Should Germany Have Nukes?

For decades in Germany, talking about nuclear weapons was taboo. Today, it’s necessary.

When Germany lay in ruins after World War ii, the Americans picked it up and set it back on its feet. As the Soviet Union loomed during the Cold War, America shielded West Germany with the threat of nuclear warfare against the Soviets. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, however, was unsure whether the United States would actually risk mutual annihilation in order to stop a Soviet invasion of his country. He told his cabinet in September 1956 that he wanted West Germany to develop the capability to defend itself, “to achieve … as quickly as possible, the chance of producing nuclear weapons.”

French statesman Charles de Gaulle put a stop to those ideas when he became prime minister in 1958. The mere mention of a nuclear debate became taboo for decades. Nevertheless, the Cold War brought American B-61 nuclear bombs onto German soil under a “nuclear sharing” arrangement. The bombs would be controlled by American forces, and deployed only in time of war by special Tornado fighter-bombers.

So strong was the aversion to any type of nuclear weapons in Germany that in 2009—over six decades after the last German bomb exploded in World War ii—Germany’s ruling coalition stated that one of its goals was to remove those American B-61s from German soil.

How quickly things change. Today—quite suddenly—the sentiment is completely different. The Germans are openly considering building nukes of their own.

Public Debate

Though the public is still skeptical of giving the Bundeswehr the most deadly weapons on Earth, influential news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum have published editorials urging citizens and their leaders to reconsider.

On Nov. 28, 2016, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative-leaning newspaper with Germany’s largest foreign circulation, published an opinion piece titled “The Utterly Unimaginable.” Coeditor Berthold Kohler said the “simple ‘same as before’” route cannot continue. The retreat of the United States and the advance of Russia and China mean that the Continent is changing, he said, and that Germany can no longer rely on building “peace without weapons.”

A new path needs to be drawn, Kohler indicated: one with “higher spending on defense,” the return of “compulsory military service,” and a new debate on nuclear weapons. He wrote that although it seems “completely inconceivable” to the German mind, Germany needs to ask the “question of our own nuclear deterrent.”

Kohler and many others have the answer to that question already in mind.

Earlier in the month, the left-leaning Spiegel Online, one of Germany’s most widely read news websites, published an article in anticipation of Donald Trump winning the United States presidential election. Ulrich Kühn, from the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship, described the piece as musing “about the possibility of Germany pursuing its own nuclear weapons if nato were to break up in the aftermath of a Trump administration’s withdrawal from the alliance.”

About the same time, Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democratic Union politician and a former Bundeswehr general staff officer, made similar points in an interview with Reuters: “[I]f the United States no longer wants to provide this [nuclear] guarantee,” he said, “Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes” (Nov. 16, 2016). Kiesewetter also happens to be the deputy chairman of the Subcommittee for Disarmament, Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

The Germans are not alone in their desire for Germany to have its own nukes. Writing in National Interest, former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and senior fellow at the Cato Institute Doug Bandow encouraged the idea. “Rather than expect the United States to burnish nato’s nuclear deterrent, European nations should consider expanding their nuclear arsenals and creating a Continent-wide nuclear force,” he wrote (January 13).

Even Poland, Germany’s victim in World War ii, is on board. The government’s gray eminence, Jarosław Kaczyński, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Poland would “welcome an EU nuclear superpower.” Kaczyński is not the president or prime minister, but sources including Politico rate him the most powerful man in Poland—“it is Kaczyński who makes the final call.” Europe needs to be “ready for huge expenditures,” said Kaczyński. “A separate atomic unit would have to be able to compete with Russia.”

Trusting Themselves

While Germany’s mainstream politicians are not yet on board with the idea of nuclear weapons, they are clearly worried about how to address rising threats to European security. Former Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer, who belongs to the left-leaning Green Party, has made calls for Germany to leave behind its pacifist role. “Judging by Trump’s past statements about Europe and its relationship with the U.S., the EU should be preparing for some profound shocks,” he said.

There is no question that Donald Trump as America’s president is factoring into this discussion. It has shaken Europeans’ confidence in America as their nuclear shield.

President Trump’s inconsistent comments on the nuclear issue haven’t helped. On nuclear proliferation, he has taken both sides. At a cnn townhall debate held during the campaign, candidate Trump said that nuclear proliferation “is going to happen anyway.” He also told the New York Times, “[I]f Japan had [a] nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” Nine months later, in an interview with Germany’s Bild and the Times of London, he said, “I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced substantially.”

