Cold War Europe

From the end of World War II in 1945 until the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, Europe was divided between two political blocs: east and west. The border was figuratively called the Iron Curtain. It is to some extent visible today, through former military and border security installations across the continent.


The Cold War "camps" in Europe. Red: the Soviet Union proper; pink: the rest of the Eastern Bloc countries; green: communist, but "non-aligned" Yugoslavia; orange: communist and isolated Albania (post-1968); blue: the Western Bloc/NATO; gray: non-communist neutral countries.
Berlin Wall in 1986
"My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love": Iconic graffiti painting of the socialist fraternal kiss between Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (East Germany)

While World War II by necessity had bound the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and later free France into an uneasy alliance, the lack of a common enemy after the war and different ideologies triggered a break between the Soviet Union on one side and the "Western allies" on the other. This break not only affected the politics between those countries, but also the treatment of the defeated Axis members and some neutral countries who had held sympathy for either side. While all four allies initially agreed to try the main war criminals in Nuremberg and "jointly" administer occupied Germany and Austria, the facade of a joint administration began crumbling as early as 1948, when Stalin decided to blockade West Berlin and the British and Americans organized an airlift to break the blockade. Eventually, the former Axis nations were absorbed into the Western bloc and NATO (West Germany, Italy, Japan) or the Warsaw pact (East Germany, Hungary, Romania, etc). The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two superpowers of the era, and often challenged each other for world domination in a variety of areas such as military power and technological innovation. Although the two superpowers never actually went to war with each other, both sides often supported various proxy wars between their respective allies in an effort to spread their influence.

One of the most notable events of the early years of the Cold War besides the airlift was the Marshall Plan that was supposed to provide aid in the rebuilding of Europe and was soundly rejected by the Eastern Bloc countries. Much of the architecture of the 1950s (now mostly regarded as rather ugly) was built with funds from the Marshall Plan, whereas the Soviet Union popularized its own style that can still be seen in cities like East Berlin (especially Karl Marx Allee), Eisenhüttenstadt, Warsaw or Budapest.

The 1950s and 1960s saw unprecedented economic growth in most of Western Europe, especially West Germany, where the period came to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle"). From the 1970s, relationships across the Iron Curtain improved, partly through the Helsinki Process (resulting in the OSCE, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), with Ostpolitik implemented by West German chancellor Willy Brandt.

Starting around the 1970s, the need for cheap housing led to a construction boom of a particular type of mass produced pre-fabricated housing. While those residential buildings got a different name in almost every country they were built in (Plattenbau being the German term), they were mostly the same everywhere and were also built in the West to a certain extent. Even though they were regarded as ultimately modern and innovations like central heating or direct road and public transport access made them popular at the time of their building, they have become negatively associated with socialism since 1990 and entered a decline in both perceived value and prestige. However, in some places efforts by local government to revitalize those neighbourhoods show some signs of success and even early signs of gentrification can be observed in certain such neighbourhoods.

Finland had an unusual history during the Cold War, as – in the words of a political cartoonist – they needed to "bow to the East without mooning the West". Amazingly, they managed to maintain a democratic, multi-party free market economy on good terms with the West without offending the East. All that despite the fact that Finland had fought two separate wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1945 and had been a de facto ally of Nazi Germany in one of them.

The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had become weakened by the 1980s, and civil rights protests brought down many Communist governments. Since then, most European nations east of the Iron Curtain have become democratic market economies – although the democracy in some of them is weak, threatened or even arguably demolished. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and fragmented into 15 different countries, of which Russia is the largest and most influential. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the world's sole superpower, though in the 21st century, its hegemony is increasingly being challenged by a resurgent China.

Throughout the Cold War, the great powers had to prepare for a future conflict, prospectively named the third World War. Especially along the Iron Curtain, bunkers, bomb shelters and missile sites can be found.

This war never happened, and post-1945 Europe was remarkably peaceful, with the exception of regional conflicts in the Basque Country, Corsica and Northern Ireland. Peace was broken in Yugoslavia in 1991, where a lengthy series of wars went on until 1999. The collapse of the Soviet Union also reignited ethnic and religious conflicts, resulting in civil wars, ethnic cleansings, genocides, separatist movements and disputed borders, some of which have never been resolved.


Ostalgie merchandise in Berlin

The German word Ostalgie describes the nostalgia for East Germany and other socialist states. Some icons, such as the Ampelmännchen pedestrian signal, have a cult following. In the Balkans there is a certain amount of "Yugo-nostalgia" for things associated with former Yugoslavia. Today many products that used to be available in the eastern bloc are once again available, though they are not always 100% authentic and may be produced by companies that have nothing to do with their erstwhile manufacturers. Ironically sometimes what used to be cost cutting measures to avoid using too much hard currency is now sometimes used as a selling point. For instance Nudossi, the erstwhile East German hazelnut-chocolate spread has a lot more nuts and less cacao than its western counterparts – today this is not hidden somewhere on the ingredient label but proudly displayed in advertising as a feature of quality.


