German Peace Movement Gathers Momentum


Nuclear Abolition News | IDN
By Julio Godoy

IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) It is indeed an irony of history. The U.S.-led NATO's decision to station nuclear weapons across Western Europe gave birth and clout to the German peace movement. Thirty years later, it is back in the news, this time vigorously campaigning for U.S. President Barack Obama's proposals. JAPANESE

The German Peace Movement acquired a mass character when NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) took a double-track decision in Washington in December 1979, offering its rival military bloc Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, combined with the threat that in case of disagreement NATO would deploy more middle range nuclear weapons in Western Europe.

Following the NATO decision to station 572 nuclear warheads (Pershing II and cruise missiles) thousands of nuclear munitions were deployed on West German territory alone, all targeting cities and civil and military facilities across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At the same time, West German territory was itself one major target of the Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles, some of them stationed in East Germany.

In the years that followed, especially in the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of West German citizens regularly protested against NATO and against the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in the country. But nobody among the German peace activists would have believed that one day they would share views on nuclear disarmament with a U.S. president.

In a speech in the Czech capital Prague April 5, Obama pleaded for a world free of nuclear weapons. He called the thousands of atomic weapons spread across the world "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," Obama said.

"So after more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned," he added.

Marching in Obama's slip stream this Easter, thousands of Germans took again to the streets. On Good Friday, in the country's financial capital Frankfurt alone, some 20,000 people came together to call for nuclear abolition. In dozens of other German cities also demonstrations took place. The Easter marches have been traditionally the yearly climax of the peace movement.

In Frankfurt, psychoanalyst Horst-Eberhard Richter, co-founder of the German bureau of the International physicians for the prevention of nuclear war (IPPNW), told peace marchers: "The peace movement comes back not to demonstrate against Obama, but to support him. Then the reversal of the global nuclear intimidation and towards the construction of a human peace policy is such a big step forward, that it needs support from the entire world."

In an interview with this correspondent, Jens-Peter Steffen, of the IPPNW, said that Obama's call for nuclear disarmament would "help the boost the popularity of our demands."

The IPPNW, founded in 1980 by U.S. and Soviet cardiologists concerned with the horrors of a nuclear war, is a worldwide grouping with some 60 national medical organizations, which campaigns for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The IPPNW German bureau has some 8,000 members and is the largest peace organisation in the country.

The NATO double-track decision of 1979, conceived in Washington under U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and implemented under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, made the West German territory home to thousands of nuclear warheads. Given that Germany was also the target of Russian and French middle-range nuclear weapons, the possibility of a nuclear war being fought on the country's territory raised awareness among ordinary Germans of the obliterating dangers of such arsenals.

When the German government of the time, led by the Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor Helmut Schmidt, ratified the NATO double-track decision, and allowed for the deployment of nuclear war heads on German territory, hundreds of thousands of Germans marched throughout West Germany to denounce the deadly logic of the nuclear arms race.

In 1981, during the so-called Easter March, more than 300,000 people in the then West German capital Bonn peacefully protested against the double-track decision. Soon after, Chancellor Schmidt who had lost support for the decision in his own party was removed in a constructive vote of no-confidence in the German Bundestag. The conservative Christian Democratic Union's (CDU's) Helmut Kohl took over as Chancellor.

The SPD spent 16 years in the opposition, its share of electoral power enduringly mined by the emergence of the Green party, itself rooted in the peace movement. When U.S. President Reagan visited Bonn in 1983, half a million Germans took to the streets of Bonn, to show their discontent.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

But since the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, especially during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the German peace movement appeared to have reached terminal exhaustion. After German unification and the dismantling of the Soviet block, the horrors of nuclear war might have appeared to many as a phantom of a distant past. In those years, Easter marches were negligible demonstrations, without any influence whatsoever in national politics.

