Blue Skies, Red Panic

Climate of fear

Two policemen remove an activist from a site in Swaffham, England destined to become a missile base co-operated by the UK and the US. With the devastating impact of the atomic bomb fresh in the popular imagination, throughout the 1950s public protest against nuclear weapons grew more organised. Whilst nuclear technology shifted towards energy production, the development of weapons persisted on both sides of Iron Curtain.

A silent killer whose destructive powers were becoming more apparent, asbestos continued to be used for house insulation, textured paint and vinyl tiles. Notwithstanding the fact that its detrimental effects has been known since the 1900s, asbestos remained attractive as an affordable, naturally occurring and fire resistant material – as demonstrated here by journalist Matti Jämsä testing an asbestos suit.

Another health hazard was the smog that covered industrial and metropolitan cities across Europe. The most devastating incident was London’s ‘Great Smog’ of December 1952. The worst of all ‘pea soupers’ was caused by pollutants resulting from the use of coal, combined with cold weather and a lack of wind.

Thousands of people succumbed and approximately 100,000 fell ill, prompting the government to issue new regulations (the Clean Air Act of 1956) and encouraging citizens to be at their most resourceful. Seen here is a woman wearing a smog mask made from an old wartime gas cape.

To counter the lingering threat of a new clash between world powers, ongoing efforts were made on both sides of the Iron Curtain to influence public opinion through press and media.

While Sándor Bauer’s staged portrait of workers reading Szabad Nép (Free People) – the newspaper of the Hungarian Communist Party – carries a rather obvious propagandist subtext, socio-political issues also penetrated media in more subtle ways. 

The film still below stems from a movie produced a few months before the 1956 uprising in Budapest: A Csodacsatár (The marvellous striker), featuring a story about the ‘Mighty Magyars’.

Hungary’s celebrated football team was a vital element of communist propaganda. At the time of the October revolt, the majority of its players were abroad, competing in the European Cup. Having lost the first game they refused to return home; they had their families brought over and embarked upon a fundraising tour. As the Hungarian regime attempted to erase the disloyal sportsmen from collective memory, A Csodacsatár had to be re-filmed with every scene featuring the dissident players (such as superstar Ferenc Puskás) omitted.

While in this case, political messages were disguised as entertainment, many postwar films featured military scenery as a backdrop to an innocuous tale. In the Swedish comedy Flyg-Bom with Nils Poppe, soldiers’ uniforms and Swedish Air Force planes make up the décor of a Chaplinesque tale. The photo goes to show that, as much as the fear of another global conflict had become part of everyday life, so had military themes and imagery.