Between "Total War" and "Small Wars": Studies on the Societal History of the Cold War

In early 2002, a research group focusing on the history of the Cold War was established at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Its work seeks to understand how the institutional, material, and mental "legacy of violence" that remained after the end of World War II shaped the post-war era and, moreover, how the potential for violence that was in turn generated by the East-West bloc confrontation and the institutions that administered it influenced societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain and beyond.


The Research Project

"Between ‘Total War’ and ‘Small Wars’: Studies on the Societal History of the Cold War" is the title of a project initiated in early 2002 by a group of researchers at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, in which two central questions are addressed.

The first issue is how the institutional, material, and mental "heritage of violence" of World War II shaped the post-war era and was, at the same time, itself transformed. The second question is how the military potential created during the East-West conflict (as a means of both deterring potential adversaries in a "Big War" and of waging "Small Wars") and the institutions established to administer that potential influenced life in society and what the long-term impacts of these changes have been.

We hold that our understanding of the "societal history of the Cold War" can benefit from employing historiographical methods that take up approachs developed in cultural history and the history of mentality to examine the reciprocal interactions between the civil and military spheres, between domestic and foreign policy, between strategic security and economic policy, between state and civil society actors, between changing political climates and mentalities, and so on. Work on these questions must bring together methods and insights from fields as diverse as history, economics, the political and social sciences, and psychology.

We endeavor to apply a comparative perspective that considers developments in both the East and the West to the entire Cold War era from 1945 to 1989, focusing especially on selected case studies. The principal actors of the East-West conflict, the United States and the USSR, will receive all due attention but will not dominate the project. Depending on the specific issues examined, Poland, Hungary, the two Germanys, the United Kingdom, France, or Italy will be included in this work. Placing the main emphasis on the Northern Hemisphere may seem problematic. However, in view of the enormous gaps in our knowledge of the societal history of the Cold War and the limits of research so far, we consider this focus justifiable, since it does not preclude spotlighting relevant case studies from the Southern Hemisphere where this seems feasible und appropriate. 


Cold War International History Project (CWIHP)

Cold War Studies Centre (CWSC)

Center for Cold War Studies and International History (CCWS)

Harvard Project on Cold War Studies (HPCWS)

Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam

Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security (PHP) 

Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) Oslo 

Zentrum für Studien des Kalten Krieges, Süddänische Universität, Esbjerg

Deutsches Historisches Institut Moskau

Deutsches Historisches Institut Washington, DC

Arbeitskreis Militärgeschichte e. V. 

Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt