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German Nukes Would Be a National Tragedy
Getting the bomb would put everything Germany stands for today at risk.
Nobody has worried about the Germans getting the bomb since 1945, but that’s about to change. German commentators are debating whether the country should acquire atomic weapons. Berlin’s flagship daily, Der Tagesspiegel, kicked off the discussion on its online platform two months after the U.S. elections by running an opinion piece arguing that President Donald Trump was about to snap shut NATO’s nuclear umbrella, and the only way to counter the perceived threat from Russia was to become more independent. “Independence” would require a German nuclear deterrent. “This is about our vital interests,” argued political scientist Maximilian Terhalle. “Existential circumstances might mean that Berlin would not have to reach a consensus on the matter with the other 27 EU members.”
In February, the country’s respected weekly Die Zeit followed up with an article that ended with a stark warning that Germany could either ignore the changing times or quickly buy into the Force de Frappe, France’s nuclear force.
With a longstanding taboo broken and Dr. Strangeloves prowling the national press, it wasn’t long before someone disagreed. Otfried Nassauer, head of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security, traced back in Der Freitag, a popular weekly, the notion of a German bomb to “right-wing conservatives, nationalists or the extreme right … who either suffer from delusions of grandeur or just enjoy opening Pandora’s box.” Indeed, some of those people who have come out of the woodwork to call for a German bomb (sometimes thinly disguised as a “Euro-bomb”) seem to have waited for an opportunity to pounce on the public with this idea.
With this debate in full swing, we should remind ourselves why all this is such a risible — and appallingly dangerous — idea.
For starters, Germany is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, and it is therefore illegal for the country to acquire the bomb. If such an influential country suddenly opted out of a pact that has been in force, and effective, for almost a half century, it would critically undermine the NPT and set an extremely negative example. Other countries might quickly follow suit by opting out and acquiring the bomb. Although Iran is an obvious candidate, close allies of the United States could argue that America’s security guarantees are not dependable anymore. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and even Saudi Arabia come to mind, countries situated in troublesome neighborhoods — either near the nuclear pariah North Korea and the powder keg of the South China Sea, or the ongoing horror of the Middle East’s sprawling conflicts. As a rogue nuclear state, Germany would also lose much of its hard-won credibility in soft power.
But while these are rational arguments, there is another dimension to Germany’s debate that is considerably more disconcerting than legal technicalities: some citizens’ self-inflicted amnesia about the possibilities of a nuclear catastrophe. The commentators clamoring for a German bomb seem to have slept through most of the 20th century, when the country was on the frontlines of nuclear annihilation. That experience once made Germany a repository of hard-earned knowledge about the dangers of these weapons, a repository some Germans now seem intent on eliminating.
Let’s recall some of the jaw-dropping plans and mishaps that happened in and around Germany during the heyday of nuclear posturing.
Today, the United States and Russia still stockpile about 14,000 nuclear bombs. But during the Cold War, that huge number was much higher, with many of the apocalyptic weapons pointed at targets in Germany. For most of the Cold War, U.S. military strategists were convinced that the leadership of the Soviet Union was plotting to invade Western Europe with its vast conventional forces. To deter the enemy beyond the Iron Curtain and compensate for comparatively small conventional NATO armies, the U.S. administration under President Dwight Eisenhower decided to opt for “more bang for the buck.” This meant that nukes were stationed in Western Europe to guarantee massive retaliation if the Soviet Union decided to send its tanks swarming across the border. In 1956, the U.S. Strategic Air Command had designated 91 nuclear bombs to be dropped on East Berlin alone, some earmarked to destroy the “population” even though this violated international treaties. The Soviet side amassed similar nuclear firepower, following the cold logic of the arms race.
Before the dawn of intercontinental ballistic missiles, both sides sent bombers circling in the air 24/7, each armed with a nuclear payload. This increased tensions significantly and led to a series of embarrassing mishaps, such as the infamous Palomares incident in 1966 in which a U.S. bomber crashed near a Spanish hamlet, dislodging four hydrogen bombs in the vicinity of unsuspecting villagers. “My knees were shaking when I saw the squashed nose cone of one of the nukes,” one of the technicians who salvaged the bombs told me in an interview for my book A Short History of Nuclear Folly.
