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Germany and nuclear weapons: A difficult history

Volker Witting | Rina Goldenberg
February 17, 2024

Donald Trump's suggestion the US will no longer apply NATO's principle of collective defense should he become president again has sent shockwaves through Europe.

A decommissioned Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile sits in an underground silo
Since the Cold War, US nuclear war heads have been stationed in US army bases in GermanyImage: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is annoyed by the current debate about European nuclear weapons."There is no reason to discuss the nuclear umbrella now," he told public broadcaster ARD.

Ever since Donald Trump suggested that, as US president, he would not provide military assistance to NATO countries if they invested less than 2% of their GDP in their defense, German politicians have been discussing whether French and British nuclear weapons would suffice as a protective shield or whether Europe needs new nuclear weapons.

"The debate about European nuclear weapons is a very German debate that we don't see in any other country," political scientist Karl-Heinz Kamp from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW — especially not in Eastern Europe, where there is a constant perceived threat from President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Germany has a special history: Germany was "seen as an intrinsically aggressive country, that had started two world wars and could not be trusted with nuclear weapons," said Kamp.

Black and white photo from 1959: Left to Right , British Premier Harold Macmillan, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French President Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer
West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (r) signed an agreement renouncing nuclear weaponsImage: United Archives/IMAGO

Germany-based nukes during the Cold War

In 1954, not long after the end of World War II, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, signed an agreement renouncing the production of its own nuclear, biological or chemical weapons on its territory. In return, the US included West Germany in its nuclear deterrence policy against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact which was founded one year later.

In 1958, the German parliament, the Bundestag, approved the deployment of US nuclear weapons, despite some pacifist protests among the population. In 1960, 1,500 US nuclear warheads were stored in West Germany and a further 1,500 in the rest of Western Europe.

The nuclear weapons were also available to the Bundeswehr for training and use in the "case of defense." "There was never any discussion about Germany acquiring its own nuclear weapons," said Kamp.

The West German and European peace movements grew. The protest against the "NATO Dual-Track Decision" in 1982 saw over a million people in West Germany take to the streets in protest against the planned stationing of new US medium-range missiles in the country.

Nevertheless, on November 22, 1983, a center-right majority in the Bundestag approved the stationing of the missiles in US bases shortly thereafter. At the time, the Greens were newly represented in the Bundestag and appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court against the storing and deployment of nuclear missiles on West German territory. This bid was rejected as unfounded in December 1984.

Black and white photo of a big anti-nuclear power demonstration, a banner reading 'NATO soldiers against nuclear weapons'
In the early 1980s, pacifist anti-nuclear weapons protests brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets in West GermanyImage: hl/stf/AP/picture alliance

During the Cold War, East Germany, the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), was part of the Warsaw Pact military alliance, and from 1958, nuclear missiles and warheads were stationed in Soviet military bases on GDR territory. Some were withdrawn in 1988 as part of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union.

After German reunification and the withdrawal of the Soviet military, the territory of the former GDR officially became free of nuclear weapons in 1991.

Post-Cold War Germany

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the division between East and West Germany, the German position was once again cemented in the so-called "Two-Plus-Four Treaty": No nuclear weapons! On September 12, 1990, the four victorious powers of World War II (the US, the Soviet Union, France and UK) stipulated that Germany East and West should be reunified and renounce nuclear weapons.

Kamp says this was hardly surprising, because "a German nuclear power would be something that would cause horror. For historical reasons alone."

The US government withdrew many of these nuclear warheads after the collapse of the Soviet Union, though an estimated 180 US nuclear weapons are still stored in Europe, in Italy, Turkey, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Experts believe that 20 US nuclear warheads are currently stored in the town of Büchel in Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany. "But the decision-making authority over these weapons lies solely with the American president," explained Kamp.

Any debate about Germany acquiring its own nuclear weapons is completely unrealistic, says political scientist Peter Rudolf from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Nuclear bombs need to be stored so that they are not easy targets, he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.

"Survivable nuclear weapons would have to be on nuclear-powered submarines that can remain underwater for a very long time, he said, pointing to equipment the Bundeswehr does not have. "So there are so many problems standing in the way of a German nuclear bomb that it has no relevance to current crises," Rudolf concluded.

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"Those who are now talking about a European defense dimension are not talking about German nuclear weapons, because Germany is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has made several binding commitments under international law to renounce the possession of weapons of mass destruction — including nuclear weapons," agreed Kamp.

Defense Minister Pistorius, meanwhile, who made headlines not so long ago saying Germany should get "war-ready", is now keen to brush the whole debate aside: He told ARD that "the majority of those in charge in the United States of America know exactly what they have in their transatlantic partners in Europe, what they have in NATO."

And Kamp agrees: "Trump may be able to damage NATO considerably, but he cannot destroy it. You can't destroy decades of transatlantic relations in one term of office."

Edited by Ben Knight and Peter Hille

Trump NATO comments spark Europe nuclear debate

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.