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German angst and catastrophic modernity: switching off nuclear power

Germany's decision to decommission its nuclear power stations is the outcome of a half century of anxiety about technocratic modernity.

In the wake of an earthquake and following a massive tsunami, a series of major accidents occurred in the Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear plant from 11 March 2011 onwards. Soon after, German papers carried maps of radioactive clouds pushing from eastern Japan across Siberia closer and closer towards Germany. When Germans looked to the suffering in Japan, many also recognised themselves as potential victims. On Monday, 30 May 2011, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democratic/Liberal coalition government announced that it would pass a law that would mean the decommissioning of all of Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022. Ironically, this may mean that it will import nuclear energy from other European countries, mainly France, in order to satisfy demand during peak periods.

Merkel’s move was an astonishing U-turn. She had previously agreed to renew the lease of life for Germany’s nuclear industry, effectively overruling her own minister for the environment. Following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, however, she decreed an immediate halt to the generation of nuclear power in the oldest German plants until safety tests had been carried out. She also put in place an ‘ethics commission’ consisting of high-ranking experts from politics, the humanities as well as the social and natural sciences in order to explore the moral issues involved. The decision to decommission nuclear power plants by 2022 follows directly in the wake of this commission’s recommendations

Did this U-turn mark the return of German Angst? Had emotions taken hold of the German chancellor, who holds a PhD in physics, who likes to present herself as a dispassionate bureaucrat without any form of charisma apart from that of the efficient civil servant, and who always stressed that the risks associated with nuclear energy could be managed? Or had she reacted in a cynical way, at a time when her coalition government was in crisis, and on the verge of losing the Christian Democratic stronghold of Baden-Württemberg to the Green Party (that had previously scored no more than 10% of the vote)? And did she want to present herself as the chancellor who finally implemented the green agenda and thus was able to steel the Green Party’s key message? Ironically, the Greens might be the only party finding itself in opposition to the decommissioning bill that will go through the German parliament in the near future, trying to argue that it is an act of hypocrisy on the part of Merkel’s government.  

All these reasons might have played a role, but none of them explains why Germans in particular might have reacted in this way. It is worth looking more closely at the unspoken assumptions, at what remains hidden under the veil of political rhetoric, at the foundations of German political culture. What is astonishing is that Merkel’s initial plan not to phase out nuclear energy ran counter to the wishes of more than two-thirds or even three-quarters of the German population. The strength of the Green Party (who are now the lead party in a coalition government with the social democrats) in the most recent state elections in the rather conservative and rural south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, home of German small businesses, Mercedes, Porsche and Bosch as well as a few nuclear power stations, illustrates this point. For many Germans, the disaster in Japan conjured up images of technology that were connected to an interpretation of modern life as inherently catastrophic. This is an experience unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, as it is tightly sutured to Germany’s violent twentieth-century history, and it is one of the foundation stones on which German environmentalism rests.

While many German politicians and commentators as well as observers from elsewhere have claimed – and keep claiming – that what happened at Fukushima could not be predicted and posed a fundamentally novel situation, such analyses ignore significant parts of German post-war history. By the 1980s, Germans were no longer known across the world for their passion for warfare and killing. In 1986, geography teachers in small south-western German towns borrowed Geiger counters from local pharmacies and took their classes on fieldtrips to trace the dangerous invisible cloud of radioactivity blowing towards Germany from the nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl.

As such nuclear fears followed in the wake of major peace protests, a German word entered the English language, as Anglo-American commentators marvelled at the apocalyptic scenarios that were discussed in the western part of this central European country: German Angst had made an appearance on the world stage. The people who publicly and openly confessed to feel it were primarily younger, more educated sections of the population, whom contemporary sociologists classified as ‘post-materialist’, no longer concerned about earning a good wage and campaigning for workers’ rights and good healthcare, but driven by the less tangible idealism of concern for others, the environment or by an agenda that emphasised mutual recognition as a precondition for social action rather than its consequence. But, privately and hidden from the public gaze, many more Germans had a feeling for the consequences of living with high-risk technologies, although they would have not used this social-scientific term. Their experiences and memories revolved primarily around technologies of killing and destruction.

