Ausgabe 28/2005

Nukes in Germany Saying "Nein" to an Atomic Inferno

West Germany during the Cold War hosted more than 5,000 nuclear devices. But they were under American control. Now, however, newly declassified documents indicate that if it had come to a nuclear war, the German chancellor had the power to veto the use of West Germany as a launch pad.

US missles were stationed all over West Germany during the Cold War. Here, a 1987 test in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

US missles were stationed all over West Germany during the Cold War. Here, a 1987 test in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It sounds a bit like an early 1980s Chuck Norris film script: The Soviet Union and other Soviet Bloc countries are in economic crisis. Part of a disintegrating Yugoslavia wants to join the West and, in order to prevent the defection, Moscow mobilizes its military forces. NATO responds to the provocation by flying additional troops into Europe. The Warsaw Pact countries attack whereupon jittery NATO military officials (after consulting their ace fighter Norris, of course) call upon the US president to issue the order for deployment of nuclear weapons stationed in Germany.

But far from merely being the story line of a "B" film, politicians and NATO officers spent decades imagining such scenarios knowing full well that they could one day become horrific reality. Exactly what would happen in this kind of situation was one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War. Under what conditions would the White House have given the go-ahead for a nuclear inferno? But equally importantly, just how much influence would the German chancellor have had in the decision to launch weapons of mass destruction from German soil?

Now, for the first time, the National Security Archive, an independent repository of government documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, has managed to get the US government to release official documents that shed light on exactly these issues. According to the now declassified papers, the German government in Bonn had an express veto when it came to a significant portion -- and maybe even all -- of the nuclear arsenal stored on West German soil. West Germany, in other words was much more sovereign than its citizens believed.

A country covered with nuclear weapons

The Americans brought the first nuclear weapons to West Germany -- a strategically-located country on the border with the Eastern Bloc -- in March 1955. Over the years, more than 20 different types of nuclear weapons were stationed between Flensburg in the far north and Berchtesgaden, in the shadow of the Alps in the south of the country: aerial bombs, land mines, 203-millimeter missiles, warheads. According to internal US estimates, the combined explosive force of this arsenal was about 5,000 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (right) and US President Ronald Reagan at Checkpoint Charlie in 1982.

German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (right) and US President Ronald Reagan at Checkpoint Charlie in 1982.

The decision to deploy rested with the US president, but in an emergency, even lower-ranking US military commanders were authorized to order up a radioactive inferno. Franz Josef Strauss, Germany's defense minister between 1956 and 1962, later complained that he "didn't even have access to the list of nuclear targets."

But Washington did show the list to one of Strauss's close associates. The man was horrified. "There would be nothing left of Germany," he said. Some targets were even selected for multiple nuclear attacks, a practice known in military parlance as "afterburning".

In 1962, the United States finally agreed to consult with its allies -- "time permitting" -- if the use of nuclear weapons was imminent somewhere in the world. At least that's what the now-released documents say. But this wasn't enough for the administration of Christian Democrat (CDU) Ludwig Erhard, a staunch supporter of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In 1965, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk tried to allay Erhard's fears by telling him that "Germany has a de facto veto." In the event of war, said Rusk, the chancellor could state his requirements, and the president "would take them into account."

Vetoing nuclear catastrophe

The Germans remained wary and pushed for a binding agreement. In 1967 Karl Carstens, then a state secretary in the defense ministry and later the German president, demanded that the Germans be informed as soon as senior NATO commanders were to ask the US president for permission to launch nuclear weapons from West German territory or detonate such weapons on German soil, including East Germany.

Carstens demanded that Germany be granted a veto whenever the use of nuclear weapons would have involved the participation of German military units. It's estimated that this stipulation would have applied about a third of the more than 5,000 nuclear warheads based in West Germany. Beginning in the late 1950s, the German military's arsenal included the weapons and aircraft needed to carry these warheads. While the warheads themselves remained in US custody, German troops manned the silos and bombers that would launch and deliver the warheads.

After a few months, then US President Lyndon B. Johnson finally agreed to Germany's demands. On September 9, 1968, Johnson signed a letter to German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, in which he granted Kiesinger the requested veto and otherwise pledged to consult with the German chancellor before issuing an order to launch nuclear weapons -- a pledge that was renewed whenever either of the two allies experienced a change in their respective administrations, and which may still be valid today. Only in the case of a "general release" of all nuclear weapons -- after a Soviet attack on US territory, for example -- did Washington reserve the right to attack immediately.

Experts disagree over the value of these assurances. Strictly speaking, the veto applied only to about one in three warheads. However, the former inspector general of the German armed forces, Wolfgang Altenburg, considers it inconceivable that, if Bonn had objected to the use of nuclear warheads with German delivery systems, US troops would have ignored the veto and launched nuclear weapons from West Germany anyway.

This view is supported by an internal statement once made by then defense minister and subsequent chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who said that such action by the United States would trigger a crisis in the alliance. It's also difficult to imagine that US forces would have conducted a war in Central Europe without the Germans.

The White House insisted on keeping the agreement a secret from other allies. According to the declassified US documents, not all Germans respected US demands in this respect. In 1969, then Defense Minister Schmidt mentioned the agreement to his British counterpart, and Washington was promptly informed. Schmidt, a Social Democrat, soon received a visit from US Ambassador Kenneth Rush, who urged him to exercise more discretion. After the meeting, the diplomat noted that Schmidt had "understood."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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