The Cold War wasn’t merely a territorial and military conflict; it was also fought on the cultural stage.
The Cold War wasn’t merely a territorial and military conflict; it was also fought on the cultural stage. Wikimedia

Culture during the Cold War

As the decades of the Cold War ticked by, society was defined by the antagonism between East and West and the fear of communism, and this influence even extended to culture.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

During the long decades of the Cold War between 1945 and 1989, it was always obvious where the evil came from: it came from the East. From the Soviet Union, from Russia or from the satellite states of Eastern Europe, especially the GDR. This belief was consistently played out in novels and films of the era, from the classic The Third Man from 1950, to 1965’s The spy who came in from the cold and Tom Clancy’s 1984 submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, along with its 1990 film adaptation.
Trailer for the movie The Hunt for Red October. YouTube
In literature and film, the overriding theme was the fear of an invasion and the use of nuclear weapons, but there was also a fear of being psychologically manipulated or, even worse, having one’s mind completely hijacked by the communists. The watchword was brainwashing, and the 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, also released as a film in 1962, is about precisely that: an American officer is captured by a Soviet commando in the Korean War and brainwashed into becoming a communist. Conspiracy theories played an important role in the ideas of the era. Swiss historian Jean-Rudolf von Salis (1901-1996) described it as an anxiety psychosis: “There are people who see a harmless consumer cooperative as a Bolshevik conspiracy.” The strong belief in the possibility of exerting influence through psychological methods was a defining feature of the Cold War. And some powers did in fact engage in the battle to win hearts and minds – the motto of psychological warfare. The US intelligence service, the CIA, launched a major propaganda operation after World War II. We’re referring to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CCF.
Film trailer featuring Frank Sinatra. YouTube
From 1950 to 1969, the Congress for Cultural Freedom funded left-liberal artists such as Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) and Siegfried Lenz (1926-2014), as well as intellectual magazines such as Der Monat in Germany, Preuves in France and Tempo Presente in Italy, thus also indirectly supporting the abstract art movement that became more popular during those decades. Swiss novelist Max Frisch (1911-1991) was another who benefited from these grants. During a sabbatical year in New York in 1951, he worked on his novel I’m Not Stiller. The funds for this stay came from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was also financed by the CIA.  The concept of psychological warfare by means of cultural content still exists today – it goes by the name “soft power”.
Portrait of Max Frisch, 1990.
Portrait of Max Frisch, 1990. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Economically, there was a new beginning in Switzerland after World War II, but mentally the country was still caught up in the ideology of the war’s spiritual defence, the Geistige Landesverteidigung. The enemy was now Communism. The mood of the time was charged – from today’s perspective, almost hysterical. Anti-communism transcended democratic censure; there was something cult-like about it. Playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) called it the “tribal dance of the Swiss”. This sentiment can also be seen in Expo 64 in Lausanne, whose symbol was a hedgehog-like spiked pavilion; the Expo programme also included a sizeable display of Swiss Army weaponry.
The main pavilion of Expo 64 in Lausanne, in the shape of a hedgehog. The national exposition was very much characterised by the spirit of the Cold War and Switzerland’s «Geistige Landesverteidigung».
The main pavilion of Expo 64 in Lausanne, in the shape of a hedgehog. The national exposition was very much characterised by the spirit of the Cold War and Switzerland’s «Geistige Landesverteidigung».   Swiss National Museum
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1961 drama Die Physiker (The Physicists) satirises the mood of those years, turning it into a grotesque farce. Three physicists are brought together in a lunatic asylum. One of them is in possession of a discovery that could destroy the world. The other two are, in reality, agents of foreign states who are intent on stealing the secret. The drama had its world premiere at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus on 21 February 1962, and was the most-performed play in the German-speaking world in the 1960s. The writer Walter Matthias Diggelmann (1927-1979) was another important voice in those years. In the novel The Interrogation of Harry Wind he depicted an unscrupulous communications consultant whose character was based on Zurich PR specialist Rudolf Farner. The book The Legacy is about, among other things, the smear campaign against communist art historian Konrad Farner (1903-1974). After the Hungarian uprising in 1956, conservative newspapers published Farner’s address in Thalwil; his family received death threats, and protest rallies were held in front of his house. Windows were smashed.
The Hungarian uprising of 1956 was another defining event for Switzerland.
The Hungarian uprising of 1956 was another defining event for Switzerland. Rallies expressing solidarity with the Hungarian people were held in various places, and aid supplies were sent to Hungary. Switzerland took in thousands of refugees. Swiss National Museum / ASL
One of the most notable critics of the Soviet Union and communism was the Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), author of The Gulag Archipelago. After being stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1974, Solzhenitsyn spent two years living in Switzerland as a guest of the mayor of Zurich, Sigmund Widmer. To shield him from prying eyes, the mayor gave him the use of his holiday home in Sternenberg in the Zurich Oberland. It later emerged that the secretary who had been hired for him worked for the KGB. Solzhenitsyn left Switzerland in 1976 and went to Vermont in the USA.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn arriving in Zurich in 1974.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn arriving in Zurich in 1974. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books sold well in Switzerland – not only because of the prevailing spirit of anti-Communism, but also due to a general interest in Russia. For decades, travel “to the Eastern bloc”, as it was called, was a no-no. When travel pioneer Hans Imholz offered city flights to Moscow and Budapest for a ridiculously low price, along with trips to a swathe of other European capitals, at the end of the 1960s, the public response was tremendous. Travel-loving Swiss were able for the first time to have a peek at life behind the “Iron Curtain”. But it was to be another 20 years before that Curtain fell.

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