Cold War Nostalgia

Getty Images

Deutschland 83, a hit German television show, available on Sundance Channel, has been lauded for its authentic evocation of early-1980s Cold War-gripped Europe. That much is true, but as far as the nonaesthetic elements of the series go, it is derivative, hackneyed, and predictable. When, several episodes after an adulterous NATO bureaucrat ensnared in a Stasi blackmail plot shoots himself in the head, another German military official does the same, it’s clear that the writers have a tiresome penchant for suicide as an easy plot device. Deutschland 83's popularity likely has more to do with resurgent Cold War nostalgia than its merits as a work of drama.

Like its far superior inspiration, The Americans, Deutschland 83 is a retro spy thriller set in the Cold War, with the microcosm of superpower struggle transplanted from Washington, D.C., to divided Germany. East German border guard Martin Rauch is leading a simple life, caring for his sick mother, when his aunt Lenora, a chain-smoking, sultry Stasi official, presents him with an enviable, yet risky, opportunity. To advance his own career and secure his mother a privileged spot on the kidney-transplant list—so much for the Marxist credo "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"—Martin will cross the Iron Curtain and pose as aide-de-camp to a West German general, ferreting out NATO secrets for the comrades back home.

The way the Stasi infiltrates Martin into this position—assassinating an actual Bundeswehr officer whose identity Martin then assumes—is more than slightly preposterous. Are we really to believe that no one in West Germany, least of all the murdered soldier's family, realizes that Martin isn't who he claims to be? We're also expected to believe that this barely trained Stasi agent, who's never set foot outside East Germany, is able to pull off a series of incredible espial tasks, not to mention run circles around American generals and the NATO bureaucracy, eluding exposure throughout.

As in The Americans, the fictional action of Deutschland 83 takes place against a backdrop of actual events, phenomena, and characters. In the inaugural episode's first scene, Lenora watches Ronald Reagan deliver his famous "Evil Empire" speech; the president's combative words ultimately convince her to recruit her nephew. In order to plant a bug at NATO's Brussels headquarters, Martin adopts the flirtatious tactics of "Romeo" spies—real-life Communist agents who seduced the secretaries of Western officials. A major storyline concerns the contentious debate over America's stationing of nuclear-tipped cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe, a decision that gave birth to the influential West German peace movement, accurately portrayed as heavily penetrated by East German intelligence.

With its costumes, set design, and addictive New Wave soundtrack, Deutschland 83 excels in its period realism. But the writers' urge to cram so much cultural and political arcana into a eight-episode miniseries makes Martin become a sort of Forrest Gump of early-1980s Cold War Europe, a well-meaning naïf who stumbles into the conflict's every flashpoint. One moment, Martin is unwittingly assisting Carlos the Jackal's 1983 bombing of a French Cultural Center in West Berlin; the next, he's single-handedly saving the world from nuclear destruction by alerting his handlers that the military maneuvering they believe to be a NATO nuclear first strike is really just a drill.

Deutschland 83 never settles on what sort of show it wants to be. Is it a sober coming-of-age story about Martin's maturation from apathetic youngster into politically savvy hero? A Keystone Kops-style scenario involving the aborted kidnapping of an American general in flagrante delicto at a brothel and another featuring an Asian waitress-cum-karate-chopping assassin (whose presence goes entirely unexplained) provide awkward comic relief. Meanwhile, a bathetic subplot concerning clandestine gay relationships and the emerging AIDS virus—better suited to an afterschool special, circa 1988—is emblematic of the writers' overcompensating in their desire to capture the decades-old zeitgeist.

The critical acclaim, then, seems to derive from the accumulation of these tropes and throwbacks rather than the mediocre writing, acting, or plot. Deutschland 83 is yet another manifestation of a far-reaching nostalgia for the Cold War that goes beyond pop culture: This fad is visible not only in popular entertainment (The Americans, Bridge of Spies) but the enduring, popular fascination with Berlin, the onetime epicenter of East-West confrontation that attracts an ever-increasing number of tourists, young Europeans in search of work (or nightlife), and journalists writing trend pieces.

This renewed interest in Cold War culture and politics isn't a fad. It points to a deeper longing for an earlier, simpler time, when the nature of global conflict was bipolar—as opposed to the confusing, multipolar mess we have today. In 1983, the West knew who its enemies were. The borders delineating that enmity were as obvious, and as physically stark, as the Berlin Wall. Tense and dangerous as those times were, at least we could distinguish good guys from bad—for the most part.

If only today's world were so simple. Though Russia has reemerged as an adversary, its efforts to (in the words of Ben Nimmo) "dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay" the West are far more sophisticated than Kremlin tactics of old. The Soviet Union's allies were easily identifiable as members of national Communist parties or fellow travelers. Now, the Kremlin enjoys support among a diverse group of ideological actors hardly limited to the extreme left. Even today's terms of engagement are more confounding and precarious: Hybrid war, "little green men," the conspiracy and disinformation-mongering Russia Today network, pipeline politics, shadowy influence networks, and innumerable other factors have combined to replace the Cold War's certainties with a postmodern cacophony of competing "narratives," making it difficult to grasp the nature of the threats we face.

And that's only Russia. Trans-national terrorism, homegrown radicalization, loose nukes, a rising China, the disruptive potentials of climate change, political populism, vast migratory waves—to name just a few challenges—threaten to upend the liberal world order many assumed had been set in stone at the end of the twilight struggle. Whereas democratic capitalism was once on the march, now it is in retreat, with Freedom House registering a decade of decline in global liberty. Europe, whose peaceful political fate was supposed to be "settled" after the Soviet Union's collapse, is emerging once again as a region of instability and crisis. The anxieties of the present are making many yearn for the ostensible comforts, and predictabilities, of the past.

It says something ominous about the state of the world that the Cold War—with its rigid ideological convictions, clearly defined adversaries, and Mutually Assured Destruction—would invoke a sense of wistfulness.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More