Cold War Europe

See also: European history

From the end of World War II in 1945 until the revolutions of the 1980s, Europe was divided between two political blocs; east and west. The border was figuratively called the Iron Curtain, and is to some extent visible today, through former military and border security installations across the continent.


The end of the Cold War is our common victory. Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union

While the war and necessity had bound the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and later free France into an uneasy alliance, the lack of a common enemy after the war and different ideologies triggered a break between the Soviet Union on one side and the "Western allies" on the other. This break not only affected the politics between those countries, but also the treatment of the defeated axis members and some neutral countries who had held sympathy for either side. While all four allies initially agreed to try the main war criminals in Nuremberg and "jointly" administer occupied Germany and Austria, the facade of a joint administration began crumbling as early as 1948, when Stalin decided to blockade West Berlin and the British and Americans organized an airlift to break the blockade. Eventually, the former Axis nations would be absorbed into the Western bloc and NATO (West Germany, Italy, Japan) or the Warsaw pact (East Germany, Hungary, Romania, etc).

One of the most notable events of the early years of the Cold War besides the airlift was the Marshall Plan that was supposed to provide aid in the rebuilding of Europe and was soundly rejected by the Eastern Bloc countries. Much of the architecture of the 1950s (now mostly regarded as rather ugly) was built with funds from the Marshall Plan, whereas the Soviet Union popularized its own style that can still be seen in cities like East Berlin (especially Karl Marx Allee) or Eisenhüttenstadt.

The 1950s and 1960s saw unprecedented economic growth in most of Europe, especially West Germany, where the period came to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle"). From the 1970s, relationships across the Iron Curtain improved, with Ostpolitik implemented by West German chancellor Willy Brandt.

Starting around the 1970s, the need for cheap housing led to a construction boom of a particular type of mass produced pre-fabricated housing. While those residential buildings got a different name in almost every country they were built in (Plattenbau being the German term), they were mostly the same everywhere and were also built in the West to a certain extent. Even though they were regarded as ultimately modern and innovations like central heating or direct road/public transport access made them popular at the time of their building, they have become negatively associated with socialism since 1990 and entered a decline in both perceived value and prestige. However, in some countries neighborhoods built in this style are making a comeback and even hints of a beginning gentrification can be be found in isolated cases.

Finland had an unusual history during the cold war, as - in the words of a political cartoonist - they wished to "bow to the East without mooning the West". Amazingly, they managed to maintain a democratic, multi-party free market economy on good terms with the West without offending the East. All that despite the fact that Finland had fought two separate wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1945 and had been a de facto ally of Nazi Germany in one of them.

The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had become weakened by the 1980s, and civil rights protests brought down many Communist governments. Since then, most European nations east of the Iron Curtain have become democratic market economies.

Though Europe has seen regional conflicts in the Basque Country, Corsica and Northern Ireland, the Cold War was a remarkably peaceful period in European history. Peace was broken in Yugoslavia in 1991, where a lengthy series of wars went on until 1999. As of the 2010s, the main line of conflict is between Russia and the European Union.


The German word Ostalgie describes the nostalgia for East Germany and other socialist states. Some icons, such as the Ampelmännchen pedestrian signal, have a cult following.


See Soviet Union for eastern destinations.

See also

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