Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. A Visit to the Wende Museum of the Cold War

 

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.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    I wish they still taught kids the evils of Communism in the schools.

    • #1
    • November 9, 2018, at 10:52 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  2. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Thanks for this, Gary! For members of this generation, even what this museum does bring forward is a reminder that history didn’t start on their birthdays. Personally, I think R>SRN’s alternate histories get at this era with style and pinache, too.

    • #2
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:01 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. The Reticulator Member

    Thanks for that review. We might go see that next time we’re in Southern California.

    I’m not sure we’ll be going this winter, like we did the last three. That’s because we’ll be busy planning another visit to Central Europe, and this time I’d like to take in some of the cold war museums there. Warsaw has one where you can take a tour in an old Soviet-era van (or rent one to drive around yourself). And I think there are other such places. I need to compile a list. I think some of these are billed as cold war museums, but are more about life under Soviet communism, which is of course a related topic and perhaps more interesting than the “cold war” itself.

    One other cold war museum in the U.S. is near Cooperstown, North Dakota. It’s made from one of the old ICBM silos. Mrs R visited it three years ago while I was bicycling in the area. One thing she learned is that several older military guys from the old USSR have come to visit, and compared it with their own facilities. But there was a lot more to the Cold War than the “war” stuff, and I wouldn’t expect to get all of that at Cooperstown.

    It wouldn’t bother me if I have to visit a lot of places to learn everything I’d like to learn.

    • #3
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:02 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  4. The Reticulator Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I wish they still taught kids the evils of Communism in the schools.

    They certainly didn’t teach that when I was a kid going to school in the rural midwest in the 50s and 60s. But I learned a lot about it anyway.

    • #4
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:04 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. RightAngles Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I wish they still taught kids the evils of Communism in the schools.

    They certainly didn’t teach that when I was a kid going to school in the rural midwest in the 50s and 60s. But I learned a lot about it anyway.

    Really? They did when I was there the same years. By age 8, I knew that even if you had money in Russia, it wouldn’t do you any good because there was nothing on the shelves in the stores because Communism doesn’t work! They showed us pictures of long bread lines, people waiting in the snow to buy bread, but when they got to the front of the line there was none left.

    They showed us photos from various purges where they’d try to erase people from history when they fell out of favor. I remember once in 3rd grade we saw a photo of a group of scientists, and in the back row there was a space between two of them where they’d airbrushed a man out, but they’d forgotten to airbrush out his shoes, so there was a disembodied pair of shoes. They taught is that we were the luckiest children on earth to have been born here. We were really indoctrinated. And it took.

    • #5
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:14 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    • #6
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:25 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  7. The Reticulator Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I wish they still taught kids the evils of Communism in the schools.

    They certainly didn’t teach that when I was a kid going to school in the rural midwest in the 50s and 60s. But I learned a lot about it anyway.

    Really? They did when I was there the same years. By age 8, I knew that even if you had money in Russia, it wouldn’t do you any good because there was nothing on the shelves in the stores because Communism doesn’t work! They showed us pictures of long bread lines, people waiting in the snow to buy bread, but when they got to the front of the line there was none left.

    They showed us photos from various purges where they’d try to erase people from history when they fell out of favor. I remember once in 3rd grade we saw a photo of a group of scientists, and in the back row there was a space between two of them where they’d airbrushed a man out, but they’d forgotten to airbrush out his shoes, so there was a disembodied pair of shoes. They taught is that we were the luckiest children on earth to have been born here. We were really indoctrinated. And it took.

    I just don’t remember learning that in school, and think I would have remembered it because communism was a big topic at home. There are also other historical and political things that I kept waiting to learn about in school, and finally, after even my college courses didn’t touch them, had to be satisfied with what I learned on my own.

    I’ve probably told already about how when I was five my mother came into my bedroom and had “the talk” with me. By which I mean she told me about the midnight knock on the door, and how it could happen in our country, too. I’ve often wondered what provoked that discussion on her part, but when I asked her many years later she didn’t remember it. It wasn’t exactly new information to me at the time, because I heard adults talking about such things. That topic, rather than nuclear holocaust, is what concerned me as a child. It may have been the news about Beria’s execution that prompted that little episode, but that name would have meant nothing to me at that age. 

    • #7
    • November 9, 2018, at 11:45 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    Almost all of them have something similar. There’s nothing like it in the United States. 

