How Germans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Then Probably Start Worrying Again

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Since 2022, Moscow has made nuclear saber-rattling part of its war of aggression against Ukraine. But instead of intimidating Europe, this seems to have provoked a newfound openness to nuclear arms among German voters. While in 2016, 85 percent of Germans wanted U.S. deployed nuclear weapons to be withdrawn, in 2022 more than half wanted them to stay. This change in public opinion went hand in hand with bold policy steps, such as the purchase of dual-capable F-35 fighter jets, thereby ensuring that Germany will keep the technical capability to participate in nuclear sharing for decades to come. 

The fact, is, though, that this change is likely to be short-lived. If leaders in Washington or Berlin expect the German public to embrace nuclear deterrence in the long term, they are likely to be disappointed. The shift in public attitudes likely reflects a momentary reaction rather than a new mindset. Defense debates have already moved away from their focus on nuclear deterrence, and eventually German politicians and opinion leaders will resume their longstanding devotion to bread-and-butter issues. This means that the German public is likely to swing back to its earlier pro-disarmament views, limiting the German government’s room to play a greater role in nuclear deterrence in Europe.

Germans Loathed Nuclear Weapons 

Numerous surveys over the past two decades consistently showed that German citizens disliked nuclear deterrence and favored nuclear disarmament. These views encompassed a range of nuclear-related policy issues. Large segments of the German population were opposed to nuclear sharing — the deployment of U.S. atomic weapons to German territory and German participation in planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO. In surveys conducted from 2015 to 2021, between 57 and 85 percent of the respondents wanted these weapons withdrawn and/or U.S. nuclear extended deterrence abandoned.

 

 

In fact, the use of nuclear weapons in any contingency has faced similar public opposition. Among German citizens, three out of four said in 2007 that NATO using nuclear weapons would not be justified in any circumstance and 60 percent felt safer knowing that Germany did not possess nuclear weapons. In 2020, eight out of ten Germans did not want NATO to use nuclear weapons even as a demonstration of capabilities after Russia had hypothetically done the same. 

What’s more, most citizens supported nuclear abolition as an abstract concept. In 2006, seven out of ten Germans wanted Europe to be “free of nuclear weapons.” In 2016, 93 percent wanted nuclear weapons prohibited by international law. Not surprisingly, large majorities were in favor of legal instruments that would further nuclear disarmament: In 2007, 76 percent “strongly supported” eliminating nuclear weapons through an “enforceable agreement.” In 2018, eight out of ten Germans were in favour of their country joining the newly agreed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an agreement strongly opposed by most NATO partners. 

Root Causes 

Germans’ negative perceptions of nuclear deterrence likely reflected a broader aversion to the use of force. Scholars have long argued that, protected by the United States, Germans could focus on international trade, rely on legal commitments, and see themselves as a civilian power that did not need military means to achieve its goals. In this reading, Germans tolerated U.S. nuclear weapons on German territory and Germany’s positioning under a U.S. nuclear security umbrella because of NATO commitments, and not because they thought those arrangements brought security. As German political scientists Alexander Sorg and Julian Wucherpfennig argued last year, nuclear deployments in Germany may have led Germans to deprioritize national security.

Indeed, survey results support this norms-driven explanation. In 2019, only one-fifth of the population agreed that war could be necessary within the current international system, even in extreme situations. In 2019, almost 60 percent thought that Germany should be “internationally neutral.” More than two thirds believed that their country should not take sides in a conflict between the United States and Russia or China, and 82 percent agreed with this proposition in a 2020 survey. Even after Russia’s 2022 invasion, almost 68 percent opposed Germany playing a military leadership role in Europe.

Another possibility is that Germans’ negative attitudes towards nuclear weapons reflect a larger aversion to all things nuclear. Broader research on the nuclear taboo, as well as the strong views that many Germans hold on nuclear energy policy, suggest this might be a factor. 

Despite the data presented above, it is also important to recognize that opposition to nuclear weapons was never as robust and deep-seated among the German public as many have argued. For instance, when asked in 2019 whether Germany should “abandon nuclear protection,” only one out of three citizens said yes, suggesting that the public’s aversion did not amount to readiness to bear the costs of diminished security. In the same vein, more than half of the population thought U.S. bases in Germany were important. Also, 72 percent still wanted Germany in NATO — despite the fact that the alliance’s security will remain grounded in nuclear deterrence — and 56 percent wanted the European Union to take on more security responsibilities from NATO.

Taken together, these results suggest that German voters’ intense rejection of nuclear weapons could perhaps stem from the dearth of public discussion about the trade-offs this position entails. Prior to 2022, few within both politics and the bureaucracy were willing to publicly discuss the security benefits that nuclear weapons offered Germany, and so the public conversation was dominated by critics of nuclear deterrence.