And yet, Germany continued to be home to dozens of nuclear warheads – it still is. Although the exact dimension of the nuclear arsenal deployed in Germany remains classified, the German bureau of the IPPNW estimates that some 20 nuclear bombs of the type B61 are still stored in Buechel, a military base located 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 involves member countries without nuclear weapons of their own in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO. Other than Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands host U.S. nuclear weapons.

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

Meanwhile, the present Russian nuclear arsenal might consist of up to 7,000 middle-range nuclear warheads, although some 5,000 of these bombs are considered useless. All these middle range nuclear weapons, both the NATO's and the Russian, are completely unregulated and vulnerable to theft.

Even though this year's Easter peace demonstrations were in Germany by a far cry smaller than those of the 1980s, the marches, thanks to Obama's nuclear abolition plans, represented a rebirth of the movement. So much, that even mainstream German politicians, who until recently saw nuclear sharing as a permanent fact of life, are discovering the charm of nuclear disarmament.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, SPD's is one of them. In interviews with German media, Steinmeier urged the U.S. government to include the nuclear weapons deployed in Germany in its disarmament plans. "These weapons are obsolete," Steinmeier told the German weekly Der Spiegel.

Last December, 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.

Government divided

Despite Steinmeier's straightforward words in favour of nuclear disarmament in Germany, the German coalition government appears divided on the issue. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, said last March during a debate in the German parliament, that her government continues to adhere to the nuclear sharing policy, because it "would guarantee the German government influence in the NATO in the particularly sensible subject" of nuclear weapons policy.

On yet another recent occasion, during the Munich security conference early February, Merkel said that "we … adhere to the principle of the nuclear deterrence." German observers believe that in this matter Merkel's party, the CDU, follows the argumentative line defined by the country's military command.

In fact, along with the co-ruling SPD, all opposition parties, left and right, in the German parliament (Bundestag) support the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from German territory: Both the Green party, which has its roots in the peace movement of the 1980s, and the Left Party plead for nuclear disarmament. So does the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP, after its German name).

In fact, immediately after Obama's speech in Prague, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle urged the German government to "start negotiations with the NATO to withdraw the nuclear weapons from our territory. These weapons do not belong here," Westerwelle said in an interview with German public television.

Despite the vocal majority of political leaders, the withdrawal of the NATO nuclear weapons from German territory is not expected to be discussed in the Bundestag this year. In their coalition government pact, the SPD and the CDU specifically agreed that this withdrawal would not be proposed to vote in the Bundestag.

But the government's mandate is coming to an end – and activists for disarmament hope that the subject would form the core of the campaign towards the general elections scheduled for next September.

IPPNW's Steffen told this correspondent that Steinmeier's sudden public position in favour of nuclear disarmament is already part of the electoral campaign – Steinmeier is the SPD chancellor candidate.

"Numerous opinion polls have shown along the years that a consistent, large majority of German voters of some 75 percent support the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the country," Steffen said. Obviously, Steinmeier wants to politically benefit from this popularity of nuclear disarmament.

Despite the growing likelihood that the NATO nuclear weapons shall be withdrawn from German territory, the German peace movement is aware of the difficulties facing nuclear disarmament worldwide.

"Countries like Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel, which possess the nuclear bomb, can only be persuaded to renounce it through global, difficult negotiations, under leadership of the United Nations," Steffen said.

"To that end, a new international nuclear disarmament pact is needed, and the UN appears to be the only body capable of leading negotiations towards this end, and carrying out an effective monitoring of disarmament," Steffen said

Such a treaty should include the nuclear arsenals of the five members of the UN Security Council – other than the U.S. and Russia, France, Britain and China are officially nuclear powers. The Leftist German opposition wants the European Union to support Obama's call for nuclear disarmament by declaring itself a "nuclear weapons free zone," as Wolfgang Gehrcke, in charge of foreign policy in the Bundestag group of the Left party, put it.

But, despite the sudden enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament, neither France nor Britain are yet willing to relinquish their nuclear arsenals. Gehrcke's proposal would therefore remain wishful thinking. – 30.04.09