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CSS Colloquium: Rosanna Farbøl, University of Southern Denmark

Imagining the unimaginable. Knowing the unknowable. Building the unbuildable. Nuclear war and civil defence in Denmark during the Cold War

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Wednesday 24 March 2021,  at 14:15 - 15:45




After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, few doubted the immense devastation of atomic weapons. Yet, at the same time, it was a peculiar quality of these weapons that their subsequent use was restricted to testing and political signalling. Consequently, while the threat of nuclear war was vivid and real, the war itself unfolded in a future that was the province of the imagination. To prepare for the unknown and unknowable, and to protect societies and peoples from the ultimate catastrophe, defensive measures were taken that were both concrete and tangible, among them extensive systems of civil defence incl. shelters, evacuation plans, information leaflets, emergency money and stamps as well as rationing coupons.

This talk traces Danish civil defence during the Cold War. It focuses specifically on the construction of artificial ruins and postapocalyptic cities: Fake bombed out towns, complete with burning houses, crashed vehicles, heaps of smoke, piles of debris and screaming victims. These civil defence environments were attempts to make it possible to rehearse and pre-enact the imaginary and dystopian war in realistic settings that provided physical as well as sensory access to experiences that seemed to defy representation. However, the ruins, also structured and limited the imagination fostering a certain immutability and path dependency. In fact, I argue, they caused a “taming” of the nuclear catastrophe.