Friday, December 14, 2012

Preserving Cold War History

Recently I attended a private fundraising event at the Wende Museum in Culver City in the Los Angeles area. The Wende website describes it as “a collections-based research and education institute that preserves Cold War artifacts and history, making resources available to scholars and applying historical lessons of the past to the present.” A Cold War museum in the heart of the entertainment world – who knew?

Incorporated in Los Angeles ten years ago, the Wende was founded by young historian Justinian “Justin” Jampol to address the rampant destruction of Cold War artifacts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall (wende is German for “turning point,” a phrase often used to refer to that historic event and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union). “Evidence of this critical period in world history is quickly disappearing,” said Jampol. So he made it his mission to collect and preserve that evidence.

The result is an amazing collection of over 70,000 artifacts, archives and personal histories from Communist-era Eastern Europe, including furniture, paintings, sculptures, posters, flags, signs, political propaganda, clothing, tapestries, books, films, electronics, remnants of Checkpoint Charlie, and the longest stretch of the original Berlin Wall outside of Germany. Nearly 75% of the objects in that collection originate from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Wende uses the history and culture of the GDR as a “lens through which to observe the larger cultural implications of Cold War-era Eastern European and the Soviet Union.”

Jampol led those of us at the fundraiser on a tour through the small display rooms and a crowded downstairs warehouse packed to the gills with these items. We were also shown through a nearby building which houses a collection of Cold War-era surveillance equipment. The collection gives off a palpable sense of the oppressive history to which it bears witness.

The Wende Museum won’t have to endure cramped quarters much longer. The city council has just given it a 75-year lease in a high-visibility building near Sony Studios in Culver City. Not only that, but the museum will get a higher profile as the subject of an upcoming book from the major art publisher Taschen. Wayne Ratkovich, Chair of The Wende Museum Board, notes that “the book will present more than just an exhaustive documentation of The Wende's collection and the artifacts of the Cold War. It will provide a unique view of life behind the Iron Curtain.”

The Museum focuses on pivotal moments in Cold War history – “beginnings, endings and transformative events” – such as the formation of the Warsaw Pact, the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evolution of former Communist countries to members of a pan-European union. But the Wende also recognizes history on a more personal level, as preserved through oral histories and material remnants like family photo albums, scrapbooks and home movies, to “explore the layered realities of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain,” the “symbols, rituals, mass organizations and state-approved creative expression generated across the region,” and “the ways that official ideology was subverted, rejected and given new meaning in the private sphere.”

The Museum serves as an unparalleled educational resource not only for insight into the Eastern perspective of the Cold War, but the legacy of the Cold War and its contemporary relevance as well. Jampol is always searching for unique, interdisciplinary ways to engage audiences, such as urban landscape projects, online tools, exhibitions that provide access to shared knowledge, and a wiki-catalog that allows the public to contribute to the creation of artifacts and to upload videos and other content. In addition, “We host an annual conference or workshop for international scholars and students, loan materials to museum and institutions around the world, and produce and publish research projects,” he says.

Organized by journalist/historian David Stein, who also heads up an organization of counterculture conservatives called the Republican Party Animals (“this is not your father’s GOP”), the fundraising event featured the city council has just given it a 75-year lease on a high-visibility building by Downtown Culver City, near Sony radio host Larry Elder among the speakers, as well as the prolific journalist/novelist/screenwriter Michael Walsh, who happens to be on the museum’s Board of Directors. Walsh shared some of his personal experiences in Berlin while writing for Time magazine and other publications at that time (I have interviewed him about his thriller novels for FrontPage Mag here, and reviewed his recent Encounter broadside The People v. The Democratic Party here).

U.S. Navy Commander J.E. Dyer also spoke to the capacity crowd at the event. Having served in Naval Intelligence from 1983 through 2004, beginning her career under Ronald Reagan and finishing it serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Commander Dyer has written for The Weekly Standard, HotAir, Commentary, and elsewhere, and is working on a book about Ronald Reagan, whom she quoted several times in her brief presentation. “Reagan saw the Cold War as a battle for the hearts and minds of people,” Dyer pointed out, and she quoted from his 1987 “tear down that wall” address about that struggle:

After these four decades there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

And so it was. The Berlin Wall came down two years after that famous speech, because, to paraphrase another Dyer quote from Reagan’ 1982 address on arms reduction, he demonstrated the will to rebuild America’s strength and force the Soviets to back down.

The arrival in movie theaters of Red Dawn, a remake of the Cold War cult favorite of the same name, has given reviewers occasion to trot out a tired but favorite phrase of the left: “Cold War paranoia,” a dismissive term which implies that the threat of Soviet Communism was only a chimeric obsession of jingoistic conservatives. Justinian Jampol and his Cold War museum are working diligently to preserve the evidence of the War’s oppressive reality in Eastern Europe.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 12/10/12)