Blue Skies, Red Panic

Fallen giants & superpowers

In the 1950s political situations and living standards were very different across Europe. World War II had left the continent divided: the US and the USSR took up opposite positions, and the onset of the Cold War – represented by the ‘Iron Curtain’ - separated Eastern bloc countries from the Western allies.

Among the political heavyweights of the era, Joseph Stalin took pride of place. Stalin transformed the Soviet Union into a world power and imposed control on over 100 million people. But after his death the communist party ended up in dire straits, particularly after the ‘secret speech’ of Nikita Khrushchev at the party congress of 1956.

Khruschev’s stirring address spurred excitement in the countries bound by the Warsaw Pact. Among them was Hungary, where an uprising ensued in October. 

After an initial victory of the rebels, the Soviet army put a violent stop to the revolt. The final toll was 2500 casualties and a fallen giant – the statue gifted to Budapest by Stalin on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

That throughout the fifties nothing would be clear-cut in the relationship between west and east, is attested to by this portrait of the flight crew of a Swedish aircraft Catalina. In what became known as the Catalina affair, Soviet fighter jets shot down Swedish flying boat above international waters. It took 40 years for Sweden to admit to having been on a spying mission, and for the Soviets to confirm they were responsible for the retaliation.

But things weren’t all roses between the Allies either: the fear of 'Americanisation' took on 'red scare' proportions, several Western countries had strong communist movements, and post-imperial Britain struggled to find its place in the new bipolar world. 

For a few hours at least, the lingering tensions would have been forgotten by these American marines from the nuclear submarine Nautilus, heading to London’s Winter Garden Theatre in the enchanting company of Folies-Bergère showgirls.