In the same interview, Mr. Trump repeated his claim that “nato had problems …. Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed … many, many years ago. Number two, the countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay.” Yet Defense Secretary James Mattis has opposed the president’s view, saying the U.S. has an “unshakable commitment to nato.” Thus, the EU has to choose whom to believe: The pro-nuclear-proliferation President Trump, the pro-disarmament President Trump, or President Trump’s advisers.

An alternative is for European nations to start trusting themselves—and that seems to be their choice.

Even the stable and collected German Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged the need for this change. Spiegel Online wrote in “The End of the World Order as We Know It?” that within the EU, “Concerns about America’s possible pullback have hastened things that for years had seemed implausible” (January 4). It then quoted Merkel: “I have to say, within only a few months, a considerable amount of cooperation has taken shape.”

Public Resistance

Those opposed to a German nuclear program, and even the current nuclear weapons sharing agreement in Germany, point to the clear public opinion against it. Polls from early 2016 show that 93 percent of Germans want nuclear weapons banned.

It is notable that the German government was not among the 113 nations that voted to negotiate a nuclear ban at the United Nations General Assembly last year. International surveys by Soka Gakkai International showed 91.2 percent of people believed nuclear arms were inhumane, while 80.6 percent were in favor of banning all nuclear weapons. If the German public doesn’t like nukes, it simply holds the same opinion as the rest of the world.

Though there remains considerable resistance to nuclear weapons in Germany, the current discussion still marks a dramatic change. As Kühn wrote in his article “The Sudden German Nuke Flirtation,” “Obviously, current German nuclear flirtations represent a fringe view, but they are an important early warning sign. These flirtations were carried by Germany’s biggest left-leaning and conservative media outlets” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dec. 6, 2016).

“[E]xtreme views on nuclear matters do not always remain at the fringes,” Kühn continued. “As the case of South Korea demonstrates, external shocks such as the repeated nuclear tests by North Korea in 2013 can quickly move formerly fringe positions to the center stage of public attention. Once in the mainstream, it can be difficult to put such sentiments to rest, particularly when the underlying security concerns remain.”

Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the idea of a South Korean nuclear program has been gaining acceptance. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, from 2013 to 2016, media coverage of South Korea’s nuclear debate doubled. Arguments were split nearly evenly between pro- and anti-nuclear views.

South Korea is a model for how previously fringe views become mainstream.

Nukes Already in Germany

While Germany restarts its nuclear debate, U.S. nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War remain at Büchel Air Base. Germany’s nuclear contradiction—a “non-nuclear” country which happens to have nuclear weapons—endures for the present.

As is so common, the passing of a few generations has dulled the memory of the German threat to Europe. No doubt the coming debate will feature the pro-disarmament faction recounting the wisdom of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher: A German threat to the world must be contained. But Donald Trump is a different type of leader.

Your Bible forecasts a preeminent Germany in Europe, not a pacifist stabilizer. Because of that, you can know the outcome of the coming debates—and the results truly will be the “utterly unimaginable.”

The Debate

Nov. 6, 2016

Spiegel Online sparks a nuclear debate with an article suggesting “Trump could force Germany to rearm.”

Nov. 16, 2016

A former Bundeswehr general staff officer, Roderich Kiesewetter, tells Reuters that Europe needs to consider developing its own nuclear deterrent strategy.

Nov. 17, 2016

The director of Berlin’s Global Public Policy Institute writes in Foreign Affairs that European states may “rethink their nuclear postures.”

Nov. 28, 2016

A coeditor for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publishes “The Utterly Unimaginable” op-ed, saying Germans must ask the question of their “own nuclear deterrent.”

Dec. 6, 2016

A Stanton Nuclear Security fellow, Ulrich Kühn, writes “The Sudden German Nuke Flirtation” for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

January 13

Former special assistant to Ronald Reagan, Doug Bandow, writes in National Interest that “European nations should consider expanding their nuclear arsenals and creating a continent-wide nuclear force.”

January 23

Tagesspiegel’s Maximilian Terhalle publishes an article titled “Germany Needs Nuclear Weapons.”

February 2

Left-leaning German television channel ard calls for an “open debate” on the “German nuclear bomb” in its Panorama program.

February 6

Poland’s most powerful politician, Jarosław Kaczyński, tells Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Poland would “welcome an EU nuclear superpower.”