"Hot Wars" in the Cold War

PD Dr. Bernd Greiner / Dr. Dierk Walter; Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung
20.05.2004 - 22.05.2004
Dierk Walter


Between "Total War" and "Small Wars": Studies in the Societal History of the Cold War
Conference Series at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

II / "Hot Wars" in the Cold War
Hamburg (Germany), May 20-22, 2004


Beginning in November 2001, a group of researchers at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, headed by Bernd Greiner, has been working on the subject of "Between 'Total War' and 'Small Wars': Studies in the Societal History of the Cold War". This project is based on a twofold approach: on the one hand, it is being researched how the institutional, material, and mental "heritage of violence" of World War Two has, while being transformed, shaped the post-war era. On the other hand, it is being scrutinized how the power potentials that had been accumulated during the East-West conflict as a means of deterring potential adversaries in a "Great War" and of waging "Small Wars", and the institutions that had been created for administering them, influenced societies, and how their impact was felt in the long run.

In other words: different from most recent analyses, this project does not focus on diplomatic, political, or military history. Quite to the contrary, it is aimed at paving the way for a "Societal History of the Cold War". To this end, it will employ the relevant historiographical methods, including cultural history and psychological history. We do not intend to reconsider old arguments in the light of new sources; much rather, we plan to establish new approaches to the subject. The project focuses, for instance, on the mutual impact the civil and military spheres, domestic and foreign policy, strategic security and economic policy, state and civil society actors, changing political climates and mentalities, and so on, had on each other. It goes without saying that in order to achieve this we will have to bring together approaches from fields as diverse as history, economic, political, and social science, and psychology.

We place a special emphasis on covering the entire Cold War era from 1945 to 1989 and on bringing together the Eastern and the Western perspective. To this end, we will discuss selected case studies in the light of a comparative approach. The principal actors of the East-West conflict, the United States and the USSR, will get the attention they deserve, but will not dominate our deliberations. Poland, Hungaria, both Germanys, Great Britain, France, or Italy - depending on the needs of the subject - will be included. Placing the main emphasis on the Northern hemisphere may seem problematic. However, considering the enormous gaps in our knowledge of the social history of the Cold War and the shortcomings of the research so far, we deem this limitation acceptable, even more so as it does not preclude us from spotlighting some especially relevant case studies from the Southern hemisphere, if necessary.

It goes without saying that such a broad and diverse subject cannot satisfactorily be covered by a small group of researchers all on its own. Therefore, we have decided to convene a series of conferences over the course of several years. The first one has taken place in February 2003 in Hamburg under the title of "Was the Cold War a War? Changing Images of War and Warriors" and has attempted both to set the agenda for the whole series and to cast a first glance at some central themes that place the Cold War era firmly into the general context of the development of war and violence in the 20th century. More specifically, the papers presented at this first conference aimed at analyzing the relationship between armed forces and societies and the changing roles, images, and the prestige of different kinds of soldiers/warriors in a broad comparison over several countries from both the Western and Eastern bloc. The proceedings of this first conference will be published at the Hamburger Edition in due course.

Closely linked to this first conference, in a way devoted to covering the reverse side of the same coin, the second conference in the series, under the title of "'Hot Wars' in the Cold War", will address the cases where violent armed conflict actually took place in the general political and global strategic context of the Cold War, i.e. where the Cold War became "hot". In spite of the apparent simplicity of this question, we are not taking it for granted that each and every armed conflict fought or supported by countries of the Northern hemisphere in the Cold War era was actually governed from the outset by the logic of the East-West confrontation. Much rather, we believe that "hot" wars in the Cold War era could as well follow a traditional "imperial" logic underlying the relationship between a colonial power and the colonized, or be even entirely caused and determined by regional factors, either for their entire course, or at least for a part of it. Therefore, the purpose of the conference is to scrutinize the individual factors determining the course, structure, and mechanisms of individual local conflicts, with a view to establishing a compelling analysis of the relative importance of local, regional, bilateral ("imperial"), and global, i.e. Cold War, factors in a specific actual war.

While we believe that the conduct of war during the Cold War, primarily in the so-called Third World, had grave repercussions for the belligerent societies at home, and while these repercussions will have an important place in the course of the conference series, this second conference is not in itself concerned with the way the home societies dealt with violent conflicts in rather remote places. It is the general logic, the importance, and the place of wars fought or supported by societies of the Northern hemisphere mostly in the Third World that we are interested in this time.


