The Year the Cold War (almost) Turned Hot: As seen through “Deutschland 83”

According to recently declassified documents, 1983 was the closest the world came to nuclear war. The NATO war games exercise Able Archer 83 that took place that October had led the Soviets to believe that a NATO first strike was imminent. Tensiosn between the two superpowers were already high, for on September 1st the Soviets shot Korean Airlines Flight 007 when it accidentally entered Soviet airspace. International public opinion was understandably outraged, and President Reagan denounced the incident as a massacre and the USSR having turned against the morals the guide the world (the evil empire in plain sight). For those who remember the period like it was yesterday (counting myself out since I was born in 1990), this may hardly come as a surprise. On November 20, ABC aired the movie “The Day After”, which to avoid spoilers, depicts the events surrounding a nuclear strike on the heartland- aka suburban Kansas city. Millions tuned in, and many were so disturbed by what they saw that a special hotline had to be set up to offer counselling services. What made the film so realistic, other than the voice of the President of the United States sounding a lot like Ronald Reagan, was that nuclear war did not seem like a remote prospect. — James Bond was also part of this climate of fear. In that year’s Bond flick Octopussy, he had to race from East to West Germany to defuse a nuclear bomb, but that’s another story.

While the late 1970s were characterized by a period of Detente (or malaise if your’e a certain American) the early 1980s could be characterized as a time when the Cold War warmed up. In March 1983, Ronald Reagan went on TV and threw the past 10 or so years of American diplomacy out the window by declaring the Soviet Union to be an evil empire. Military spending would be revved up, NATO would be more aggressive, and Pershing II missiles (seen as a first strike weapon) were to be deployed in West Germany. It is here where the German TV series, Deutschland 83 opens with a clearly agitated Stasi agent (East German secret police) watching a replay of Reagan’s evil empire speech. It is revealed that Reagan was initially dismissed as a well trained actor, a made for TV president, assembled and packaged to met the desires of the American consumer. However, the planned deployment of Pershing IIs and the increase in American military spending has the Stasi, and their KGB concerned to say the least. It is at that point where Martin, portrayed by German actor Jonas Nay, an East German border guard, is re-assigned to Bonn, West Germany where he is to impersonate an aid to a NATO general who is tasked with deploying the Pershing IIs.

Martin, now Moritz our reluctant spy, is convinced by his superiors that the Americans are indeed planning an attack, and his assignment is to find evidence of it. What he finds is a house divided, German general Edel believes that the Pershings will make West Germany a target, the Americans he believes are resigned to this fact, as it is better to sacrifice Germany, and maybe all of Europe, in order to destroy the Soviets. The assurances that “Washington believes the success of first strike to now be possible only serves to bolster this fear. General Edel is not alone in this belief, his own son is interested in the growing peace movement, and TV news reports confirm that public opinion in not supportive of Reagan’s escalation.

So here we have the Americans, represented by General Arnold Jackson, who is seemingly happy to believe whatever Washington tells him, and the Germans, embodied by the reluctant Wolfgang Edel. He sees himself loosing control of the situation in the NATO, with his only solace being that things aren't as bad as his increasingly deteriorating family life. (Later we learn during an intense fight scene with his peace-loving son that Edel’s father was a Nazi, and the viewer is left to decide whether this is legacy is clouding the hapless Edel’s judgment). NATO, however, is not the only house that is divided.

The situation in the West is paralleled by that in the East. Martin/Moritz’s family life is also complicated by the fact that his girlfriend is blindly following party doctrine, and his mother is dying from kidney failure, which is implied os the result of the sorry state of the communist health care system. At Stasi headquarters, the East Germans are increasingly dictated by their Moscow overlords, with the interests of East Germany being put at on back-burner. When the Stasi inquire to Moscow about what happened to Korean Air Flight 007 they are told not to worry, as it is a problem for Moscow to deal with. The East Germans are understandably worried that this may be the trigger for the much feared NATO first strike. It seems that just like the Americans are willing to sacrifice West Germany, the Soviets seem to feel the same about the East.

In order to avoid spoilers I will not go into any further detail, but the climax of the series is the Able Archer 83 exercise, which is seen by the East as the prelude to a nuclear first strike.

I actually enjoyed this immensely, despite having to read German subtitles, I can see that the acting is top notch. There is a lot of comic relief, from Martin/Moritz expressing his shock and awe at the variety of goods in a supermarket, the the Stasis having no idea what a floppy disk is, and eventually resort to smuggling in an IBM to read it (because of “Reagan’s electronics embargo”. The soundtrack and visuals re-create, in my mind, the look and feel of the early 80s. Shoulder pads and moustaches mix well with Duran Duran and Grace Jones.

Top quality programming steep in historical realism, this series deserves to be renewed, and should be studied as a window into the paranoia that characterized 1983, the year the Cold War almost turned hot — thanks Reagan.

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