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Mein Gott! Would Germany Build a Bomb?

In August 2018, an article was published in The National Interest suggesting that Germany should develop its own nuclear arsenal. Since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the idea of Germany developing its own, or a “European,” nuclear deterrent has appeared in policy discussions both inside and outside of Germany. Every time this was in reaction to the possibility of the United States withdrawing from NATO. Even though Germany possesses the technological know-how and has access to the materials necessary to build a nuclear weapons program, Germany will not abandon its nonproliferation commitments and develop nuclear weapons unless something drastic happens, such as the complete collapse of NATO.

Image courtesy of Paula Schramm, © 2008.

While Nazi Germany dabbled in atomic weapons during the Second World War, West Germany found itself under the nuclear umbrella of the United States during the Cold War. As the frontline against the Warsaw Pact, West Germany was host to American ground, air, and nuclear forces during the Cold War. This arrangement was further solidified in 1968 when West Germany signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty binds its non-nuclear signatories to never develop nuclear weapons. Upon reunification in the 1990s, the new Germany agreed to abide by the NPT. To this day, while Germany plays host to a number of American nuclear weapons, it still has not pursued nuclear weapons of its own.

This adherence to anti-nuclear policy does not mean that the German government has always been anti-nuclear. Prior to signing the NPT, Germany, having experienced the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and developed a nuclear industry, was more than capable of developing nuclear weapons, as Britain and France had done. In fact, Germany was able to keep its nuclear capacity after signing the NPT while vowing to never develop nuclear weapons. Germany has since become a prominent voice for nuclear disarmament, with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel calling for a renewed global push for disarmament in the face of rising tensions between the nuclear powers.

It is not the German government, though, that poses the greatest hindrance to Germany developing nuclear weapons. Rather, it is the German people that have proven to be the greatest anti-nuclear force in Germany. Starting in the 1970s and continuing to the present day, the German anti-nuclear movement has had a strong, authoritative influence on German politics. This strong anti-nuclear influence is most commonly used against nuclear power generation, such as Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, but also with regard to nuclear weapons. The vast majority of the German people want American weapons out of Germany, and ultimately want them globally banned. Such popular opposition would not tolerate a government shift in policy that would result in the abandonment of the NPT and the development of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the German public’s aversion to defense spending would further complicate any government’s effort to create a German nuclear deterrent.

So why, if the German people are vehemently against nuclear weapons, is talk of a German nuclear deterrent coming up now? With the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States and his rhetoric about NATO’s obsolescence and the need of its members to “pay their fair share,” (each member is required to spend 2% of GDP on defense, but few actually do,) has spooked some German thinkers and politicians. While some, both within the government and without, have advocated that Germany acquire its own nuclear deterrent, others are suggesting that Germany lead the way in creating a “European” deterrent, working with France.

The idea of Germany acquiring nuclear weapons is considered by many Germans to be a “phoney debate.” The German people are strongly opposed to increases in defense spending, let alone pursuing nuclear weapons. It would take something as drastic, if not more, as the United States actually leaving NATO to turn the German nuclear weapons debate from a so-called “phoney debate” into reality. The majority of Germans value their nonproliferation requirements and support the decision to abandon nuclear power to make turning Germany into a nuclear power an easy task.

With all this in mind, the United States should remember that leaving NATO could have major consequences, even if the likelihood of Germany going nuclear is quite slim. North Korea withdrawing from the NPT to go nuclear did not have a great deal of impact on the treaty due to the “rogue” status of the Pyongyang government. But if Germany, one of the leading voices for disarmament, left the NPT to develop nuclear weapons, the treaty would be dealt a body blow that it may not recover from. The United States leaving NATO would significantly increase the possibility of this happening.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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