lunn, eds., War and Memory in the Twentieth Century (Oxford & New York: Berg, 1997); Winter and Sivans, eds., War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); A. Whitmarsh: ‘“We Will Remember Them” Memory and Commemoration in War Museums’, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 7 (2001), accessed 2 June 2016, doi:10.5334/jcms.7013.

Jan-Werner Müller: “Introduction: the power of memory, the memory of power and the power over memory” in Memory and Power in Postwar Europe. Studies in the Presence of the Past, ed. Jan-Werner Müller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002), 2.

This understanding is inspired by the entries ‘war’ in Encyclopedia Britannica, and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [both accessed 19 January 2015].

Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations 26 (1989), 7–24.

This article is a development of some ideas and reflections from my PhD dissertation and my latest article “Commemoration of a cold war: The politics of history and heritage at Cold War memory sites in Denmark”, Cold War History 15/04 (2015), 471–490.

On traumatic pasts as a key area of memory studies see e.g. Astrid Erll, “Traumatic pasts, literary afterlives, and transcultural memory: new directions of literary and media memory studies”, Journal of aesthetics and culture, 3 (2011).

Sharon Macdonald, Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today (New York: Routledge 2013); Sharon Macdonald, “Introduction” in Theorizing museums, eds. Sharon Macdonald and Gordon Fyfe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1996); Gaynor Kavanagh, “Making Histories, making Memories” in Making Histories in Museums, ed. Gaynor Kavanagh (London: Leicester University Press 1999), 1–15; Lucy Noakes, “Making Histories: Experiencing the Blitz in London’s Museums in the 1990s” in Evans and Lunn, War and Memory, 89–105.

Thorsten Borring Olesen, “Truth on demand. Denmark and the Cold War”, in Foreign Policy Yearbook, eds. Nanna Hvidt og Hans Mouritzen, diis 2006, 80–114; Tor Egil Førland, “Den danske debatt om Den Kolde Krig”, Historisk Tidsskrift, hft. 2, 2002, 586–598; Tor Egil Førland, “Den kalde krigen, historikerne og ytringsfriheten”, Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 3/31, 2014, 210–224; Rosanna Farbøl, Koldkrigere, medløbere og røde lejesvende. Den Kolde Krig i dansk historiekultur 1985–2015 (under publ).

Rosanna Farbøl, “Framing the Past, Shaping the Future: the Political Uses of the Foreign Policy Tradition in Contemporary Danish Politics” in Nordic Cold War Cultures: Ideological Promotion, Public Reception, and East-West Interaction, eds. Valur Ingimundarson and Rósa Magnusdóttir (Helsinki: Aleksanteri Institute 2015), 189–206; Rasmus Brun Pedersen, “Past, present, and future: the role of the Cold War in legitimizing Danish foreign policy activism”, Cold War History 16/1 (2016), 101–20.

It should be noted that the other political parties likewise found their reasoning in their Cold War narratives. The left wing saw the whole mission as yet another result of American imperialism and desire for global dominance, whereas the advocates of the consensus narrative had some difficulties deciding whether they could support the war or not, if the un got involved.

Until 1997, the Langelandsfort was the only museum dedicated to the Cold War. Stevnsfort became a museum in 2008, and in 2012 Odense Bunkermuseum and the Ejbybunker opened, followed by Panzer Museum East and Silkeborg Bunkermuseum in 2014 and Dansk Koldkrigsmuseum in 2016.

Ole Mortensøn, Fortet og den kolde krig, Museum Langelandsfort 2006.

Noakes: “Making Histories”, 89–105.

See Astrid Erll’s use of the concept of remediation in “Traumatic pasts, literary afterlives, and transcultural memory: new directions of literary and media memory studies”, Journal of aesthetics and culture, 3 (2011). Also in Berlin, commemoration of the Second World War and the Cold War seem to be intricately linked, though it’s arguably not directly a remediation process, see Keith R. Allen, “Wall Remains, Holocaust Memorials, and Prussian Heritage: Reflections on Cold War Commemoration in Germany”, Perspectives on History, 82(2), 2014.

It could be argued here, that regarding this particular aspect, Cold War commemoration at Danish museums actually resembles “old-fashioned” war commemoration practices at museums, because museums during the 20th century developed a tradition of portraying a sanitized and glamorized version of warfare, see Andrew Whitmarsh, “We Will Remember Them: Memory and Commemoration in War Museums”, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 7 (2001).

The visitor is not informed about where the footage comes from, or whether it is real or fake.

A similar counter-factual possibility for museum visitors to “drop” a nuclear bomb is found at the Lithuanian Cold War museum Plokštinė missile base.

Morten Stenak et al., eds., Kold Krig. 33 fortællinger om den kolde krigs bygninger og anlæg i Danmark, Færøerne og Grønland, (Kulturministeriet: Kulturstyrelsen, 2013) and [acessed 19 January 2015].

Brian Mikkelsen, “Ti scener fra Den Kolde Krig”, Berlingske Tidende, 11 June 2003; Brian Mikkelsen, “Trusten fra Sovjetimperiet var reel”, Jyllands-Posten, 5 September 2005; Brian Mikkelsen, “I den sorte gryde”, Weekendavisen, 27 June 2003; Brian Mikkelsen, “Reagan var en helt”, Jyllands-Posten, 11 June 2004; Brian Mikkelsen, “Det handler om frisind”, Politiken, 4 September 2003; Brian Mikkelsen, “Kulturpolitiske visioner”, Information 6 September 2008; Brian Mikkelsen, “Historien frikender ingen”, Berlingske Tidende 21 January 2007.

