Television in Europe beyond the Iron Curtain. National and transnational perspectives since the 1950s

Television in Europe beyond the Iron Curtain. National and transnational perspectives since the 1950s

Prof. Dr. Julia Obertreis, Lehrstuhl für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte mit dem Schwerpunkt der Geschichte Osteuropas, Department Geschichte, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg; Dr. Sven Grampp, Institut für Theater- und Medienwissenschaft / Interdisziplinäres Medienwissenschaftliches Zentrum, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg; Dr. Kirsten Bönker, Fak. f. Geschichtswissenschaft, Philosophie und Theologie, Abt. Geschichte, Universität Bielefeld
Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Vom - Bis
05.12.2013 - 07.12.2013
Dr. Kirsten Bönker

The rise of television as a mass medium in the 1950s and 1960s took place in many European countries, East and West, at approximately the same time. The changes television brought were not only technological, but also societal, affecting most people’s daily lives. These changes included a rearrangement of living rooms placing the television set in the center and a corresponding readjustment and re-evaluation of public and private spheres. The parallels within Europe and across the Iron Curtain regarding the rapid spread of television towers and TV sets, program development, and other related aspects are at least as striking as the more familiar political and ideological differences.

Enthusiasm and anxieties in the face of the new mass medium could be found in both Western democratic and Eastern state socialist countries. Across the boundaries of the Iron Curtain, television was regarded as a symbol of modernity and popular welfare by those in power. Communists viewed the new medium as an opportunity to bring “culture” to every home and to demonstrate technical progress in the competition with the West, while party functionaries–much like politicians in the West–still had to learn how to present themselves on TV. Censorship was undoubtedly stronger and more encompassing in state socialist countries. Nonetheless, the examples of the “télékratie” in France or the many instances of censorship in the Federal Republic of Germany, especially in the 1960s, suggest that bipolar models that contrast the dictatorial East with the democratic West are no longer adequate. Moreover, the propaganda, technical rivalry, and (attempted) mutual media overtures to enemy populations in the context of the Cold War point to common features of a shared media culture. We need, therefore, to develop concepts that highlight the complex interdependence between East and West, their cooperation but also as their competition, mutual adoptions, imitations, and alienations.

Taking as a starting point not only a history of the mass media, but also the history of social communication structures including various kinds of actors, platforms, and communication channels, we look for evidence of how public spheres have changed. This approach allows us to broaden our perspective to include social and political changes in which media were central. We, therefore, insist that sociological models of public spheres can and should be applied both to East and West European societies. These models shed light on a society’s inner communicative functioning and allow us to understand the place of mass media within broader societal processes of communication.

In many countries, television shaped post-war national cultures in various ways, such as, for example, promoting the knowledge and use of national standard languages. One the one hand, much historiography describes television as being a surprisingly “national” mass medium. On the other hand, the post-war decades saw the emergence of transnational spheres of interaction such as the creation of “Eurovision” (1954) and its Eastern counterpart “Intervision” (1960), the exchange of programs within and between the two “blocs” , or the live broadcast of events like the celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s return from space on Red Square not just in the USSR, GDR or CSSR but also in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands. While there are a number of national television histories and a vast amount of literature on television from various disciplines, transnational historical surveys are few and do not always reflect the current state of research. New publications on historical or contemporary European television history only rarely include state socialist societies in their field of vision.

The conference aims to combine both national and transnational perspectives and will present papers from the fields of history, media and communication studies, and other disciplines. It departs from the observation that television is a very useful lens for understanding the post-war decades in Europe. Studying the history of television in a comparative way will help to paint a more nuanced picture of national societies and to reconsider as well as to overcome the East-West divide. It contributes to the reconstruction of a “divided” and “shared” European post-war history (geteilte Geschichte).

The period under consideration does not end with the collapse of the state socialist regimes. Many of the trends in the 1990s and 2000s such as, for example, the re-establishment of state hegemony in television channels in Russia, are directly linked to earlier developments. Contributions to the post-1991 decades are welcome as long as they imply an historical perspective.

The following sets of questions can be addressed:
- Which forms of transnational exchange of programs, know-how, ideas or personnel can be identified, and how did they affect national societies and transnational relations? How can these processes change our views on the East-West divide?
- How did governments in East and West legitimize, institutionalize and carry out censorship, and where can we situate European societies between the extreme descriptions as “totalitarian”, “controlled” on the one hand and “liberal”, “democratic”, and “pluralistic” on the other?
- Were the 1960s a period of politicization in both East and West, in the contexts of liberalization, students’ movements, and the emergence of new platforms of communication? Can we establish a common chronology of the politicizing and de-politicizing effects of TV?
- How can we describe the complex interdependence between Eastern and Western television? Which vocabulary, which theoretical perspectives–beyond a schematic binary–are appropriate and productive? What kind of ‘grand récit’ do we need to understand the rise of television culture in Europe?
- And last but not least: How did post-war television reflect on its role as a (trans-)national medium? How did the diverse national television programs comment on the apparently obvious fact that “wireless is equally available on either side of the frontier” (Arnheim 1936)?

The conference will take place at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in the city of Erlangen (Franconia, state of Bavaria, Germany) on December 5-7, 2013.
It will be accompanied by a little cultural program in the cities of Erlangen and Nuremberg. Participants from all across Europe as well as from outside Europe are very welcome. Conference languages will be German and English.

Abstracts for papers should be no longer than 600 words and should clearly point out the topic and theses of the paper to be presented including a few references to sources and research literature. Applications should be sent as an attached file (Word, PDF, Open Document) via e-mail to: <> by March 31, 2013.



Prof. Dr. Julia Obertreis

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

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