Reflections on Cold War Voices: Stories, Speech and Sound, 1945-1991

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:

‘Cold War Voices: Stories, Speech and Sound, 1945-1991’ conference

Over the last few months we’ve been working hard to organise our conference: ‘Cold War Voices: Stories, Speech and Sound, 1945-1991’. Now that much of the organisation is complete, we can look forward to welcoming 25 speakers from around the world to Bristol to share their research in January. Over the course of two days, the papers will provide insight into the Cold War around the globe, with papers on China, Rhodesia, Romania, Hungary and the Ukraine, as well as Britain, the USA, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The papers also address really varied themes: how voices were gathered during the Cold War and since; how Cold War voices were broadcast; the rhetoric in Cold War speeches; the diplomatic utility of sport; Cold War science and morality; fear, anxiety and surveillance during the Cold War; and how the Cold War has subsequently been remembered and exhibited.

We are also delighted that on the evening of the first day of the conference, we will be hosting a public lecture titled ‘Lessons from the Cold War’, delivered by Bridget Kendall, former BBC Moscow correspondent, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and author of The Cold War: A New Oral History of Life Between East and West. Members of the public interested in attending this event can book free tickets here:


For more information on our papers and panels, see our Programme 

Processing our oral histories

Over the last few months I’ve been hard at work, doing some of the ‘processing’ tasks that are often part of an oral history project. When I joined the project, Grace already had lots of completed interviews and she’s conducted even more since then. More than fifty are now complete, and we’ve got more planned. But recording each oral history is only one stage of the research process.

One of my first tasks has been to create summaries of each interview. The summaries provide an outline of what the interviewee talks about, along with time-stamps so that we can find that part of the interview and listen to it to hear more detail. Where passages are particularly rich or especially relevant to our research topics, I’ve transcribed them verbatim. I’ve listened to each interview carefully in order to produce the summaries so I’m now ‘up to speed’ with the oral history research Grace had already done. More importantly, the summaries themselves are really helpful for looking at individual interviews  – we can check if particular topics came up without listening to a whole interview, we can find out which sections of the recording to listen to in more depth when we need it, and we can quickly understand the context of those sections and understand the overall themes and narrative arcs of the interview by reviewing the whole summary.

As we try to analyse all the interviews, or particular groups within them – for instance, service children – other challenges emerge. Some parts of oral histories are very memorable, but because we are working with a large number of interviews it can be difficult to remember with certainty who said what, and ensuring that no testimony about a theme is overlooked or forgotten is near impossible without a system to help. So, I’ve been using software called Nvivo to index the oral history summaries. Grace and I established a list of topics and themes that are central to the project research questions. I’ve been working through each interview and essentially labelling passages as relating to those themes whenever they are mentioned. Applying these labels is a time-consuming process, and one that becomes more fiddly when working with group interviews because labels to differentiate the speakers are required, too. Nevertheless, it is time well spent. Now that the complete interviews have all been processed in this way we have something approaching a database of the oral history content. The software can be used as a sophisticated index and finding-aid, allowing us to see who had something to say about, for example, Education, Cold War Fears, or Accommodation on Base, and allowing us to quickly extract the labelled sections to see what each person said and to compare different people’s testimonies about these topics. As well as making it easier to return to parts of an interview to examine them in depth, the software counts how often I’ve applied each label, showing at a glance which topics and themes occur frequently and which ones are rarely mentioned. This can confirm or correct our sense that given themes come up all the time or aren’t talked about at all. Nvivo can’t do the analytical work for us, and nor would we want it to, but applying the labels and creating the database is the beginning of the process of analysing what each oral history contains. Now that the labels are applied, Nvivo can help us navigate through the collection of testimony and enable us to identify and better understand what the experiences, attitudes, and memories of those who’ve lived on British bases in Germany.   

Project team update

GERMANY UNDER ALLIED OCCUPATION (BU 13082) The arrival at Cuxhaven of wives and children of soldiers serving with the British Army of the Rhine. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

In the previous blog post, Grace promised that news would follow about the appointment of a project Research Assistant, so I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Joel Morley, and I was recently appointed as the Research Associate on the British Military Bases in Germany project. I was drawn to the project by my interests in oral history, memory, and the social and cultural history of war and its legacies. My independent research centres on the memory and legacies of the First World War in Britain. I have published an article that uses oral histories with Second World War veterans to explore whether and what they had been told by First World War as they were growing up, and another that uses the Mass Observation archive to examine how memories and impressions of the First World War affected Britons’ morale at the outset of the Second World War. Over the next year, as well as working on the British Military Bases in Germany project, I’ll also be working on my first book, which establishes how the memory of the First World War shaped the attitudes and subjective masculinities of those who served in the Second World War.

Prior to joining Bristol, I spent three years as Senior Research Officer on a Leverhulme-funded oral history project, ‘National Service Life Stories’ with Dr Peter Gurney and Dr Matthew Grant at the University of Essex. This project used more than 100 oral histories to examine how National Service during the early Cold War period shaped the lives of a generation of British men, and how they remember their conscripted service and position it in relation to the Cold War. As I work with Grace to conduct, summarise, and analyse oral histories conducted for the British Military Bases in Germany project I’ll get to hear how a wide range of people – regular service personnel, their spouses, their children, and civilians working for and with the armed forces – experienced service in Germany. I’m looking forward to exploring what their day-to-day lives were like, how family life was shaped by and adapted to overseas postings, and how they understood British presence in Germany over the second half of the twentieth century. I’ll be leading on some public engagement activities and we are currently refining ideas about the form that these will take. I’ll also be helping to organise our Cold War Voices workshop at the University of Bristol, which we will have some details about very soon.