By Jeff Hawn |
History is a strange beast. Great minds such as Marc Bloch and John Lewis Gaddis have tried to give form to what history is and what it means. My own description will fall well short of previous efforts, but I shall do my best. History is a spectacle whose passing we all mark, yet our descriptions of its facets are wildly divergent. A useful analogy is that of a giant bestriding the land. Its presence is ever omnipotent, and its locomotion is steady, and constant taken without thought or care for the farms, towns, cities, or nations that are stepped on by its passage. Some of us who count among the more curious or inquisitive might well gather to discuss the creature’s passage. To sit in its footprint, the physical mark it has left upon the world and speak of our perceptions of the giant. What we find is that our perspectives look at the same thing from different angles, and that each perspective adds to a greater whole until you come to feel you are part of a wondrous and terrible story.
This overly long parable, for which I beg my readers indulgence, describes the feelings of many of the scholars of the 11th Annual Cold War History Research Center International Student Conference at the Corvinus University of Budapest. The 2021 conference, due once more to history’s careless passage, this time leaving the stamp of the Coronavirus on the world, had to be held online. Here was an array of young scholars from all corners of the earth, able to come together in one place ever so briefly to share their research and ideas. To discuss, to debate, to argue, and to be filled with a sense of collegiate belonging. We are scholars of the Cold War and more than that, we are the vanguard of our generation, the first group of researchers and budding academics to come of age in the post-Cold War period when the Soviet Union existed only in the pages of history books, and when the world is no longer divided into the power blocks of empires, whether they be East or West, communist or capitalist. True, the world we have come of age in is not the peaceful, democratic utopia some of our recent forebears like Francis Fukyama promised. Indeed, it is one as torn by war and division as the period we study. Yet, how did this come to pass? Collectively we turn back to the recent bygone days that were the Cold War.
What is realized quickly by anyone with a passing interest in this period that is called the Cold War, is that this frozen conflict defined all aspects of our collective existence for half a century. The Corvinus Conference began with an overview of the current scholarship in the Cold War before providing an opportunity for emerging scholars to present their work. It helps to facilitate emerging historians in orientating themselves to where they fit in the field, empowering them to better build on the foundations their forebears have laid.
The differences in perspective were startling as they were informative. Those differences range not just across geography and gender but across age. For the senior members of faculty present, the events we discuss are not abstracts but lived experiences. Reminding us all history is at once a deeply personal and at the same time a shared experience. It affects all of us and with something as gargantuan as the Cold War, every point of our culture and collective mindset is shaped by it. Sports, media, culture, military, and politics. The difficulty is not in finding what was affected by the Cold War, but what was not. It can be a wondrous and terrifying thing especially when one considers that the profession of history is not static. Like civilization, it changes, it transitions, it transforms. What we as a new generation of rising scholars could walk away from the Corvinus Conference, know for sure though was we were not alone in our passion for the study of history.
Each of the authors’ of this article are from very different backgrounds, and at very different points in their academic career, and yet each was given an opportunity to equally show the results of their efforts. What we can agree on is that though our generation has made a worthy start, there is more to be done. To pick on Fukuyama once more, it must be said the Cold War and its end was not the end of history. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable chapter of it. A time when the world was divided, yet those divisions are not as clear as they at first appear. Nor were the actors in this period exclusively statesmen, spies, diplomats, and generals. The shockwave of the Cold War’s passage was felt for good or ill in all corners of the earth, and even beyond it. As the Cold War coincided with our species first tentative steps beyond the confines of our pale blue dot. Events such as the Corvinus Conference are crucial in this, as it not only brings together a variety of viewpoints, but it helps to embolden young scholars who might otherwise be unable to speak up or afraid to speak up. Yet, we must speak up for what is clear is that the Cold War, beyond its most simplistic form, is ill understood. It falls to us who were shaped by its aftermath to help change that.
Jeff Hawn is a PhD Student in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_hawn