Godwin’s Law alert! This article makes substantial reference to the Third Reich Nazi period in German history. The purpose of this is not to make a facile denigration of any group or viewpoint. It intends no disrespect to Germans who are as far from the 1930’s Germany as chalk from cheese. It is instead a psychological argument about elements of the mistaken environmentalist anti-nuclear argument.
Why are Germans antinuclear? This seems a strange contradiction. Germany is a leading nation in the charge to “clean” carbon free energy, with its “Energiewende”. But paradoxically the country is rejecting the most powerful and probably the only significant carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels: nuclear power generation.
That’s why so far the Energiewende had made Germany’s carbon emissions more, not less. This is because all the gas and even coal burning that now replaces their cancelled nuclear, more than outweighs the CO2 reductions from intermittent wind and solar. Some element of antinuclearism is clearly more important to Germany than CO2 and climate. What could this be?
Germany is becoming isolated in its stubborn antinuclear stance. But Germans are in denial of this isolation. In a DW video article (Germany’s CNN), a young talking head was aggressively justifying their anachronistic antinuclear-ism. An interviewer put the point – is Germany isolated on this? The defiant head robustly replied “no! Austria is also anti-nuclear!” Austria! LOL! The green Anschluss is complete. But – umm – having just Austria in tow doesn’t quite end German antinuclear isolation.
So who else is with Germany and Austria in this revival of 1970’s hippy antinuclearism? Well there are a few further north European allies, it turns out. Denmark, for one. And – IIRC, Norway and maybe Sweden. But I think that was it. (Maybe Lichtenstein as well.)
Pop quiz question – what do all these nations in this grand alliance of retro-70’s antinuclearism, have in common? Well the answer is easy – they’re all Germanic. While only Germany is actually Germany, on paper, Austrians also speak German, of course. And Denmark, Norway and Sweden all speak Germanic languages.
Yes the Anglosaxon world (UK, USA, Australia, Canada) also has a strong and influential antinuclear movement and community. The Angles and Saxons were both German tribes, after all. So why wouldn’t they?
So this neo-hippy antinuclear revival is a Germanic thing. But why is this? Why is it German to be antinuclear? What could the connection possibly be? It seems an odd one.
After all, Germany and the Germanic nations practically brought us the atom and the atomic age. It’s called the “Bohr atom” for a reason – Danishman Niels Bohr kind of discovered it. Along with giants of 20th century physics like Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and Schroedinger. OK they got beaten to the atom bomb by the Americans under the German-named Oppenheimer. Whose cold-war nuclear missiles were perfected by Werner Von Braun. But I digress.
So the atomic age seems as German as salt-crusted pretzels and sausages with sauerkraut. Then why has modern Germany turned its back on the atom, as a source of energy? Why do they stubbornly reject nuclear power generation? At first sight this seems curious and illogical.
The answer to this question is a somewhat dark one. It’s about the psychology of purity. We have to dive into the darkest part of Germany’s (recent) history to understand this. This is a painful thing to examine of course, and no disrespect is meant to Germany or any Germans, by this. But it is what it is, and unfortunately some of it is still with us today.
Out of the cataclysm of Germany’s WW1 defeat, and the economic collapse with hyper-inflation and the disappearence of the “middle class” aided by the vindictive reparations of Versailles, the toxic culture of Hitler emerged. This coalesced around an idea of racial superiority – no, supremacy – of the “Aryans”. And a key element of this supremacy was purity. The skin was white as cleanest snow, the hair blonde and the eyes as blue as purest sky (even though Hitler himself only scored one out of these three). A powerful and deadly idea took hold that the German “Aryan” people represented a pure humanity. And that anything else was a contaminant. To be either exterminated or – if allowed to live – to do so only as servants of the Aryan lords. Worst of all of course were the Jews – who were off the scale, racially radioactive.
Germany has of course utterly repudiated the politics and policies of the Nazis, and to their credit changed their national culture more than any other country, post-war. German culture and even language have changed almost beyond recognition from that of the 1930’s. But underlying attitudes and mindsets are harder to change than politics and even culture. Especially if mind-memes such as the purity idea probably predated the 1930’s and the Third Reich.
Racist supremacist thinking was in no way exclusive to Germany of course – it was prevalent worldwide in the early 20th century, including in Britain, America and Scandinavia, where the Eugenics movement was powerful and popular.
But the point here is not about racism per se, but about one of the psychological ingredients of racism – the purity ideal. It is not a coincidence that environmentalism as a political movement in Europe can trace its origin to Nazi Germany, where the pure race ideal merged with the ideal of a pure environment. A green movement with white skin and blue eyes.
Fast forwarding to today, what is left of this purity ideal? A lot, unfortunately. Old fashioned racism and supremacism won’t ever go away completely, sad to say. Germany has left behind its world war history and become largely a force for good in the world. However, in Germany and elsewhere, the purity ideal hasn’t gone away.
My point – or conjecture – is this: antinuclear sentiment feeds from a purity ideal that – subconsciously – has toxic racist and supremacist roots. In this (scientifically false) view of the world, radioactivity and ionising radiation are impurities and contaminants in an otherwise pure world. A stable atom is pure, and unstable one – not so much.
The airy whiteness and light coloured decor of an IKEA megastore remind us of the purity ideal that lingers in the mindset of all Germanic nations to this day. And in the sphere of energy and power engineering, this purity ideal with its dark psychological origins manifests itself as a strong antinuclear prejudice which is harmful and unhelpful in the search for long term sustainable energy solutions.
Radioactivity is not an alien contaminant but has always been an integral part of the world and even the biosphere. Bacteria in deep rock even metabolise energy of ionising particles (without radioactivity they would not survive). Without the uranium series radioactivity the earth would never have developed its layered structure and convective tectonic movements, and life may not have developed at all. Life has always existed in a radioactive milieu. Every second you have been reading this article, ten thousand or so radioactive disintegrations took place in your body. Radioactivity is not an enemy.
Of course, ionising radiation is – above a threshold – harmful and people must be protected and shielded from it. But of all toxins and dangers it is the easiest and most convenient to safely measure and detect. Because of what it is – a leakage from the vast energies of the atomic nucleus, detectable remotely and cleanly by a hand held Geiger counter.
So ionising radiation particles or waves should be instead seen in a positive way, as harbingers of a wellspring of enormous and beneficial power for humanity. Not a label of impurity. When properly managed and engineered, and separated from weapons and armaments, nuclear power should not be thought of as dirty or impure, or as a source of contamination. As an energy source it is, all things considered, way cleaner than all the alternatives. Instead – now is a time for modern technology to create a safe and durable nuclear solution for the need for carbon free electricity and heating. It would help a lot to have Germany on-side for this, or course.
Is Germany nervous of an association with nuclear weapons, even indirectly, owing to it’s militant past? That’s understandable, but as the current war in Ukraine is showing, it’s well past time now for Germany to put that war guilt behind it and take a full 100% role in world affairs without inhibitions from last century’s history. The world needs Germany to do so.