TELEVISION: A war that was all in the mind

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Last night, the BBC launched a new documentary series on the Cold War. Well, what if it did? We all know the Cold War is over. The West won. But hold on a moment. When was it over? In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down? In 1991, when it became clear the new Russian regime would not collapse? And when did it begin? In 1944, or in 1947? Or back in 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the only freely elected parliament Tsarist Russia had ever known and survived the subsequent Civil War and intervention by the forces of the Tsar's allies?

You might think that the BBC would come to a view about this. But you would be wrong. You might think that the BBC would have a view as to what the Cold War was about. But you would be only partially right. You might think the BBC would have a view about who were the participants. You would be right: but it is a view open to question.

The trouble is that the very term Cold War is a metaphor. Unlike a "hot" war, it is not real: it is a thing of, and in, the mind. Yet everyone thinks they know what the Cold War was. We all lived through it, but perhaps it began in one way, changed in the middle, and ended quite differently.

The Cold War began with two groups of states, but they did not yet command enough explosive power to destroy the planet several times over. And during it, each of the two so-called super-powers was humbled by fairly lightly armed forces fighting styles of war which their bigger adversaries proved unable to cope with; the US armed forces in the jungles of Vietnam, the Soviets in the stony heights of Afghanistan. The Cold War ended with the Soviet Union's economy totally bankrupt and the US budget under Reagan astronomically out of control.

Some historians are beginning to rethink the Cold War, now that it is over. Three things inspire us. Firstly, Soviet archival material is now available, and some Russian historians feel free to break with Soviet ideological nationalists. Secondly, the approach of the Millennium urges historians to look at the history of the century as a whole. Thirdly, there is a need to counter those young historians, especially in Britain, for whom the Cold War was simply a clash between superpowers and not anything that really concerned Britain. Ideology, to them, is simply the voice of American propaganda. All else is weaponry and dollar imperialism, and the German question. Boring, in fact.

Historians are beginning to understand two things about the Cold War. The contest between the communist leadership of the Soviet Union and the rest of the world began in 1917, and was confirmed by the break-up of the other two great European empires in 1918, those of Germany and Austro-Hungary.

But the ensuing ideological conflict was a four-way war: between the anti-parliamentary forces of the right; parliamentary conservatism; parliamentary democratic socialism; and the anti-parliamentary forces of the European left. This war can be seen at its strongest in Germany, Italy and Central Europe in the 1920s, and in Spain in the 1930s, where even parliamentary parties had their own paramilitary forces.

Between the end of the Great War and the German conquest of France, the anti-parliamentary forces of the right captured the governments of most European states west of the Soviet border. But not in Britain. Meanwhile, the revolutionary working class in Europe fell under the control of the Soviet leadership, its own leaders expelled or purged. Under Stalin, Europe's communist parties were captured by stooges and ceased to be European, save in name. Decades later, Euro-communism re-emerged, but only as an ectoplasmic shadow of its great past. With Hitler's defeat, European right-wing anti- parliamentarianism died too. Fascism survived only on the Hispanic edges of Europe and in the Latin American diaspora.

War against Hitler brought the United States back into Europe, largely because the dominant elite in America saw their version of the European demo-cratic position threatened by him. But the American influence that stayed in Europe and identified itself with a Europe under Soviet pressure in 1945, though white, was certainly neither Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant. Rather, it emanated from first and second generation immigrant Russian Jewish intellectuals. Far from being Ivy- League products, the first American activists were graduates of NYU and the Central College of New York's night schools.

The BBC sees the Cold War as a clash between the superpowers, a very different kind of history. It includes too much as a result. The Marshall Plan and the American signing of the North Atlantic Treaty were less moves in a confrontation with the Soviets than attempts to restore Europe's strength so that America might withdraw - a vain hope. Clashes between America and the Soviet Union were inevitable, given Stalin's conviction that conflict was the normal state of relations between "socialist" and "capitalist" systems. But then he thought ideologically.

Marshall, Truman and even Reagan talked in quasi-religious terms. Europeans preferred to be non-Nazi, non-communist, and, if pushed by de Gaulle, non-American. Ideologues killed too many people. But whatever it became, the Cold War began as an ideological conflict. What is difficult to bring home to today's audience is that those of us who were then alive once feared in our guts that the Soviet system might win. We are thankful it did not.