Academic journal article Kritika

East as True West: Redeeming Bourgeois Culture, from Socialist Realism to Ostalgie

Academic journal article Kritika

East as True West: Redeeming Bourgeois Culture, from Socialist Realism to Ostalgie

Article excerpt

Depicting the postwar world as sundered and under siege, Winston Churchill's "Sinews of Peace" speech of March 1946 catapulted the phrase "Iron Curtain" into public discourse and U.S. foreign policy. Churchill warned of a West jeopardized by communist infiltrators--a far cry from the eastern menace posed by the Golden Horde of yore. The literary heritage of former Oriental perils lived on, however, in the "Sinews of Peace" address, as Gyorgy Peteri has observed. Invoking images far more visceral than those of mere doctrinal difference, Churchill characterized communist "fifth columns" as a barbarian invasion's "challenge and peril to Christian civilization." Churchill fashioned this vivid mental map of a divided Europe to compel Americans to act. His message of impending catastrophe lent impetus to the creation of the U.S. Marshall Plan, which in the words of the economic historian Carlo Spango "can be regarded as the founding act of the postwar Western world" (emphasis in original). (1)

The trope of Bolshevist barbarism, which came to permeate U.S. Cold War nationalism, found its complement in anti-American discourses shared among the people's republics, a coalition forged at the initial Cominform conference of September 1947. According to Andrei Zhdanov, the Politburo member charged with orchestrating Cominform's debut, international alliances fell into two factions: America's imperialist, anti-democratic camp; and the Soviet democratic, anti-fascist camp, which embodied the "aspirations of progressive mankind." Zhdanov's "two camps" thesis reversed the polarities of Churchill's schema of modern barbarism, implying that continuities with fascism implicated the United States--and, by extension, Marshall Plan Europe--in the brutal legacies of Hitler and Mussolini. Soviet fulmination against American "cultural barbarism" was conveyed to divided Germany by Aleksandr Dymshits, the Red Army officer in charge of cultural affairs in the eastern sector. His denunciation of the United States for contaminating German arts and letters found a sympathetic local audience. (2) West European intellectuals and opinion leaders typically regarded America as characterized by "a primitive, vulgar, trashy Massenkultur, which was in effect an Unkultur, whose importation into postwar Europe had to be resisted," as the historian Volker Berghahn notes. (3) The Marshall Plan administrator Paul G. Hoffman believed that dispelling "the old stereotype of the Yank as a cross between a cinematic gangster and an uncultivated bumpkin" was crucial in the struggle for American influence. (4) Antithetical, yet complementary, notions of a postwar threat to civilization--Churchill's warning of a communist assault on Christendom and the Party's denigration of the Marshall Plan as a conveyor belt for cultural degradation--illustrate what Peteri has called the "systemic relativism" of Cold War discourses, which mobilized common concepts yet defined them in ways that buttressed divergent epistemes. (5) Parallel but incommensurable models of barbarian invasion and cultural resistance were indispensable to both camps, grounding their respective identities in an adversarial relationship with a hemispheric "other."

Within the disciplines of architecture and industrial design--the subjects of this essay--Socialist Realism and International-style modernism defined the East/West epistemological divide. The cultural geographies theorized by these opposing design movements, however, were far more complex than the cartography of their practices. U.S. cultural propaganda in Marshall Plan Europe emphasized New World experiments in modernism as the antithesis of "totalitarian" art and architecture--a contention that lumped Soviet and Nazi cultural production in a single catch-all category while conveniently ignoring the fact that neo-traditional design was alive and well in America's architecturally pluralist society. Even more entangled was the representational logic of Soviet Socialist Realism, glossed as a creative method "socialist in content and national in form. …

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