Deutschland 83: Is the Cold War becoming Cool?

In 2008, Channel Four produced 1983: The Brink of Apocalypse, a documentary that gave British viewers an insight into a Cold War crisis that was for most of them completely unknown.

In the programme’s opening credits, ranks of parading Soviet troops march in step to New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, reconstructed scenes of grim faced military officials are juxtaposed with footage of Reagan in Grenada and the Greenham Common protesters, and a received pronunciation female voiceover eerily reminiscent of the BBC newsreader in Threads declares ‘just how close we came to the third world war’.

Much has changed in both historiography and television schedules since 2008, not least that it is now somewhat harder to claim that the Soviet war scare surrounding the NATO command post exercise ‘Able Archer 83’ in November 1983 remains untold. In both academia and popular culture, interest in the several dire crises of 1983 and particularly the dramatic events of Able Archer has flourished in recent years.

The true extent of this popularity is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that one of the most currently discussed and watched television offerings on Channel Four this year was a drama specifically exploring the Able Archer period and in German.

In Deutschland83, a daring East German espionage operation is carried out in Bonn, at the heart of West German military establishment, to uncover NATO plans for nuclear war and a planned first strike, a dominant fear in East Germany. Martin, a peerless physical and ideological member of the GDRs Grenztruppen border force, is first approached, and then forcibly coerced by the STASI to spy in the West, impersonating a West German Aide de camp to Major General Edel, a key figure in the West German Bundeswehr.

On paper, Deutschland83 seems like a classic example of instant cult success as an international drama series: an edgy, and thoroughly novel historical setting, a domestically well-known German cast, and an attractive snapshot of West Germany that emphasises its confident modernity by the mid-1980s. Initially a model of decency and responsibility, but with increasingly uncertain internal morality as the series goes on, Martin can easily become at times a comedic ‘fish out of water’ in the capitalist West, a feature that perhaps made the ‘Ostalgie’ of 2003’s GoodBye Lenin so successful.

Yet on closer inspection, cracks start to appear. The setting seems a little too clean, the characters free from rough edges and backstory. While acting as an ‘everyman’ for the audience, Martin’s character seems too passive to relate to, and his life too uncomplicated to sympathise with.

The central plot device, the enabling of his mother’s vital kidney operation, is rarely referred to or dwelt upon except as a justification for his willing participation in the East German spy operation. His quest to maintain his cover while operating in a tinderbox of tense situations and increasingly unscrupulous deeds, is not particularly relatable or sympathetic, despite the apparent threat of nuclear Armageddon.

Even within the confines of a television drama, Deutschland 83s historical setting is itself in some ways cliché. With its knowingly ironic, synth laden ‘kraut-pop’ soundtrack and pristine costumes, it seems to play into the nostalgic ideal of the 1980s that is fast becoming a false memory for the dominant audience demographic who never experienced the decade.

Whilst a German language production, the series has been geared from the start for an international audience familiar with Cold War dichotomies even if not with German television.

Jointly produced by the US group AMC Networks and the German company RTL Television, and most significantly written by an American writer (but longtime resident of Berlin) Anna Winger, the project clearly has this dual target audience at heart in its portrayal of the differences between the two estranged German sister states.

From an historical viewpoint, the setting of Deutschland 83 has its successes and failures. The provisional capital of the Federal Republic, Bonn, provides a Rhineland backdrop for the majority of the episodes, and this leafy, modern location depicts a Cold War Germany that is patently not the more familiar divided Berlin. The GDR is also in some ways portrayed from a novel perspective: the Western ‘aggression’ that Martin’s spy handlers seek to uncover and therefore contain forces the viewer to envision the dangers of nuclear war through an Eastern Bloc mindset.

The perspective is cleverly paralleled by the West German student movements embraced by Edel’s son Moritz and the private uncertainties of the General himself regarding the spiralling Western deployment of nuclear weapons and the paranoia of war games (significantly ‘Edel’ means ‘noble’ in German). Their troubled relationship neatly symbolises the increasingly disillusioned Western European public opinion on the Cold War by the early 1980s, as well as the still tender inter-generational issues regarding Germany’s not so distant wartime past.

However, as Philip Ostermann writes in his Guardian review of the series, this new portrayal seems to subsequently fall back into old stereotypes and authoritarian clichés.

There are many glaring anachronisms in the initial episodes: the GDR’s healthcare system is portrayed as corrupt and open only to the party elite when, somewhat ironically, it was (excepting years on waiting lists) one of the few facets of the country where this was arguably not the case.

The computing limitations and naivety of the STASI engineers along with their brutally efficient HVA spy handlers is humorously handled, but as often in such representations of the GDR, a certain western smugness pervades the critique.

There are times when the overwhelming mood of the production seems to proclaim: ‘lets not only laugh at the GDR’s oppressive society but also at the very futility of its underlying philosophy’, a feeling that becomes problematic when considering that millions of East Germans, while subject to a prescriptive and often oppressive culture, remained genuine supporters of their own country even at the moment of its collapse in 1989.

Much like the largely unknown documentary that preceded it in spirit, Deutschland83 has its share of flaws and imperfections. Yet that does not make it unenjoyable, badly acted or badly conceived: the opposite is the case. In any case, a drama that manages to interest international audiences with both Cold War history and the vibrant multicultural behemoth that is modern Germany can be no bad thing.

Tom Soden