    • #8
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:16 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This museum doesn’t pretend to be the equivalent of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, but it’s valuable anyway. It bears witness to some specific political aspects of 1945-91, almost all from a European–American perspective. If this museum had existed in more than a paper sense ten or fifteen years ago, I would certainly have sought to partner with them to present Freedom Film Festival events. It’s the kind of place that, frankly, contact with someone like @titustechera could really set in motion. As it is, it’s an interesting curiosity with potential. 

    • #9
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:25 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  10. Judge Mental Member

    I don’t know if your mention worked: @titustechera, @titustechera, @titustechera.

    You have to say it three times, like Bloody Mary.

     

     

     

    • #10
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:29 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I don’t know if your mention worked: @titustechera, @titustechera, @titustechera.

    You have to say it three times, like Bloody Mary.

    Thanks, Judge! Like “Candyman”, you have to do it just right.

    On transatlantic flights you have to say Bloody Mary three times to the flight attendant. That’ll get you a few hours of groggy sleep to get you ready for Europe. 

    • #11
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:35 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Thanks for this, Gary! For members of this generation, even what this museum does bring forward is a reminder that history didn’t start on their birthdays. Personally, I think R>SRN’s alternate histories get at this era with style and pinache, too.

    Ricochet Silent Radio is centered on this era, it’s true. I never said we had the greatest writers, but there’s no question that we have the smartest readers, and Nanda, you’re proof!

    Alternative timelines are a natural for a website like this, loaded with history buffs, news junkies and SF/fantasy fans, fascinated with what really happened, but haunted by how much better it might have happened. 

    • #12
    • November 10, 2018, at 1:02 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Henry Castaigne Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    So you mean places that were less Communist?

    • #13
    • November 10, 2018, at 1:48 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  14. Henry Castaigne Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I wish they still taught kids the evils of Communism in the schools.

    We could teach kids the evils of communism in a decent lefty way. “Martin Luther King was not treated very well by America’s government but Solzhenitsyn and homsexual-russians were treated way worse. The American system is good because it limits abuse. Now please turn to page 314 and read about the Ukrainian famine.” No exaggration or manipulation is required.

    • #14
    • November 10, 2018, at 2:23 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    Almost all of them have something similar. There’s nothing like it in the United States.

    I don’t know, Gary. It’s the US. The names might be different and there would be different biases. Are there any museums to US Imperialism in the US? Other than Harvard, and Yale, and the others?

    • #15
    • November 10, 2018, at 3:11 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    So you mean places that were less Communist?

    Less Communist than Culver City? That would be like “less Irish than Limerick.”

    • #16
    • November 10, 2018, at 4:09 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Stad Thatcher

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    By age 8, I knew that even if you had money in Russia, it wouldn’t do you any good because there was nothing on the shelves in the stores because Communism doesn’t work!

    We were in Russia in December 1996, not long after the end of the Cold War. People were starting to have money, but store shelves were still fairly sparse. However, the streets were lined with vendors in kiosks selling things, and we visited a farmers market where more food could be purchased than in the grocery stores.

    We’re so thankful to live in a country where the only time grocery store shelves empty is when a hurricane is coming . . .

    Oh, and thanks Gary! It’s interesting to know museums like this exist.

    • #17
    • November 10, 2018, at 5:53 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Randy Webster Member

    If you’ve ever had borsht, “free borsht” isn’t much of an inducement.

    • #18
    • November 10, 2018, at 6:11 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  19. Steve C. Member

    The most important fact of the Cold War is, we won and they lost.

    Maybe the museum should run The Lives Of Others on a continuous loop.

    • #19
    • November 10, 2018, at 7:32 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  20. Stad Thatcher

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    Maybe the museum should run The Lives Of Others on a continuous loop.

    A must-see movie if there ever was one . . .

    • #20
    • November 10, 2018, at 9:44 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    At the Brandenburg Gate, November 9, 1999 for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Wall coming down. You best believe that we partied like it was Nineteen Ninety-Nine. 

    • #21
    • November 10, 2018, at 10:44 AM PST
    • 13 likes
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    Maybe the museum should run The Lives Of Others on a continuous loop.

    A must-see movie if there ever was one . . .

