On 22nd and 23rd of January 2020 Grace and I had the pleasure of hosting about 40 delegates at the University of Bristol for our ‘Cold War Voices: Stories, Speech and Sound, 1945-1991’ conference. In addition, we and our delegates were some of the 150 or so people, including pupils from local schools and members of the general public, who filled Bristol’s new Humanities Lecture Theatre to hear Bridget Kendall’s public lecture, ‘Lessons from the Cold War’.
Over the course of the two days we heard about a lot of exciting research on varied Cold War topics. An observation that stuck with me from Bridget Kendall’s lecture was that ‘wars always happen alongside people’s ordinary lives’. Many of the papers that we heard within the conference examined the voices of ‘ordinary’ people and demonstrated that this observation is certainly true of the Cold War, even when those ordinary people lived through or were involved in extraordinary moments or events. For some, like defence scientists or personnel based in Germany, the Cold War was ordinary life, but even then the prospect of the Cold War turning hot didn’t necessarily loom large in their consciousness. Yet, perhaps particularly for the young, the Cold War created a backdrop of anxiety to people’s ordinary lives and emphasised generational divides. For others, the Cold War actively and sometimes violently disrupted their lives and the opportunities available, but how people responded could be dictated by self-interest as well as ideological conviction.
Another thread that stood out to me across the papers was the extent to which being heard and being seen was integral to the Cold War; voices, distributed in all manner of different mediums, were a way in which nation states and those opposing the actions of nation states, on both sides of the Cold War, tried to educate and influence others: to shape how their intentions were perceived, how their ways of life were understood, and to mitigate the potential consequences of international tensions. And we heard about the potential dangers and threats to being heard as police and intelligence services sought to gather voices during the Cold War.
Finally, we were shown an array of different ways in which scholars might access and approach Voices from the Cold War. We heard about oral history projects and discussed the methodological challenges and opportunities that oral history offers, and how it can work in conjunction with archival sources, but we also heard about radio broadcasts, speeches, and more unusual ways of accessing Voices, such as through tourists’ recordings, hymns, and songs. We also heard consideration of the different ways that these voices are mediated: by the biases of archives, by translators with their own agendas, and significantly we heard how the narratives that can be articulated by individuals can be shaped by how the Cold War is remembered more widely. It was therefore fascinating to hear reflections on how public memory of the Cold War is created and how public understanding can be enhanced by exhibiting the Cold War in physical and digital spaces.
We would like thank the AHRC and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol for providing funding that enabled us to hold this event, and our speakers and delegates for sharing their research, ideas and questions to make the event a success.
You can see a selection of photographs and tweets from the event here: