Sunday, 13 May 2018

Miniature tanks and existential dread - the Cold War through the eyes of children

As I was born in 1989, I can only remember the world after the Cold War, a world culturally dominated by the USA. As a child I saw wars on the news, but the Western Europe I grew up in was one untouched by conflict. The threat of violence on an international scale happened to other people, in other places.

Conversely, my parents were 12 and 8 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis, definitely old enough to understand the implications of what was happening. Children at the time seem to have reacted to the situation by resigning themselves to living in a constant state of low-level existential dread. In this video from 1966 posted by the BBC, school children were asked for their predictions for the year 2000.

While their plummy accents sound quaint to modern ears, they make some quite astute forecasts, such as the increasing problems posed by overpopulation and automation. They also assert that:

"If something's gone wrong with the nuclear bombs, I may be coming back from hunting in a cave."

“All of these atomic bombs will be dropping around the place…there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The more people get bombs… well, somebody’s going to use [them] one day.”

“I think there will be no life at all really, on the Earth.”

“Some madman will get the atomic bomb and just blow the world into oblivion.”

This last point deftly skewers the absurdity of the era’s fragile balance of power; that it could be shattered at any moment by an accident, a misunderstanding or the compromised mental health of any of the many people with access to nuclear weapons.

The central ambiguity of the time was that, while technology threatened to end human civilisation, it simultaneously offered the promise a world where all things were possible. This is rather neatly summed up in this American model kit for a ballistic missile mobile.

(picture found at

While at first glance this might seem like a peculiar thing to hang in a child’s bedroom, the Atlas missile was also used to launch satellites into orbit. It was at the cutting edge, imbued with a taste of the space-age future that awaited the USA.

Anything to do with nuclear energy or space was an obvious part of that future and saturated the childhood imagination of the time, as exemplified by these “atomic space pistols”. I found these at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities' Health Physics Historic Instrumentation Museum Collection website, and I thought they were quite charming. (If you're interested in Cold War technology and electronics, this is a fascinating if rather old website).

(picture found at

Meanwhile, on the other side of the iron curtain, there wasn’t much time for such frivolities, as Ukrainian writer Katya Soldak recalls in an article about her childhood in the 1980s for Forbes magazine. Considering that she is writing about the ninth decade of the 20th century, the deprivation she experienced is quite extraordinary – she recalls “the exciting memory of receiving an exotic fruit from my grandmother – a [single] banana – which sat in the kitchen cabinet for days, ripening in the dark.” Any kind of consumer product was hard to come by, with her mother making dresses out of her father’s old shirts.

Like the majority of children in the Soviet Union, Katya was expected to join the pioneers. This was a sort of semi-militarist scout organisation, with activities including the “Zarnitsa”, a “mandatory national military sports game in which school children would play war games and learn basic field combat”. 

However, it seems that the East Germans really took this indoctrination to extremes, issuing their pioneers with “pionierpanzer”, 1/3 scale miniature tanks crewed by two children. Based on the designs of actual tanks, they could travel at 15kph and fire blank ammunition (some sources claim that they could fire live rounds).


  1. Love the mini tanks, can you imagine how much you would have given to drive one of those?


    I love the video of all the posh kids - that kid is like 9 and he already knows he’s a biologist. They were so right about so much of that!