Successful Dutch Campaign on Stories from the Cold War could Inspire others in Europe

The Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency gathered over 350 stories about the Dutch Cold War experience

An exercise in mass food distribution from the Dutch Civil Defence programme (Bescherming Bevolking) in Arnhem. Stories about the programme, and other Cold War memories were collected during the public campaign 'What did you do during the Cold War?' Image: National Archive/CC0

The Cold War period has left a mark on Europe: there are tons of buildings and objects scattered throughout the continent, and their stories are at risk of being forgotten. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) has picked up the task to find out what’s left of this period. Their method is to go straight to the source: a recent campaign gathered more than 350 stories about the Cold War period in the Netherlands.

Heritage is often thought of as something of ancient times, buildings or objects that are at least a hundred years old. And the people that interacted with them are not around anymore, leaving researchers with the task to find out more. ‘But what about recent periods of history, such as the Cold War period?’ the RCE asked themselves. A period with a significant impact on Europe, in East and West.

To learn more about this period, the RCE went to the source by setting up a campaign called “What did you do during the Cold War?” They received over 350 responses providing insight into the impact of the Cold War on the Netherlands. For example, Dutch citizens shared how they would watch their parents as they prepared for a possible nuclear attack.

Former Dutch conscripts tell about their endeavours guarding nuclear weapons at military bases in the Netherlands. For example, when activists suddenly ran into the woods during a peace demonstration their conscience was put to the test, one respondent remembers: “There was a picket alert (a simulation when something serious could happen edt.), and there was a very high probability that accidents could happen. The conscripts could still be very tense and nervous during such an alert because they never knew how serious the situation could be.” Facing peace demonstrators with loaded weapons, the conscripts were put in a difficult spot.

To the Source

The bottom-up approach of asking people that were present during the time of the Cold War about their experiences, prevents a wealth of information from being lost through the ages. That way more information about objects, buildings or events can be gathered and put to good use when it comes to making decisions about listing specific structures or telling the story of the Cold War to future generations.

Given the success of the oral history project, it seems there are quite a few stories to tell, and Dutch citizens are eager to share them. It could prove to be an inspiration for others in Europe. Since this period is often remembered with mixed feelings, or as a sensitive and difficult history, setting up a public campaign to at least gather oral histories from eyewitnesses could be a start. While the campaign has ended, the search continues in the Netherlands: residents can still share their stories at koudeoorlog.nl

Can it be Heritage?

In the Netherlands, the focus on this period started initially as an assignment from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to identify ‘potential Cold War heritage’ in the Netherlands. It already resulted in an impressive publication – titled ‘Faithful Ally with Hollanditis, Cold War Heritage’ – which was presented in February by Ben de Vries, RCE Programme Manager Military Heritage. “This publication is the response to the Ministry of Culture’s assignment to properly map the Cold War heritage in the Netherlands”, he explained during the presentation.

The 81-pager paints a picture of what Cold War heritage means for the Netherlands and gives a first indication of which sites and objects can be shortlisted when deciding on Dutch Cold War heritage. Currently, the Netherlands doesn’t have such a list yet, but the publication is ‘an important step’ to bring these hidden traces from the recent past into the light reckoned De Vries.

Ben de Vries (l) hands over the first copy of the publication to the last conscript soldier of the Netherlands, Peter Hendriks. Image: Courtesy of RCE.

The objects and stories in the report are not exclusively Dutch but are relevant to Europe as well. The NATO command bunker in the Cannerberg (a hill near Maastricht) and the IJssel water defence line are discussed, as well as the impressive Troposcatter antennas. Last-mentioned were part of an American long-distance communication system for military purposes.

De Vries and the RCE hope to raise awareness on the significance of the historic period by featuring six storylines throughout the report. “There’s a chapter on the development and escalation moments of the Cold War, and we also look at the global ‘arms race’ and what role the Netherlands played as NATO-ally.”

The issue the report aims to tackle is probably best summarised by Peter Hendriks, who as the last conscript soldier of the Netherlands (discharged in 1996) had the honour to receive the first copy of the publication. “I had never realised things such as conscription or buildings from this period could be considered heritage”, he told EHT.

The Troposcatter in the Netherlands is a former American radio relay station with four large satellite dishes. It was built in the 1950s, but has not been used since the end of the Cold War. Image: Druifkes/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

European Dimension

As the RCE’s public campaign and report is digging into Cold War history in the Netherlands, the aim is to put the topic of ‘heritage of the Cold War’ on the agenda throughout Europe as well. Last year, participants of the European Cold War Heritage Network met up in the Netherlands for discussion and exchange, with participants hailing from England, Scotland, Denmark and Latvia. This included a visit to Soesterberg, a former Dutch-American military air base turned nature reserve and heritage site, where EHT followed them around.

The stories collected through the campaign and the report show that there are plenty of buildings, sites and objects that remind us of this important period in history. And even though it’s not so straightforward that every national heritage agency can start an investigation into their own Cold War history, the campaign “What did you do during the Cold War” shows that a bottom-up oral history project could be a starting point to find out more.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.