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

In this op-ed piece, a critical journalist reflects on the proliferation of fears of nuclear annihilation in Germany. Such fears linked environmental protest with a growing peace movement that opposed the stationing of medium-range NATO missiles on German soil.

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The Return of Fear

What would things be like today if the first atomic bomb had fallen in 1945 on the country it was invented and built for: Germany? Only the delay in finishing the ultimate weapon prevented the first two atomic bombs used against people from being dropped on Berlin or Dresden instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Among the Japanese, that stoic and brave people of the samurai and the kamikaze pilot, a kind of national panic still breaks out today if it emerges that American missile submarines have nuclear warheads onboard when they enter their Japanese base, or that such weapons are stored at that base in the first place.

This shows how profound the horror from those August days 36 years ago still is, even for the postwar generation. It is evidently incomparable with the horror of the “conventional” carpet bombing that fell on German cities. The Japanese also experienced some of that, the devastating firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, for example, when almost 100,000 people are said to have died. Still, the memory of that pales in comparison with the incomprehensibility of the two atomic blasts.

More than 6,000 nuclear warheads are stored in the Federal Republic. The heaviest one that can be used on one of the 180 Pershing 1A missiles deployed in the Federal Republic has an explosive force of 400 kilotons, thirty times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb.

How have the Germans managed to regard as tolerable, and even highly desirable, a situation that would have resulted in a total collective nervous breakdown in Japan?

One of their secrets is that they transferred to nuclear weapons the belief in a miracle weapon that was aroused, but undercut, by Hitler. Finally: a surefire way to “keep the Asian hordes in check” – and cost-effective at that. Finally: a weapon that will keep the peace in Europe, because the more there are, the less they will go off – what an optimal connection between security and the arms race.

But this belief in miracles is not as childlike and naïve as it seems. It is a product of fear, as was the German belief in a miracle weapon during the final war years. At that time, it was supposed to numb people’s consciousness of the approaching collapse. But even in the past two decades it has been one of the many clever methods by which contemporaries (and the especially threatened Germans, in particular) have tried to forget, deny, play down, and banish the real dangers of nuclear armaments from their thoughts through all forms of self-deception.

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