The bomb-alert squads were eventually replaced by nuclear missiles, but this, if anything, increased the likelihood of Armageddon. The fact that they were to be deployed off U.S. shores almost led to a global nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. At one point, U.S. naval ships started dropping depth charges on a Soviet submarine trawling the Caribbean. The Russian captain, Valentin Savitsky, immediately ordered a nuclear torpedo to be readied. Yet he needed the consent of two fellow commanders to fire the weapon. One instantly agreed. The other, Vasili Arkhipov, persuaded them not to retaliate and calmed them down. It wasn’t the only time World War III would be averted by one cool-headed man. In 1983, the judgment of Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov that a signal was a false alarm, not a first strike, saved the world again.
But Germany was home to possibly the most dangerous aspect of the arms race: the stationing of short- and mid-range rockets, most notoriously the Pershing II, which could hit Moscow in 15 minutes. This hair-trigger configuration meant that both sides had no time to think through an evolving situation rationally. Unsurprisingly, this led to several tense situations in which the superpowers mistakenly believed they were under attack. The only thing that was certain was that Germany was to be the main battleground for the coming nuclear war.
During the Cold War, most of the borderlands between West and East Germany were sown with nuclear mines. If the Red Army attacked, the United States planned to turn much of the region east of the Rhine into a nuclear wasteland. This apocalyptic mass of rubble would halt the advance of the Soviets. It wasn’t until Helmut Schmidt took office as chancellor in 1974 that a German government dared to voice concern about this plan. Over and above the countless mines, both East and West amassed vast numbers of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Germany, bombs with small payloads that could be set off by low-ranking field commanders. One of them, the Davy Crockett, was so small it could fit onto a recoilless rifle and be fired by a single man.
Among U.S. military strategists there was a dangerous belief that a nuclear war could somehow be limited to Germany. Most prominently, Henry Kissinger gave thinly veiled hints that a scaled-down nuclear exchange was possible. “If we are forced into war through Soviet aggression,” he said, “we would attempt to keep it to the smallest proportions necessary, that we would not use more force than was absolutely necessary to defend the safety of the free world.” Those smallest proportions would have still meant a wide slice of Germany, even in Kissinger’s optimistic vision of Armageddon.
But the other side disagreed that limits were possible. “Had the Americans launched even one small nuke, the Soviet Union would have retaliated with an all-out nuclear war,” Gen. Evgeny Maslin, former head of the Soviet nuclear force’s safeguarding unit, told me in an interview. Whether the United States would have survived such an exchange, there was little reason to think that anything recognizable as Germany would.
Germany had a big “X” painted on it, and its inhabitants, though largely ignorant of the terrifying details, were keenly aware of this. From the late 1970s onward, a strong peace movement formed, culminating in demonstrations like the gathering in 1986 of more than 200,000 people who blocked a site where NATO intended to station 96 nuclear cruise missiles. The protesters recognized that the nonsensical logic of the NATO strategy was that the village could be saved from nuclear war only if the village was committed to being destroyed. Thus, Germans earned an acute understanding of the cruelty of the logic of nuclear armament, how each turn of the screw tightens it and worsens escalation, how each bigger shield solicits a sharper sword. According to a recent survey, 85 percent of Germans advocate that all U.S. nuclear weapons be removed from the country’s territory.
It remains questionable whether some of the present taboo-breaking rhetoric will lead to action. One telltale sign will be if the URENCO uranium enrichment plant, which creates nuclear fuel for reactors, will be closed, as current plans suggest. In a rogue nuclear-armed Germany, the facility could be a vital part for a bomb infrastructure.
Although all this seems remote, it should be worrying for the rest of the world. Remember that this debate is happening in a country that set fire to the world twice in a row. Since the devastating experience of the Third Reich, Germany has worked hard to recover a sense of moral credibility, asking for forgiveness from its many victims and seeking atonement. Given its history, it is miraculous that the country is so respected across the world today. (By contrast, Japan is still considered a pariah for its wartime actions by most of its neighbors). If Germany went nuclear, it would endanger its astonishing achievement.
In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, many citizens across the globe are turning their hopes toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government to uphold moral principles and lead on matters such as European unity and the refugee crisis. These are major challenges. To rise to them, Germany must stick to its principles as a peaceful nation that works hard to eradicate nuclear weapons. Should it veer off this path, huge damage would be inflicted not only on the world order, but on Germany itself.
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