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Thursday was the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht episode of Nazi anti-Semitic terror, their final no-going-back moment only two years after Germany showing its best face to the world during the Berlin Olympics. It was also the 29th anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall. November 9 is a big deal in history.
Yesterday, my wife and I visited the Wende Museum of the Cold War in its new facility near Sony Pictures in Culver City. You’d think this would have been a natural for me to have seen by now, but in its first years it was little more than a guy’s storage unit, not open to the public, and then it got promoted to a modest storefront that still primarily housed one man’s collection. Gradually they found a network of allies and money, much of it obviously German, such as the Taschen Family, publishing barons of extraordinary taste.
Last year they finally moved into their new home, a beautifully renovated but minimalist space that had been a National Guard armory, a fact the tour guide later made sure to point out. We drove up and one clue that we were in the right place was what appeared to be an East German Wartburg sedan in garish orange that I spotted through a fence. If you’re ever in SoCal for a visit, note: parking wasn’t a problem. The facility is clean, super-modern; impressive looking. Typical Deutsche touches included tasteful doors, windows, light switches, even exit signs. Inside, the young staff was eager and friendly. They’ve got a good book and gift shop, not large but high quality. At 1 PM, a guide in her twenties led a dozen or so of us around for about 45 minutes.
It’s not really a large museum, but it appears to be big enough. There are outer corridors of glassed-in exhibit cabinets, housing things like surveillance equipment and Geiger counters, flanking floor to ceiling bookshelves, mostly Russian but some other Warsaw Pact nations as well. There’s a small, flat-floored “cinema,” constructed of temporary walls and curtains, with a continuous video.
The center, between the walls of exhibits and books, is the main exhibition and show space. There’s a permanent explanation about what the Cold War was, and how even children were brought up knowing that war was recent, and could return at any moment. Most of our dozen “co-tourists” were in fact old enough to remember those days, but I imagine it’s all new material to a lot of younger people. The exhibits tend to be a bit dry; for example, there’s little beyond a few oil paintings, special KGB telephones and gas masks to suggest what it was really like living in a “1984”-like Moscow in 1953.
The two temporary exhibitions were less impressive. One, “Brainwashing,” was a shallow look at fears of psychological (and pharmacological) warfare. It was…okay. But this new fear of the paranoid Fifties wasn’t all hype or CIA tricks. North Koreans treated American prisoners far worse than even the Nazis did, and POWs returning home acted strangely in ways we’d never seen.
The next focus area (it’s hard to call it a specific exhibit hall), called “The Red Shoes”, was about ballet as a pawn and a tool of propaganda. Examples of defectors in both directions were cited. There was also a rare distinction made between defectors, escaping and renouncing their citizenship, and legal emigres, which became more and more common; Baryshnikov, for example, was given permission to leave. This exhibition was a blatant and worthy effort to get fine arts types who know nothing about history up to speed.
That was it. There’s a garden for receptions, which wasn’t part of the tour and we didn’t visit. The sides of the building, beyond bookcases, house workshops, offices, and storage rooms. It occurred to me that for all the clean modernity of the museum, almost all of it could be taken back out and moved fairly easily; this was a bet that could later be withdrawn. Although the Cold War was primarily a Soviet—American affair, the museum has an outsized emphasis on the GDR, though Hungary and Romania get a nod.
This gets at the museum’s strong, deliberate focus on what it says at the front door—the Cold War. What it’s not is an in-depth story about Communism or Marxism. There’s very little about China and nothing about Cuba, rather important players in the Cold War. There’s little about the Soviet Union itself, its history or its ethnically varied republics. You’ll see nothing about the Ukrainian Holodomor, when millions starved to death, or the 1937 purges that killed millions of Soviets. Looking at the little dolls with peace signs, you’d never guess that most people in eastern Europe didn’t see the Russians as protectors of justice and peace, though some did.
This isn’t McVey-the-American-propagandist talking; it’s the real history of Europe and the reason for the Cold War. Nobody these days wants to be seen as McCarthyite, or as war-happy General Buck Turgidsons, so most Americans visiting the museum will nod and passively accept the idea that the real sin of the Cold War was conflict itself. This is a common attitude in Germany, as if they were sitting there in the middle of a nice, peaceful century and the mean Russians and foolish Americans forced this on them.
Here’s where the Wende Museum is smart, and yet cleverly evasive; they don’t have to take sides. Oh, it’s not quite cultural equivalency; they never reach for the level of stupidity I’ve seen from purely American curators, solemnly comparing 300 demoted history professors to a purge of 10 million people, but it’s a dodge that I was used to when dealing with old Communists in Germany; they were all “fighters for peace”. Like World War II, it really doesn’t cut it to just say, “lots of people suffered” without at least some clarification about who did what to whom. Too complicated? Then don’t pretend you’re giving people a true picture.
The young tour guide wasn’t qualified to answer questions like that. It wasn’t her fault, although I’d have thought more of the place if they’d had expert guides, especially from former Communist countries.
So, is this a thumb’s down review? No; it depends on your expectations. The fact that Americans are being reminded of a “Eurocentric” conflict that didn’t involve race or gender is so rarely of interest to arts curators it’s almost worthy of your support just for that. The fact that an ideological struggle between the east and the west ended in Soviet defeat is not the liveliest, sexiest subject in American museums makes this half-and-half attempt look even better.