Map of Cold War Europe
See Soviet Union for eastern destinations.


  • 1 Buzludzha Monument (Паметникът на Бузлуджа) (near Shipka Pass, in the Bulgarka Nature Park). The Monument-Hall of the Bulgarian Communist Party was built between 1974 and 1981 on Buzludzha Peak to commemorate the pioneer Bulgarian communists who used to meet in this remote summit of the Balkan Mountains. The truly out-of-place concrete building is often likened to a UFO landed on a mountaintop, due to its "socialist futurist" architecture. Abandoned after the end of the local communist regime, the monument and its slowly waning socialist realist mosaics inside attracted a certain number of urbexers; as of the early 2020s, the interior has been closed off pending tentative restoration plans. Buzludzha monument (Q1058720) on Wikidata Buzludzha on Wikipedia



What was then Yugoslavia emerged as a communist country after World War II in which Tito and his communists were one, but by no means the only force fighting the Nazis in the Balkans. Stalin provided support to Tito and the two considered each other allies, but by the end of the 1940s a rift had occurred, mostly over foreign policy.

Stalin and other leaders denounced Tito while Tito had Stalinists imprisoned at 1 Goli Otok of the Coast of what's now Croatia. Later on, when tensions subsided the prison island increasingly came to house "normal" prisoners.

Czech Republic

  • 2 Prague. Best known for the event known as the Prague Spring. In 1968 the Czechoslovakian government decided to allow the citizens some more freedoms. The Soviet Union and the other countries of the Eastern Bloc regarded this as a threat and invaded the country a few months later.



Denmark was relatively unharmed by the war. The country was a founding member of NATO and the United Nations, and integrated quickly into the Western Bloc.

  • 4 Museum of the Cold War Langelandsfort (Langeland). Off-the-beaten-path museum in the 1950s fortress of the Danish naval defence offers a great self-guided tour through bunkers, anti-aircraft gun, submarine, minesweeper, fighter planes, and more.
  • 5 Odense bunker museum. A small museum in a bunker, previously a nuclear-secure central command post for Odense.


Host country Finland's delegation in the CSCE in 1975, to the right Urho Kekkonen who served as the Finnish president from 1956 to 1982 and kept up good relations with both the Western and Eastern Blocs

Between 1944 and 1956 the Porkkala peninsula with surroundings (in Uusimaa, Southern Finland) were leased to the Soviet Union as a naval base, as part of the peace treaty. The original Soviet lease for Porkkala had been for 50 years, but in 1955 an agreement was reached to return it earlier. There are still traces of the Soviet lease period to be seen in Ingå and Kirkkonummi. A natural start of the exploration can be the Igor Museum in Degerby.

Finland had a key role in the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (the "Helsinki process"), which later developed into OSCE. The conference was important in allowing talks and reducing tension across the Iron Curtain. At the time, the Helsinki accords were seen as a significant win for the Eastern Bloc, as the existing borders and societal systems were practically agreed to as inviolable by both sides – something which had been a sticking point with regards to many post-war borders and attempts at "rollback" by the US. However, as it turned out over the years, the sections about human rights, dismissed as mere window dressing at the time, proved incredibly important, and there was nary an oppositional group in the USSR's sphere of influence that didn't invoke the word "Helsinki" or raise a fuzz in Western media when repression came down too hard upon them.

Many of the coastal forts have been opened for tourism after the end of the Cold War (replaced with facilities for more mobile defence). Notable sites are Örö and Jussarö by the south coast, and Katanpää and Kuuskajaskari by the Bothnian Sea.

  • 6 Igor Museum, Furuborgsvägen 6 (Degerby, Ingå), +358 40-541-8526, . Stories of Finnish and Soviet people affected by involuntary re-settling due to the Porkkala lease.
  • 7 Tamminiemi (Ekudden) (Western Helsinki). Residence of the presidents of Finland from World War II to the 1980s (except Paasikivi), and made a museum of the three presidents and Finland of that time, foremost of Urho Kekkonen, who was president of Finland most of the Cold War (1956–1982) and prime minister before that (1950–1956), and together with Paasikivi very important in building the relations to the east. Tamminiemi (Q2459334) on Wikidata Tamminiemi on Wikipedia
  • 8 Örö (in the Archipelago Sea). Fortress island guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, originally part of the Peter the Great chain of forts defending Saint Petersburg in World War I, military area until 2015, some active military installations remain off limits. Örö (Q6581547) on Wikidata Örö on Wikipedia


