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HomeLanguageEnglishGerman Anti-Nuke Movement Withers Away

German Anti-Nuke Movement Withers Away


By Julio Godoy

BERLIN (IDN) – They have long disappeared from the scene, those hundreds of thousands of peace activists who call for the removal of atomic arsenal from German territory. They dominated the political landscape when NATO, the western military alliance, officially installed nuclear weapons in Germany at the height of the Cold War nearly 30 years ago. Today, those participating in peace demonstrations can be counted by the dozens.

And yet, the German activists who continue to call for nuclear disarmament are as persistent as ever. Take Elke Koller, a doctor in natural sciences and pharmacist from Leienkaul, a village in Rhineland Palatinate, the south-western federal state home of the last NATO nuclear weapons located in Germany. Among her many activities for nuclear disarmament juts a recent lawsuit she filed against the German minister of defence, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, for his failure in actively pursuing the removal of the nuclear weapons from the country.

Koller’s court case is based on the fact that the nuclear weapons based in Germany violate several international treaties, of which the country is signatory, from the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to the The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.

Koller says: “Our legal counsellors, members of the International Association Of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, have found out that article 2 of the NPT prohibits Germany to host nuclear weapons, even from other countries,” Koller told IDN. Additionally, Koller said, “In our interpretation, the German constitution gives every citizen the right and the obligation to call for the government’s compliance of international law.”

As remarkable as Koller’s lawsuit against minister Guttenberg might appear, and regardless of its chances to succeed, it has gone nearly unnoticed in Germany. This is a good indicator of the indifference with which German public now deals with the issue of nuclear disarmament.

“People do not any longer fear nuclear weapons as much as they did 30 years ago,” says Jens-Peter Steffen, a member of the German office of the International physicians for the prevention of nuclear war (IPPNW) group.

“Young people in particular have no idea of the power of destruction of the nuclear bomb. They often think the nuclear bomb is just another traditional weapon, only with a bigger detonation power. They are unaware of the obliteration a nuclear bomb provokes. The issue attracts attention only on the anniversary of nuclear catastrophes, such as the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Steffen told IDN, or when charismatic world leaders, such as U.S. President Barack Obama, publicly call for nuclear disarmament.


After Obama’s landmark speech in Prague in April 2009, when he called the nuclear weapons spread across the world “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War”, German political leaders suddenly discovered that nuclear disarmament could be a popular issue, and joined the ranks of the peace movement.

Then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), urged the U.S. government and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) to include the nuclear weapons deployed in Germany in their disarmament plans. These nuclear weapons “are obsolete,” Steinmeier rightly told the German weekly Der Spiegel at the time. Tholugh, he had seldom before pleaded against nuclear weapons.

Guido Westerwelle too, then opposition leader and now foreign minister, and so far unsuspected of anti-militarism or opposition to Western military plans, immediately called for a removal of the nuclear weapons. On May 15, 2009, six weeks afters Obama’s speech in Prague, Westerwelle stressed that “the time has come for nuclear disarmament.”

As late as January 2010, Westerwelle, already serving as German foreign minister, repeated his call and claimed he was “holding negotiations with our (NATO) partners” to withdraw the nuclear weapons from Germany. “Since Obama’s inauguration, there is a new dynamics on the issue,” Westerwelle said.

As of today, Germany continues to be home to numerous nuclear warheads. Although the exact dimension of the nuclear arsenal deployed in Germany remains classified, IPPNW estimates that some 20 nuclear bombs of the type B61 are still stored in Buechel, a military base located in Rhine Palatinate, some 500 kilometres southwest of Berlin, near the border with Belgium and Luxembourg. Buechel has the capacity to store up to 44 nuclear warheads.

Some 1,700 German soldiers learn there the handling of this arsenal, in the framework of the so-called nuclear sharing policy, the NATO’s policy of nuclear deterrence, which lets European member countries without nuclear weapons of their own participate in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by the NATO. Other than Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands host U.S. nuclear weapons.

According to IPPNW, all in all, some 300 U.S. nuclear bombs are spread across European NATO members. Each of these bombs have a detonation power of up to 170 kilotons — in comparison, the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945, and killed at least 200,000 people, had a detonation power of 12.5 kilotons.

The new dynamics in nuclear disarmament in the aftermath of Obama’s speech in Prague was so tempting, that even the German conservative-liberal coalition formed by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which took office in Berlin in October 2009, included the issue in its government programme.

“We strongly support the proposals made by U.S. President Obama regarding comprehensive new disarmament initiatives — including the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” the CDU-FDP coalition government agreement of October 2009 says.

“In this context,” the agreement goes on, “as well as in the course of the drafting of a strategic concept for NATO, we will advocate within the Alliance and with our (U.S.) American allies for the removal of the remaining nuclear weapons from Germany.”


However, the new German government’s position on nuclear weapons contradicted its factual policy, which revealed that the sudden political actionism against nuclear weapons was simply driven by political opportunism and not by disarmament convictions. Until the very eve of the Oct 2009 declaration, the leading ruling party, the conservative CDU headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, did repeatedly express it wants to hold to the bomb.

“We should be careful and avoid mixing up the goals with the ways leading to them,” Merkel said in March 2009, just some days before Obama’s speech in Prague. “The German government has fixed the nuclear sharing policy … to secure our influence within NATO in this highly sensitive area.”

