East Germany and Chernobyl: The Censorship of Fear

By Miriam Schröder

In West Germany they were closing children's playgrounds and distributing iodine tablets. But in communist East Germany life after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster carried on as normal -- at least officially. The government simply censored fear.

For East German racing cyclist Olaf Ludwig, winning the International Peace Race -- considered the East Bloc's "Tour de France" -- was a bizarre experience. It started in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on May 7, 1986, 11 days after the accident and 100 kilometers from Chernobyl, and he recalls being startled as he raced past lines of trucks being checked with Geiger counters. The many cancellations by Western teams also came as a surprise to him.

"They told us there'd been an accident but that it was far away and that we would be fine," said the current director of the Team Telekom racing outfit. "They" refers to the high sports and party officials of East Germany who accompanied their team in order to "calm down people who were becoming very unsettled," said Ludwig. Calming people down, glossing over the facts, lying -- that was the strategy of the communist state in dealing with the biggest nuclear disaster of all time. Three days after the meltdown, a small article on page five of the communist party newspaper "Neues Deutschland" (New Germany) reported about an "accident in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant" in which a reactor had been "damaged." No mention of the cloud that passed over Europe and brought radioactive rain which also fell on East Germany. No word, not even in the following days, of contaminated cows and vegetables.

Only after West German television -- which could be seen in large parts of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) -- reported about the panic in West did the newspaper articles get a little longer. They were all written by the government in close coordination with Moscow. Chernobyl had been declared an affair of state, and the role of the press was confined to printing official texts. Whatever was printed served only one purpose: to assure people that they were safe. Fear was simply censored.

The government in East Berlin was one of the first in Europe to publish tables of radioactivity levels in the air. But it added its own interpretation that that the levels recorded had "stabilized at a low level." It declined to say what the levels had been before the accident. And no one was allowed to find out that radioactivity had reached peak levels a day before the reading and rose again on the day after. Neither were people told that rainfall in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt had contaminated the ground to the extent that some milk samples were showing radiation levels up to 700% above the limit for babies.

"You could call it targeted poisoning," said Kathrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Greens Party who is vice president of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. Hailing from the eastern German state of Thuringia, she can remember how store shelves were suddenly filled with fruit and vegetables that no one wanted to buy in the West. Neither did anyone in the East. "We all knew what was going on," she said. On the street, among friends and in church, people would whisper to each other the warnings that they had heard in western media. The GDR government ordered that unsold lettuce be distributed in schools and kindergartens.

Tell people what Moscow fabricates

The government was well aware of the risk. "We had mixed feelings about it," said Günter Schabowski, who was a member of the governing Politburo at the time. He knew about the Western reports and was worried about his children. But the iron rule was: "Don't add any of our own commentary. We only tell people what Moscow fabricates."

The truth Moscow fabricated was backed up by radiation readings from the State Office for Nuclear Safety and Protection From Radiation (SAAS), and was designed to serve the official ideology. The readings showed that "there hasn't been and isn't any risk to the health of the population of the GDR," said the SAAS in a press statement on May 8. The nuclear industry was a symbol of technical progress in the socialist state. Nuclear power was seen as a clean and cheap alternative to oil and coal. Officially, there weren't any risks. Anyone who voiced doubts in public was systematically watched and pursued.

"If you put a "Nuclear Power -- No thanks" sticker on your jacket you were punished," said Rainer Eppelmann, the GDR's last defense minister who later became a member of the reunited German parliament. When Chernobyl exploded, Eppelmann was a Protestant priest in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin.

After the accident many people came to him and wanted to talk about nuclear power and the impact of Chernobyl. "People were hugely interested in the issue," he said. He still can't believe that the GDR government prohibited such debate and even sent racing cyclist Olaf Ludwig to the stricken area. "It was an inhuman way to treat people who could have protected themselves."

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