Stasi bunker near Leipzig

The Allies divided Germany between them, initially forming four occupation zones (Soviet, French, American and British) and later establishing the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany; on the territory of the French, British and American occupation zones), and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany; on the territory of the Soviet occupation zone and the Soviet sector of Berlin). Berlin was de jure under the "joint administration" of all four allies, but de facto an enclave within East Germany (American, French and British sectors) and the capital of the GDR (Soviet sector) respectively

  • 9 Berlin. Berlin symbolizes the Cold War more than any other city. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, and most of it was torn down in the 1989 revolution. Bits and pieces of it have been sold around the world and you can still buy postcards with an "original" piece of Berlin Wall in it. However, some parts were deliberately left standing or re-erected at certain sites to serve as memorials or art installations. The DDR Museum in Berlin/Mitte gives insight into the daily lives of people in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears, former scene of many tearful goodbyes at Friedrichstraße railway station in East Berlin) also became a museum.
  • 10 Leipzig. Leipzig was the second-biggest city in East Germany and one of the origins of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution. Several monuments and museums remind of the Cold War Era: There is a museum in the former Stasi branch, vividly illustrating the sometimes perfidious, sometimes banal work of the East German secret police; the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum ("Forum of Contemporary history"; being one of two sites of the German government-funded "House of History", the other is in Bonn) features a comprehensive and very illustrative permanent exhibition on the German partition, revolution and reunification (free admission); the GDR's last active place of execution has been transformed into a memorial which is however only sporadically opened to public; the St Nicholas' church (Nikolaikirche) with its Peace prayers was where the weekly Monday demonstrations started from, that eventually led to the fall of the Communist regime. Finally, you may visit a former Stasi bunker 30 km east of Leipzig.
    Night view of the Glienicke Bridge
  • 11 Potsdam. The site of the Potsdam Conference where the Allied powers of World War II decided upon the demarcation of their zones of interest, thereby creating the Iron Curtain between East and West. Later, the park came to contain a KGB prison. The Glienicke Bridge between Postdam and West Berlin was a famous site for the exchange of captured secret agents, therefore known as the Bridge of Spies.
  • The Ruhr area was the industrial powerhouse of West Germany. Though damaged during World War II, and partly dismantled after the war, the Ruhr fuelled the West German economic miracle, until the manufacturing crisis of the 1970s. Many closed mines and industries remain as museums.
  • 12 Bautzen. The very name still makes some Easterners shudder, as Bautzen was the site of a notorious prison run by the Staatssicherheit or Stasi of East Germany and the place where most political prisoners ended up, many being "sold" to West Germany for what can only be called ransom money. The former prison has been turned into a memorial and can be visited in guided tours, guided by former inmates on certain occasions.
  • 13 Bonn. Bonn was the de facto capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990/1998. As it was seen as a provisional solution by most politicians, former government buildings in the city don't look all that impressive. The Bundestag decided on reunification while seated in a former water supply plant, for instance. Ironically many buildings were either upgraded or replaced in the 1980s when it seemed as if the temporary solution would become a permanent one. Today some of the former government buildings have been turned into museums and can be visited – including the former residence of the Chancellor.
  • 2 Memorium Nuremberg Trials and Courtroom 600, Bärenschanzstraße 72 (Nuremberg). After World War II, this site was chosen for trials of the Nazi high command, partly for Nuremberg's symbolic role in Nazism, but chiefly because the Palace of Justice was undamaged and contained a prison block. Charges were brought both against individuals, and against entire organisations such as the SS and Gestapo. The permanent exhibition tells the story of this and subsequent trials, e.g. of collaborating doctors and judges, and of officers of the individual concentration camps. It shows how these trials established many present day principles of international law and morality, e.g. the legal concept of genocide, and the Helsinki Principles on medical experimentation. Courtroom 600, where the trials were held, is still used today for serious crimes, so it can only be visited if no trial is in progress. Palace of Justice (Q128652) on Wikidata Palace of Justice, Nuremberg on Wikipedia

Former inner-German border

A preserved "Stop! Here [is the] border"- sign, fence, border pole, watchtower and earthworks at the former German-German border

Few border installation survive to this day, but there are two extensive memorials with original border wall in situ. One is near 3 Hötensleben in Saxony Anhalt, which is run in conjunction with a museum in Marienborn[dead link], which used to serve as a border crossing point. Marienborn was the eastern side, while Helmstedt was the Western side. The other is at the 4 Mödlareuth village, which is partly in Franconia and partly in Thuringia, therefore divided by a wall and nicknamed "Little Berlin".