In other words: For Merkel the nuclear weapons are indispensable, not for military reasons, but to give Germany a greater political clout within the NATO. Some months later, however, Merkel signed the call to remove the nuclear weapons from Germany.

But in the one year gone by, and as if to confirm Merkel’s initial caution, the machinery of world bureaucracy has slowed down the new dynamics of nuclear disarmament. As a result, the issue has all but disappeared from the German daily public agenda.

To be sure, the not so numerous members of the peace movement, as represented by Elke Koller, continue to advocate for disarmament and for the withdrawal of the “obsolete nuclear weapons”, but they do not enjoy attention from the society at large.

Only the initiated are aware that in November, NATO might discuss the removal of some or all nuclear weapons from German territory. According to analysts, “it is likely that the NATO deals with the issue. Less certain is the outcome of the debates.”

IPPNW’s Steffen says that both the NATO and the German government want to retain the weapons in Germany, albeit not on strictly military considerations.

“The nuclear weapons stationed in Germany have no military purpose,” Steffen told IDN. “They are obsolete: In case of a nuclear war, the likelihood that the NATO fights a nuclear battle within Europe is rather marginal; these weapons are useless, for you have to mount them into military airplanes and fly them over quite long distances.”

Steffen said that the German government’s position on nuclear disarmament is contradictory. “In public, the government claims it advocates a nuclear free world. But in reality it wants to maintain the nuclear weapons in Germany, allegedly to safeguard its influence within the NATO, and also as a bargaining material vis-à-vis Russia.” Therefore, he said, the nuclear weapons stationed in Germany have “at best a political value. Militarily, they are useless.”

According to foreign minister Westerwelle, “the NATO will during its next summit in (the Portuguese capital) Lisbon approve its new strategy, which will deal with the question of what role are nuclear weapons supposed to play in the defence and security policies of the alliance under the present geopolitical circumstances.”

In an interview, Westerwelle claimed that during the NATO meeting of foreign and defence ministers in April 2010 in Tallinn, Estonia, he had initiated a debate on the meaning of nuclear weapons in the present-day world — as if Obama’s speech in Prague and subsequent measures have never happened.

But Westerwelle admitted that the U.S. has already downgraded, at least in its rhetoric, the importance of the bomb in its own military policy. “In this context,” he said, “it is the German government’s objective that the nuclear weapons stationed in our territory be removed, in agreement with our (NATO) military partners.”

But for Steffen, and despite the nuclear weapons’ evident military uselessness, the likelihood that the NATO decides to remove them from Germany is all but marginal.


Most likely then, the nuclear weapons will remain stationed in Germany, even though also the U.S. military admits that they are obsolete. In December 2008, in a report for the U.S. defence ministry, a U.S. expert commission concluded that the B61 nuclear bombs deployed across Europe are “useless, military speaking”.

The commission also underlined the disproportionate costs associated with maintaining this nuclear arsenal ready for use.

In addition, Germany does not have sovereign access to them. In the framework of its “nuclear sharing” strategy, the NATO has deployed nuclear weapons in its European member countries officially known as non nuclear powers, such as Germany. But these nuclear weapons are managed and secured by U.S. soldiers; the codes required for their detonation are also under the control of the U.S. military.

Despite such violations of the German sovereignty, the nuclear weapons do not longer constitute a popular theme among German political leaders or civil society at large. It is quite telling that the one senior official who talks the least abut the issue is the minister of defence, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg. It is his indifference that led Elke Koller to sue him on behalf of the German government for violating international treaties.

But also among opposition leaders the theme has long lost attraction. While during the months that followed Obama’s speech in April 2009, practically the leaders of all parties were scrambling to discuss the issue publicly, now they leave it to their youth organisations and other low-ranking groups.

This is the case of the SPD. While former foreign minister Steinmeier has lost interest in the issue, the party’s youth officials, known as Jusos (for Jung Sozialisten, Young Socialists) have inherited the task of demonstrating for nuclear disarmament.

In a recent statement, the Juso leader Franziska Drohsel complained: “20 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons are still deployed in Germany. Every one of these bombs has the destructive potential of several of the bombs” that wiped out the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Drohsel recalled that the NATO leadership puts countries such as Pakistan and North Korea “to the pillories” for their nuclear weapons, while holding to its own nuclear arsenal. “We cannot plea convincingly for other countries’ nuclear disarmament while we keep our arsenal,” Drohsel said.


Yet another symbolic campaign for the removal of the nuclear weapons from Germany is an electronic mail action addressed to the minister of defence Guttenberg. In a letter, signed and sent per e-mail by hundreds of activists to Guttenberg’s headquarters, the peace activists urge the minister during NATO’s November summit at Lisbon to “strongly argue (before the military alliance) in favour of the removal of the nuclear weapons still deployed in Germany.”

In the letter, the peace activists remind Guttenberg that on March 24, 2010 the vast majority of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, approved a motion calling for the removal of the weapons from the country’s territory.

It remains to be seen what response these campaigns, including the law suit against minister Guttenberg, might receive. Most likely, none at all. Given the general indifference towards the issue, even if the NATO takes the unlikely decision to remove all nuclear weapons from German territory, the measure might as well go unnoticed. (IDN-InDepthNews/17.09.2010)

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