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Comments on the Rapid Rise of Nuclear Fears (June 15, 1981)

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“A natural reaction to the knowledge that the nuclear apocalypse is definitely within the realm of possibility is rapid repression,” writes British author Nigel Calder in his book Nuclear Nightmares. “I myself plead guilty to deliberately evoking forgetfulness. When I watched my children grow up and sailed happily in my boat, I tried not to think about the multiple warheads of the large missiles.”

Aside from a handful of peace researchers who were shaken off like annoying drunkards over all these years, just about every politician and journalist would also have to sign this confession. Even the strategists in the Pentagon, in Brussels, in Bonn, who did nothing the whole time but think up new varieties of nuclear horror for the purpose of preventing it, even they encoded and abstracted the reality of this horror to make it inaccessible to themselves and others.

They developed a specialized language that, for example, subsumed the mutilated, charred, and radiation-contaminated civilians that would result from a nuclear attack on a military target under the term “collateral damage.” Unimaginable disasters turn into mathematical quiz questions (“How many warheads will I retain to destroy the conurbations of the enemy after he has annihilated all my land-based missile silos?”). The unthinkable is becoming more and more thinkable.

Animals faced with an unavoidable danger often resort to “displacement activity.” As if to distract themselves from their paralyzing helplessness, they do something absurd, like preen themselves. Many worried citizens, especially among the younger generation, have done something similar in recent years. Either they did not comprehend the main danger of nuclear armaments or they felt helpless in the face of it, so they turned to other problems – important yet secondary problems such as environmental protection.

And so the curious thing happened that tens of thousands fought stubbornly against the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, but for a long time totally ignored the planned deployment of new nuclear weapons systems in their country – this situation is comparable to that of a person who lives in a house built on dynamite, but is only concerned with the operating safety of his toaster.

But that is starting to change. With greater intensity than ever before, the dispute over the escalating arms race to “catch-up” to the enemy has roused slumbering fears, forced open the repression and denial that had already been creaking at every joint, and raised the first and only really existential question for the Germans and their neighbors.

An awareness is spreading through the land that it makes little sense to worry about all of society’s other problems if nothing happens regarding the question of its basic survival. It makes as little sense as a man on a minefield who worries himself to death about his retirement pension.

Source: Wilhelm Bittorf, “Die Wiederkehr der Angst” [“The Return of Fear”], Der Spiegel, June 15, 1981, pp. 28-29.

Translation: Allison Brown

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