This concerns of course not only the heritage site as an object, but rather the immaterial mythical meanings attached to it.

Claus Bryld and Annette Warring, Besættelsestiden som kollektiv erindring (Frederiksberg: Roskilde Universitetsforlag, 1999); Uffe Østergaard, “Swords, Shields or Collaborators? Danish Historians and the Debate over the German Occupation of Denmark” in Nordic Narratives of the Second World War. National Historiographies Revisited, eds. Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg and Johan Östling (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2011), 31–55.; For the sake of comparison, the open-air museum The Old Town in Aarhus had approx. 480,000 visitors and the Second World War museum in Hanstholm approx. 51,000 visitors in 2013, [accessed 8 January 2015].

The earliest reviews of Langelandsfort are from 2012. However, in this research, I have focused on the period 2014–2016 because I was particularly interested in responses to the interactive exhibition that opened in 2014. However, surprisingly, this is not mentioned in the reviews.

I have developed this line of argument in Rosanna Farbøl, “Commemoration of a cold war: The politics of history and heritage at Cold War memory sites in Denmark”, Cold War History, 15, 2015, 471–90.

Niels Kayser Nielsen, Historiens forvandlinger (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2010); Lars Ole Knippel, “Museer om forsvaret: Eksplosiv interesse for krigshistorien”, Jyllands-Posten, 18 January 2007; Karin Dahl Hansen, “Krigshistorie på vej tilbage”, Kr. Dagblad, 26 November 2008; Mikkel Vuorela, “Den kolde krig har fået greb i danskerne”, Politiken, 22 July 2013.

For example in debates in the Parliament: Folketingstidende (ft) 2002–03 B 118 1. Beh; ft 2003–04 F7; ft 2003–04 B 213 2. Beh; ft 2003–04 – S 2927; ft 2004–05, 1. saml. B 42, 1+2 Beh.; 2004–05 2. saml. B 89; In newspapers see for example Anders Fogh Rasmussen “Hvad kan det nytte” Berlingske 2 March 2003; in speeches see Anders Fogh Rasmussen 4.5.05, Tale i Mindelunden 4.5.05 [accessed 21 February 2011]; Fogh Rasmussen, Anders 15.6.05, Tale ved Folketingets åbning [accessed 21 February 2011].

On war memorials and commemorations of war see for instance Whitmarsh, “We Will”; Mosse, G, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, (Oxford University Press 1990); A. Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919–1946 (Oxford: Berg 1994); A. Forty, “Introduction” in The Art of Forgetting, eds. A. Forty and Küchler, S., (Oxford: Berg 1999) J. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995); J. Winter and E. Sivan (eds.), War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999); J. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (London: Yale University Press 1993); M. Evans and K. Lunn, (eds.), War and Memory in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Berg 1997).

C.S. Dobinson, J. Lake & A.J. Schofield, “Monuments of war: Defining England’s 20th-century defence heritage”, Antiquity 71.272 1997, 288–299; David Neufeld, “Commemorating the Cold War in Canada: Considering the dew Line”, The Public Historian, Vol. 20, no. 1 (1998); Of course, the usa is an exception to this rule; American soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam are commemorated at many memorials, memorial services, rituals, etc. In countries where the Cold War became hot, such as Korea and Vietnam, it is, not surprisingly, commemorated as an “ordinary war”.

Keith R. Allen, “Wall Remains”; Duncan Light, “Gazing on communism: heritage tourism and post-communist identities in Germany, Hungary and Romania”, Tourism Geographies 2(2), 2000, 157–176.

Marki Lethi, “Eastern or Western, New or False? Classifying the Balts in the Post-Cold War Era”, Wider Europe, Danish Institute of International Studies, 2006, 69–88; Mälksoo, “The Memory Politics of Becoming European: The East European Subalterns and the Collective Memory of Europe”, European Journal of International Relations, 15/4, 2009, 653–668; C. Onken, “Memory and Democratic Pluralism in the Baltic States – Rethinking the Relationship, Journal of Baltic Studies, 41/3 Sep, 2010, 277–294; Light,” Gazing.

Aleksandar Smolar, “History and Memory: the Revolutions of 1989–91”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 12(3), 2001, 5–19.

The authoritative book on Danish lieux de mémoire is Inge Adriansen, Erindringssteder i Danmark: Monumenter, mindesmærker og mødesteder (København: Museum Tusculanum, 2010). In this book, Adriansen documents and analyzes monuments and memorials, however, none of them refer to the Cold War experience.

Lowe and Joel, Remembering; Jay Winter, “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies”, ghi 27 (2000); Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca, 1998); Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, eds, Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (London, 1996); Eltringham and Maclean, eds., Remembering Genocide (London and New York Routledge, 2014). Ashplant et al., The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (Routledge, 2000); John R. Gillis, “Introduction” in Commemorations: the Politics of National Identity ed. John R. Gillis (Princeton University Press, 1996), 3–27; David Lowenthal, “Identity, Heritage, and History” in Gillis ed, Commemorations, 41–61; Müller, “Introduction”.

Lowe and Joel, Remembering, 6.

Adriansen, Erindringssteder.

The lack of fallen soldiers is, however, also an impediment to a unifying commemoration culture, as the commemoration and memory of the fallen are often used to legitimize the war effort. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006 [1983]); John R. Gillis: “Introduction” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, John R. Gillis, ed., (Princeton University Press, 1996), 3–27.

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The Twentieth Century in European Memory

Transcultural Mediation and Reception


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