Could people survive a nuclear apocalypse?

End of the atomic age?

Philipp Gassert

To person

Prof. Dr. Philipp Gassert has held the Chair of Contemporary History at the University of Mannheim since February 2014. He previously researched and taught at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., at the University of Heidelberg, the LMU Munich, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Augsburg. Philipp Gassert conducts research in German and European contemporary history as well as transatlantic history and US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The fear of "the bomb" has found widespread cultural expression in novels, films and music. The dangers of civilian use of nuclear energy, on the other hand, were discussed comparatively little. They are not good for drama.


The observers of the first successful nuclear weapons test in Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 summed up their impressions in superlatives: "It was like a sunrise like the world had never seen it before, a great green one that outshone everything in power Sun." While some compared the nuclear flash of light with the biblical act of creation, others saw "a warning about the Judgment Day". The physicists at the forefront of the Manhattan Project have been hailed as "the midwives of a new age". Atomic energy seemed to bring "the realization of dreams of all ages within reach of man". [1]

While "the bomb" soon aroused skepticism and aroused social fears of annihilation and death, for a long time, in contrast, there were hardly any doubts about the megalomaniac visions of a modern Garden of Eden operated by civilian nuclear power. Until the 1970s, critics of nuclear armament also praised the "peaceful atom". When 18 leading German nuclear researchers protested in 1957 with the "Göttingen Manifesto" against plans to arm the German armed forces with nuclear weapons, they also emphasized that it was extremely important "to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy by all means." [2]

Compared to atomic bomb explosions, nuclear power plants have left few traces in cultural history. The gloomy nuclear satire "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" by Stanley Kubrick (1964) lacks the civilian counterpart, at least in terms of quality and effect. This imbalance persists despite the accidents at the nuclear power plants of Windscale (1957), Harrisburg (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and most recently Fukushima (2011). Hollywood has occasionally addressed the dangers of civilian use of nuclear energy since the late 1970s. But in addition to the visual violence, military nuclear weapons produced at the same time disaster movies "The China Syndrome" (1979) and "Silkwood" (1983) seem tame. Even Japan, with its highly developed nuclear popular culture, has only produced one significant film, "Träume" (1990), which visualizes a civil accident. The primeval monster "Godzilla", raised by atomic bombs, is allowed to spread fear and horror in 28 films.

Why is that? I can only speculate about this because there is still a lack of historical research: A The reason is likely to be the local nature of the anti-nuclear movement. It was not until the Chernobyl GAU that civil-nuclear fear scenarios were taken up by broader literary currents (with "Störfall" by Christa Wolf, "Die Wolke" by Gudrun Pausewang and "Die Rättin" by Günter Grass), although the political debate about "The fear of the citizen vor dem Atom "has been in wide circles since the mid-1970s. [3] This discrepancy points to different social perceptions of military and civil nuclear threats. The latter, regardless of the protests directed against it, have a certain everyday normality.

A second The reason is likely to lie in the social context and in the culture of remembrance, which, especially during the Cold War, culturally rated fears due to international conflicts higher than those due to everyday risks. [4] The nuclear weapons debate has always been linked to collective reminiscences of the Second World War. It is an integral part of dealing with National Socialism and is therefore integrated into an identity-creating discourse. In debates about nuclear armament, pictures of Hiroshima and Dresden were included, often without explicit mention. Therefore, the emotional potential of "the bomb" cannot be beaten, even if the "peaceful atom" is associated with higher risks for the population. Nuclear "scare-mongers" also seemed to terminate the Federal Republic's foreign and security policy consensus. [5]

A third The reason for the different resonance between civil and military nuclear catastrophe scenarios lies in the "dramaturgy of fear." This is always a different one. A civil incident announces itself creeping, almost secretly and without the explosive rumble of thunder of the dramatically rising mushroom clouds. In our culture trimmed to visual codes, even a disaster like Chernobyl only offers limited possibilities for theatrical staging. In nuclear conflicts there are clearly defined camps that can be personalized. The drama potential of nuclear power plants clearly lags behind. So far, no one has thought of converting a nuclear power plant into a fictional weapon.

A fourth The reason lies in the framework established by cultural history and its traditions. Apocalyptic scenarios are part of the lost cultural heritage of western societies. They are culturally accessible at any time, even among contemporaries who are not biblical. Only a nuclear war offers the scenario of mass destruction of human life with the corresponding post-apocalyptic catharsis. Nuclear end of the world opens up wide fields for utopian future designs, while imagined accidents in nuclear power plants remind us of the complexity of the current problems, with difficult questions of consideration and orderly political processes. Even the most catastrophic reactor accidents (see Fukushima) do not seem to have the potential for a fictional apocalypse.

This contribution is an attempt to cut paths in the cultural history of the German nuclear fear in its international interdependence. It focuses on cultural production in the narrower sense, on novels, poetry, the visual arts, music and film. The descriptions of "atomic death" that become manifest here address central social problems, especially in their popular forms. They are essential for a political and social history of the two German states. This is especially true for the fears communicated in these sources, which always serve as a code for dealing with the future. They reflect social sensitivities, but also act as a driver in political decision-making situations.