Forget the Cuban Missile Crisis. In November 1983, America and Britain came perilously close to provoking the Soviet Union into launching a nuclear strike – all because the Kremlin mistakenly believed the West’s “war games” exercise was real.
Known as Operation Able Archer, it involved the movement of 40,000 US and Nato troops across western Europe and came at a time when Cold War tensions were at an all-high.
Meanwhile, US president Ronald Reagan provoked the East with a high-profile speech describing the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” and announced plans to build the “Star Wars” defence system.
There’s no doubting that 1983 was a perilous time, but one that also stirs up childhood memories for American-Jewish writer Anna Winger.
Together with her German producer husband, Jörg, the couple are the creative force behind Channel 4’s tense new thriller Deutschland 83.
Hailed by critics as “engrossing” and “slick”, the suspenseful drama follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a 24-year-old East German native, who is recruited by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) to go over the wall to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi.
Winger, who is half-British and has lived in Germany for 13 years, says the series is “as much about a moment in time as it is a spy story” and revisits not just the politics, but also the culture and music of “our collective youth”.
She adds: “I have long been fascinated by this period. We have two children, both born in Berlin, and when we describe divided Germany to them it sounds like science fiction: two brother nations and a big wall that couldn’t be crossed. It was fertile ground for a great story.”
The talented 45-year-old was inspired to pen the drama after hearing her husband recount his military service experience for West Germany in the 1980s.
“He was a radio signaler in West Germany, listening to the Russian troops in East Germany. Occasionally the Russians would greet him by name.
“So they knew that he was listening and he knew there must be a mole at his base – but he never figured out who the mole was. It could have been a boss or a colleague.
“My idea was to tell a story from the point of view of the mole.”
At the time of developing Deutschland 83 the first documents relating to Able Archer were declassified, giving Winger a real-life context for the series’ dramatic climax – as well as deeper insight into just how dangerous the Cold War could have become.
She explains: “There was still a lot of mystery around it, which is great for historical drama -we could use it as the backdrop, setting our fictional characters free in that space.
“But just this past fall, much more information about Able Archer was released by the National Security Archives and, well, it turns out that we came very, very close to nuclear war – much closer than any of us realized – in November 1983.”
That year, Winger herself was a young teenager living in Mexico. As the daughter of anthropologists, she recalls feeling “really anxious about the threat of nuclear war”.
“I worried a lot about where the Russians’ missiles were aimed, because someone had told me that Harvard, where my parents were professors, was third on the list…”
As well as her own and Jörg’s personal memories of the early 1980s, the couple researched the period and spoke to politicians, people involved in intelligence, diplomats and “also just regular people about their experiences.”
While Winger wrote the script in English, the entire series was shot in German and when it was broadcast to American audiences last summer, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language drama to air in the US.
For Winger, the German dialogue was essential to providing the drama’s authentic feel.
“I like to watch things that are true to language,” she explains. “Personally, I find it really distracting when German actors speak to each other in English. My favourite shows feel located somewhere specific, and the more specific, the better. Language can be a big part of that.”
Having lived in Mexico, Kenya and Massachusetts during her “peripatetic upbringing”, Berlin is now the place she calls home. Jewish life in the German capital is “diverse, active, inclusive and growing.”
She adds: “This city has a long Jewish tradition that has really been reinvigorated in recent years.”
As a Jew living in Berlin, Winger admits to having thought about a darker time in her adopted homeland, but says she wanted to write something for her children that reflected their dual German and Jewish identities – and reflects the very different Germany of today.
“When I first lived here, I thought a great deal about the Holocaust. My first novel, This Must Be the Place, came out of that period.
“But since raising children who are both German and Jewish, I have been particularly motivated to write something that was not about the Holocaust. The burden of that history will be heavy enough for them.
“I wanted to write them a real German adventure. What I like about the 1980s is that it was a dark period with a bright future. And we are living in that bright future – reunited Germany is a pretty amazing place to be.”
Deutschland 83 continues on Sunday, 9pm, Channel 4.