Reflecting on their history of violence over the course of their post-war history, Germans (in the West probably more than in the East) developed a sense that organisations and technological systems could fail, even in ways that had not been anticipated. They developed a sense for the unknown unknowns that the generation of nuclear energy involved: a production that involved such complex technological processes that the consequences of failure in one section of the system could not be predicted, and perhaps could not even be recognised. When many Germans tried to imagine such disasters, they drew on a repertory of experiences of death and violence that they had come to know all too well: they came in the form of fantasies of annihilation that would leave their country completely destroyed, made non-existent. For many Germans after the second world war, their peace was also a peace of the dead. The time of the ‘economic miracle’ in the 1950s and 1960s might have hidden the traces of this history, but it could not eradicate the experiences and memories of death and destruction, and the tacit and uncanny knowledge that it had been Germans who had quite literally made this death.

Post-second world war Germans regarded their history as one of establishing and preserving security – creating a concern for the future being a direct continuation of the past. ‘No experiments’ was the Christian Democratic chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s election slogan in 1957; and a German sociologist in the 1970s came up with the definition of security as, in an uncanny turn of phrase, ‘annihilation of the future’. The variability of such images and scenarios – they could easily be slotted into both right-wing and revanchist as well as New Left political programmes – meant that these ideas were not only the preserve of a small minority.

The thinking of a few German philosophers encapsulates the range of thinking about these problems: The most infamous of these was Martin Heidegger, an avid supporter of National Socialism and a reactionary critic of technological developments as the key source of the destruction of the sources of the self in modern society. Heidegger was never really concerned, though, about the machinery of death connected to the Holocaust, or about nuclear weapons – but his thought has had much indirect influence on then debate of nuclear energy in Germany, and his lack of concern for the most recent German past and his existentialist musings made him popular not only amongst the intellectual far right.

Heidegger was a decisive influence on the thinking of one of the most acute critics of the nuclear age, the philosopher Günther Anders, the son of the German-Jewish psychoanalyst William Stern. He had studied, amongst others, with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, a context in which he met his first wife Hannah Arendt and had to flee Germany to live in exile in the United States. In his book The Antiquatedness of Man that was first published in 1957 and that became a bestseller and the bible of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In the book, he argued that a new age had begun with the Holocaust and, especially the dropping of the nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For Anders a new age, the ‘atomic age’, had begun in August 1945. This age was, for him, characterised by fundamental contradictions, the most important of which was the discrepancy between the ‘total power’ for global ‘self-extinction’ and the ‘total powerlessness’ this meant for mankind. Within this kind of thinking, the term ‘atomic weapons’ as a ‘naked single word’ was a ‘mendacious assertion’:  it implied that the bomb was a weapon and thus a mere instrument.

Anders, by contrast, argued that due to the potentially all-encompassing nature of nuclear technology, it could no longer meaningfully be regarded as a means and had fundamentally reversed the relation between means and ends. For Anders, the ‘ultimate dilemma’ posed by nuclear weapons and their potential use in the Cold War as well as nuclear energy was the discrepancy between the human ability to ‘produce’ (in German: her-stellen) and to ‘imagine’ (vor-stellen). The ‘atomic age’, Anders argued, turned human beings into ‘inverted utopians’, unable to imagine the effects of the very destruction they could produce. For Anders, the atomic age was the final age of human existence, as the knowledge of making nuclear weapons could never be un-thought. Mankind, Anders concluded, had become antiquated, as it would always lag behind what technology had in store for it; humans would never be able to fathom all intended and unintended consequences of all operations – and their connections - within technological systems.

This had, Anders pointed out, important implications for political morality. Anders diagnosed a ‘Promethean slope’, referring to the ancient Greek titan who had introduced fire to mankind. Those who had ‘triggered’ the bomb (and ‘triggering’ had in fact replaced human agency and had thus turned the bomb itself into an ‘action’) were morally detached from the effects of their ‘deeds’. The key aim of responsible action was to prevent a nuclear apocalypse, so as to make this final age infinite in its duration. The key task, Anders thought, was to harness fear as a source of morally rational behaviour. Only the emotion of fear could effectively reveal the hidden dangers of technology in the nuclear age. The consequences of any accident were enormous: ‘What can target everyone, concerns everyone’.

These were ideas that could easily find their ways into environmental movements, so that the debate about nuclear energy, both peaceful and military, Cold War experiences and the memories of the Second World War came to fall into one. Hans Jonas, another German-Jewish student of Heidegger’s who became one of the key intellectual interlocutors of the emerging Green movement in Germany in the 1970s, with his ‘principle of responsibility’ in which he sought to update Kant’s moral imperative for the nuclear age, and the sociologist Ulrich Beck who followed with his concept ‘risk society’ picked up where Anders left off.