The papers presented at the conference should aim for a high level of abstraction. They should refrain from narrating the course of actual wars, either the diplomatic or the operational/military aspects. Rather, they should present a concise analysis of the underlying factors, structures, mechanisms, and the relationship between the actors, with a special emphasis on the different position of the "strong" and the "weak". Even wars where local actors on both sides were allied with one of the superpowers cannot fully be understood as wars by proxy. Quite to the contrary, the papers should also specifically address the leeway local actors had in exploiting the superpower confrontation to their own advantage, blackmailing their stronger ally with the threat of undermining his credibility when he failed to come to their support.

The overarching question governing the proceedings of the conference will be:
- To which extent did the structure of individual armed conflicts reflect the logic of the Cold War, and to which extent did it follow other logics or patterns, primarily the "imperial" structure of the relationship between a European colonial power and a Third World political entity? Naturally we are especially interested in case studies where both, or rather several different patterns become apparent, either simultaneously or consecutively, as this will help us to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms and the relative importance of such factors.

Further individual points that can and should be addressed where they apply are:
- To which extent did the structure of the ideological and bloc confrontation shape the way in which these wars were fought? Was it instrumental in determining the actual behaviour of combatants on the battlefield, or vis-à-vis non-combatants?
- To which extent were global strategic considerations a factor in local conflicts? In other words, was there a link between the "imperial" logic of the colonial empires and the global superpower confrontation of the Cold War that overshadowed the ideological and bloc structure of the latter?
- To which extent did what we call the "credibility trap" determine the way superpowers acted and reacted in local conflicts, i.e. the mechanism whereby a superpower could just not afford to stay out of a conflict for fear of "losing face" on the international stage by not reinforcing its political and military position wherever possible.

The list of subjects we would like to see covered at the conference includes, but is in no way limited to:

1. General:

- Introductory paper on the relationship between great powers of the Northern hemisphere and "Third World" political entities: from colonialism to Cold War.
(This paper should address the general logic of this relationship between "weak" and "strong" on a very high level of abstraction, without going into details.)
- The U.S. and the Third World in the Cold War
- The USSR and the Third World in the Cold War
- The changing importance of the Cold War for the Third World, and of the Third World for the Cold War
(Here we believe that major turning points are the early 1960s, and the mid-1970s. Our impression is that around 1960, not the least as a result of the decolonization era, the Cold War was deliberately "globalized" by its principal actors, but conflict in the Third World was still to a large degree determined by local factors; and that, by the mid-1970s, the bloc confrontation began to transform almost by default every conflict in the Third World, mainly by virtue of the "credibility trap". We would like this paper to analyze and if necessary challenge this notion.)

2. Regional Studies:

- Conflict in the Near East since 1948
- Sub-Saharan Africa and the superpower competition since the mid-1970s
- South Asia and the superpower competition in the 1960s

3. Case Studies:

- The Indochina Wars 1945-1975
- The Greek Civil War 1946-49
- The Chinese Civil War 1946-50
- The Malayan Emergency 1948-1960
- The Korean War 1950-53
- Tibet 1950
- Kenya and Mau-Mau 1952-56
- The Algerian War 1954-62
- Cyprus 1955-59
- Congo/Zaire 1960-
- The Indonesia-Malaysia "Confrontation" 1963-66
- Afghanistan 1979-89
- The First Gulf (Iran-Iraq) War 1981-88


The conference language will be English.

Presentations at the conference will be not more than 10 minutes in length, but can and should be based on, and where necessary refer to, a written paper of up to 30 pages length that will be distributed to the participants well before the conference. The oral presentation should just sum up the contents of the more elaborate written paper and emphasize its main points and hypotheses.

If you are interested in giving a presentation at this conference, you are cordially invited to send an abstract of one to two pages and a short c.v. not later than October 15, 2003 as e-mail attachment (Word for Windows or Rich Text) to Dr. Dierk Walter at


We will especially welcome contributions by aspiring scholars.

Contributors are kindly requested to hand in their written papers not later than March 1, 2004, likewise to Dr. Dierk Walter at the same address.

The Hamburg Institute for Social Research will cover the expenses for travel (usually the regular 2nd class railway fare or, for non-European participants only, an economy class flight) and for accommodation during the conference.

The conference is convened for the Hamburg Institute for Social Research by PD Dr. Bernd Greiner and Dr. Dierk Walter.

For further information please contact

Dr. Dierk Walter
Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung
Mittelweg 36
20148 Hamburg


Dierk Walter

Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung
Mittelweg 36, 20148 Hamburg, GERMANY


"Hot Wars" in the Cold War, 20.05.2004 – 22.05.2004 Hamburg, in: H-Soz-Kult, 20.08.2003, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-2031>.