    One of the best! With our Freedom Film Festival, I had the frustrating situation that our movies were treated and covered as politics. We insisted, no, this is human rights, like “Schindler’s List”. You don’t have to be conservative to be horrified, and we proved the point every time the lights came up and a shaken-and-stirred audience learned something new. 

    • #22
    • November 10, 2018, at 10:49 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    By age 8, I knew that even if you had money in Russia, it wouldn’t do you any good because there was nothing on the shelves in the stores because Communism doesn’t work!

    We were in Russia in December 1996, not long after the end of the Cold War. People were starting to have money, but store shelves were still fairly sparse. However, the streets were lined with vendors in kiosks selling things, and we visited a farmers market where more food could be purchased than in the grocery stores.

    We’re so thankful to live in a country where the only time grocery store shelves empty is when a hurricane is coming . . .

    Oh, and thanks Gary! It’s interesting to know museums like this exist.

    In ’96 I visited the former headquarters of East Germany’s domestic spying agency. East Berlin still looked run down, tired and poor compared to the glittering western part of the city. The spy agency building had been privatized, and individual shops were being carved out of its ground floor offices. One major tenant was a burglar alarm and security company whose rather ominous logo was a drawing of the infamous building with a giant eye hovering over it. “We Watch You Night and Day” was their slogan. Rather dark sense of humor in that part of the world. 

    • #23
    • November 10, 2018, at 11:00 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  24. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    I must say, you get a surprising amount of use out of the “Free Borscht” picture.

    Gary McVey: Nobody these days wants to be seen as McCarthyite, or as war-happy General Buck Turgidsons

    Maybe the latter; probably not the former, depending.

    • #24
    • November 10, 2018, at 11:06 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  25. RightAngles Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In ’96 I visited the former headquarters of East Germany’s domestic spying agency. East Berlin still looked run down, tired and poor compared to the glittering western part of the city. The spy agency building had been privatized, and individual shops were being carved out of its ground floor offices. One major tenant was a burglar alarm and security company whose rather ominous logo was a drawing of the infamous building with a giant eye hovering over it. “We Watch You Night and Day” was their slogan. Rather dark sense of humor in that part of the world.

    Creepy. When I was a kid, a young guy tried to escape from East Berlin by climbing over the wall. They shot him as he reached the top, and he was wounded. He lay there on top of the wall bleeding as the world watched, and it took him days to die. It sure reinforced everything I’d been taught about Communism, especially the fact that they had to have a wall to keep people in.

    Here is my piece of the Berlin Wall, brought back to me by a relative who was there the day they tore it down:

    • #25
    • November 10, 2018, at 11:09 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Warsaw would be a better locale, or Budapest, or Prague, or Bucharest, or Berlin.

    So you mean places that were less Communist?

    I used to joke with Russian colleagues that there was one big difference between Hollywood and Mosfilm, their main studio: there were no Communists left at Mosfilm. 

    • #26
    • November 10, 2018, at 11:15 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  27. Titus Techera Contributor

    Judge is right–you gotta do it right for the system to wake me up.

    But since I’m here, hello from Silicon Valley!

    Glad to hear this place exists! I’ll take “better than nothing” every time. The alternative really is nothing… The past is especially easily obliterated in a land where everyone cares about the future–Faulkner to the contrary notwithstanding…

    • #27
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:13 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  28. Titus Techera Contributor

    As for collaborating, maybe it’s possible to do an event. We have done some worthwhile stuff on Cold War totalitarianism!

    I may have failed to mention it, but some of the lecturing I’ve been doing is on Communism & post-Communism in Eastern Europe!

    • #28
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:15 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  29. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    As for collaborating, maybe it’s possible to do an event. We have done some worthwhile stuff on Cold War totalitarianism!

    ….I may have failed to mention it, but some of the lecturing I’ve been doing is on Communism & post-Communism in Eastern Europe!

    Hey, @jimkearney; here’s a fine guest lecturer for your classes at Loyola. Of course, I don’t know how Titus feels about Jesuit institutions…

     

    • #29
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  30. Randy Webster Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Hey, @jimkearney; here’s a fine guest lecturer for your classes at Loyola. Of course, I don’t know how Titus feels about Jesuit institutions…

    Titus probably doesn’t have strong feelings one way or the other. He didn’t object when Concretevol took him on a tour of a cathedral we were building.

    • #30
    • November 10, 2018, at 12:37 PM PST
    • 4 likes

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