Philosophers such as Anders, writing from Vienna, Jonas and sociologists such as Beck were not merely figures on the intellectual fringes of German political debates. They sold bestselling books, and they voiced more widespread concerns. While Germans regarded the peaceful use of nuclear energy as a beacon of modernity and a sign for a successful future in the 1950s and 1960s, this attitude began to shift over the course of the 1970s. Then, observing a number of incidents around the world, many Germans began to discover that the distinction between peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy did not really matter if the main concern was survival. Hence, in none of these renderings has technology been a neutral force – a means that could be used for an end, where morality depended primarily on individual action. Over the course of the 1970s, West Germans also became increasingly sceptical towards central state planning as a way of dealing with challenges of the future. And the response by German state authorities to the challenges of left-wing terrorism exacerbated fears of an end of democracy and a return of the street battles of the 1920s. While other countries also debated this as an age of ungovernability, nowhere did it have the ring it had in Germany.

Because of their history, many Germans have found it increasingly difficult to see the operation of nuclear power plants as a matter of rational choice, for which risk can be calculated and tabulated. The British government has treated this as an issue of accounting: it has asked its scientists to put price tags on the risks and damages and come up with proposals to balance the risks as much as possible within acceptable standards, while not keeping payments for risk management at an acceptable minimum. Britons have, by and large, trusted their governments with this method of accounting, as they would find it difficult to uncover traces of violent statehood in their own country’s history, while often conveniently ignoring histories of colonial violence as well as violence linked to social and racial exclusion closer to home. Here in Britain, nuclear energy is a green source of energy. In France, a similar process has been at work, but there nuclear energy was closely connected to notions of technology as a source of national republican belonging.

It is precisely this notion of technocratic statehood that has been profoundly unpopular in Germany, primarily due to its history: In West Germany, there has been a deep scepticism towards a military state that had its roots in what the historian Michael Geyer has called ‘injured citizenship’: the feeling in the wake of the experiences of mass death in the Second World War that the state could no longer protect its citizens, but that its very core of existence was violence and destruction. And East Germans have come to see state planning as an ingrained part of the state socialist regime that they are so happy to have escaped.

This theme links the decommissioning of nuclear plants to other environmental issues that are being discussed in contemporary Germany at the moment. In the Baden-Württemberg capital of Stuttgart, many citizens have, for almost a year, been agitated by the plans to completely revamp the landmark modernist station building, leading to violent clashes between often middle-class protesters and the police – and the protests were framed primarily as a resistance against technocratic rule. Where else in Europe could one see protests against the rebuilding of a railway station as an issue of such fundamental political importance?  Many Germans have come to an understanding of technology, in which technological projects is an all-dominant power that limits the scope for individual moral action. This was highly ambivalent from a moral point of view: adopting it meant an implicit exoneration from crimes carried out as part of a day job at a desk, or by turning levers. That was what Hannah Arendt referred to when she talked about the ‘banality of evil’.  

For most Germans who are opposed to nuclear energy, therefore, their opposition has not (or not primarily) been about acting out post-material values. German opposition to nuclear energy reveals the deeply ambivalent and ambiguous experiences and memories of mass death and individual loss. Quite against their reputation, after 1945 East and West Germans have preferred to be left alone by their governments, and have developed an individualism against any signs of predatory governments that have tried to collect and make use their private data, invade their private homes, try to ban them from smoking in restaurants and endanger their lives through war. At the same time, they have strongly supported notions of community propagated by a consensual welfare state, often in ironic continuity with thinking in terms of a Volksgemeinschaft, and have been content with carrying ID cards and registering their addresses with the local government.

In the mostly secret knowledge and memory of annihilation, the kind of statehood that nuclear energy implied, regardless of whether its uses were military or civilian, was a form of governmentality that they did not want to accept. For them, the issue of nuclear energy has not been about post-material values or politicking. It has been about survival in what the philosopher Edith Wyschogrod has called an ‘age of man-made mass death’. Chancellor Merkel’s decision – and the debate about Fukushima shortly before – was not a return of German Angst, but a high point in the working through of Germany’s violent twentieth-century history. Angst had never gone away.

About the author

Holger Nehring is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary European History at the University of Sheffield. He is a historian of social movements in post-second world war Western Europe and is currently researching a project on ‘Thinking of Nuclear Death: German intellectuals and the the atomic age’.

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