  • 14 Budapest. The Hungarian capital saw the bulk of the fighting in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The earliest major revolt against the Soviet control of Eastern Europe, the event is commemorated by a contemporary monument on Dózsa György út near the City Park (Városliget), which was the site of a Stalin statue before it was toppled by the demonstrators during the uprising. Nearby House of Terror on Andrassy utca, once the headquarters of the Hungarian version of KGB, exhibits the excesses of the socialist system, how it affected daily lives, and the propaganda associated with it in a deeply emotional way — the reconstructed internment cells at the basement are especially depressing. For a less distressing experience, head to Szoborpark in the countryside just out of Újbuda, which has a collection of socialist-era statues removed from Budapest and all over the country after the democracy was restored, and where you can try fitting inside a Trabant, the quintessential socialist car produced in East Germany.
  • 15 Sopron. The beautiful old town was directly on the Iron Curtain—belonging to the Hungarian People's Republic, but surrounded by Austria on three sides. On August 19, 1989 the "Pan-European Picnic" was celebrated near Sopron, when the Iron Curtain was lifted for the first time.


  • 16 Plokštinė missile base in Plateliai (Lithuanian: Plokštinės raketų bazė). Plokštinė missile base was the first underground missile base of the Soviet Union, constructed in the early 1960s. Today, one of the four existing silos is open for visitors as a Cold War Museum.
  • 17 Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights - KGB museum in Vilnius (Okupacijų ir laisvės kovų muziejus - KGB muziejus), Aukų g. 2A, Vilnius (inside the former KGB building), +37052498156, . W-Sa 10:00-18:00, Su 10:00-17:00. Visitors can visit the former KGB prison, the premises where death sentences were implemented, modern exhibitions telling about the loss of independence in the middle of the 20th century, repression by the Soviet authorities, and the self-sacrificing and persistent fight for independence. Adults €4, concessions €1.
  • 18 Atomic bunker in Kaunas and KGB spy museum, Raudondvario Pl. 164, Kaunas, +370 677 57736, . 6 metres under the ground, is the only of this kind in Lithuania. It has more than 1,200 unusual functioning exhibits. You will be surprised by the abundance of radiation meters, civil protection devices, air horns, mobile chemical laboratories, closed-circuit breathing apparatus, diving equipment, civil defence medical devices and instruments, electric generators, air compressors and portable floodlights.


Stalin-era Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw
  • 19 Gdansk. The Lenin shipyard was the cradle of the Solidarity movement, which challenged and then replaced the Socialist government.
  • 20 Warsaw. Among the cities ravaged by the war, restored with Stalinist architecture, e.g. the landmark Palace of Culture and Science that was modeled on the Stalinist "Seven Sisters" in Moscow.


Cold War-era grand avenue in Bucharest, viewed from the Parliament Palace
  • 21 Parliament Palace (Palatul Parliamentului), Strada Izvor 2-4 (near Piaţa Unirii (Union Plazza) in Bucharest - M1, 3 'Izvor' - entrance is on the north side), +40 21 3160300. The world's second largest building (after the US Pentagon), formerly named "Casa Poporului" (People's House). The building, which was built in 1984 on orders of Nicolae Ceauşescu, spans 12 stories, 3100 rooms and covers over 330,000 m². 1/9 of Bucharest was reconstructed to accommodate this magnificent massive building and its surroundings. There are 30- to 45-minute tours every half hour which lead through the building's vast collection of marble rooms and culminates in an impressive view from Nicolae Ceauşescu's balcony. The marble and all the original decorations are 100% from Romania. The basic tour includes the halls and the balcony, worthwhile is the terrace addition for the wonderful view from the top of the building. The basement addition on the other hand is not worth the money. They only show two rooms containing air ducts, no additional facts and it lasts only 5 minutes. Different Tours ranging in price from 25 lei (15 lei for students, proof required) up to 43 lei.



Sweden managed to stay out of both world wars, and formally had a non-alignment policy. While Sweden had plans to align with NATO in case of Soviet aggression, Prime Minister Olof Palme was a loud critic of both superpowers.

Throughout the Cold War, Sweden had a world-class air force, extensive conscription, and even a nuclear weapons programme which was just a few ounces of plutonium short from a functional bomb.

  • 22 Swedish Air Force Museum (Linköping). Sweden was officially non-aligned during the Cold War, though it had secret contingency plans with NATO. Though a country with a small population, Sweden maintained a world-leading air force, with many aircraft developed at SAAB in Linköping. The Air Force Museum features many of these planes, as well as an exhibition about the preparations for a war that never came.

United Kingdom




The Iron Curtain Trail (EuroVelo 13) is a projected, 7650 km long themed cycle route, leading along the former border between Eastern and Western blocs from Kirkenes on the northernmost point of the Norwegian-Russian border to the Bulgarian-Turkish border at the Black Sea, passing many Cold War-era memorials and other points of interest.

Stay safe


The display of communist symbols is now illegal in many countries east of the Iron Curtain as a result of decommunization laws enacted after the fall of communism.

See also

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