Changed Attitudes

The major shock generated by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Moscow’s widespread employment of nuclear rhetoric altered German attitudes on nuclear weapons policy. The gap between public opinion and official government policy has narrowed. Researchers have now repeatedly asked the same people about their views on nuclear policy, confirming that the shifts are real. But these same studies reveal that, as the conflict in Ukraine continues, attitudes are beginning to revert to the anti-nuclear norm.

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, more German citizens began to perceive nuclear weapons as having a deterrent effect. In 2020 just under 40 percent thought that the U.S. weapons deployed in Germany contributed to deterrence. That number rose to around 60 percent in 2022. 

At the same time, support for withdrawing nuclear weapons from Germany went down significantly in 2022 — although it rebounded somewhat a year later. One 2022 survey found that more than half of the population wanted the U.S. weapons to stay, a sharp uptick from only 10 per cent in 2016. What is more, 12 percent wanted these weapons modernized and their number expanded — including around 10 percent of Green and Social-Democratic voters. In another survey, only 30 percent were still convinced that U.S. nuclear weapons should be withdrawn from Germany.

That said, Russia’s invasion and nuclear rhetoric did not lead voters to contemplate Germany pursuing nuclear weapons of its own. To the contrary, in summer 2022, over 70 percent believed Germany should not acquire nuclear weapons. By October 2022, that number had risen to 90 percent. 

Drivers Behind the Change

It is clear that Russia’s war against Ukraine produced these changes. By autumn 2022, two-thirds of the German public agreed that Russia’s invasion was a turning point in world politics. Three out of four citizens saw Russia as a “military threat” to Germany. Around 70 percent were at least “a little” concerned that Russia might use nuclear weapons. A full 80 percent thought the war could extend onto NATO territory. Unsurprisingly, eight out of ten Germans now saw the United States as a partner for protecting European security, and 60 percent wanted Berlin to durably invest more money in defense.

How did this happen? Russia’s aggression prompted a debate in Germany on the role of violence in international affairs, on the necessity for reliable armed forces, and on defensive alliances. However, Russia’s aggression, in many ways, only accelerated existing trends: For over a decade, across the whole world, the share of population willing to fight for their own country has increased. Thus, the growing support for nuclear weapons in Germany might also be an expression of this trend. In addition, Moscow’s targeted employment of nuclear narratives to dissuade foreign aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia alarmed the public and spurred discussions about the function of nuclear weapons and the role of extended deterrence.

These events allowed different opinion leaders to dominate the media space. Discussions on security policy became mainstream. Experts who had long emphasized security needs, deterrence, and alliances gained traction — to the detriment of figures who had focused on building links to Russia, on negotiations, or on arms control. In politics, nuclear affairs had been dominated by those sympathetic to nuclear disarmament. Yet, once the war started, more nuclear pragmatists took a more prominent role on. Even among government officials, nuclear policy became less of a taboo topic.

Last but not least, changes in government policy seem to have contributed to the public’s changing views. For example, shortly after Russia’s full-fledged invasion, the German government adopted a new security narrative, allocated significant funds to long-term defense planning, and settled the ongoing nuclear sharing debate by acquiring a new delivery platform, the U.S.-designed F-35 combat aircraft. In addition, Berlin progressively increased its support of Kyiv and rolled back its links to Moscow. 

Changes Will Likely Be Short-Lived 

Shortly after Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, some observers argued that this war constituted a watershed moment likely to fundamentally alter German governmental policy and public attitudes — a true Zeitenwende. However, one year later, scholars found little evidence of significant and durable attitude-change within the public. Their surveys recorded sizeable shifts in policy attitudes directly related to Russia’s invasion, but revealed that more general attitudes on foreign and security policy remained unchanged. These results suggest no new mindset in German society and, thus, a propensity to drift back toward pre-existent attitudes. 

There are a number of reasons to think this will prove true for nuclear attitudes as well. The war’s impact on German public perceptions has likely already been felt and will not continue to grow significantly. Some argue that the war upset the European security order. If they are right, the upcoming adjustments to the European and trans-Atlantic defense architecture could indeed have a serious impact on German views on nuclear policy. The more plausible interpretation, however, is that the war simply underscored and strengthened Washington’s position as Europe’s security guarantor. In this reading, barring a serious Russian (nuclear) escalation, there is less reason to expect attitudes to change more drastically going forward.

While some of Germany’s newly established opinion leaders could potentially retain a more prominent role in the public sphere, traditional voices are likely to return to the forefront as hostilities in Ukraine receive less public attention. In politics, for example, some of the figures who took a more pro-nuclear position will likely shift to focusing on more electorally salient issues. Within German political parties, internal debates continue to involve numerous pro-disarmament voices. Given the continuous popularity of arms control, narratives that focus on negotiations and nuclear disarmament will likely return to the limelight.

Moreover, the focus of the German Zeitenwende still seems removed from nuclear issues. For example, the current government is focusing on reforming the military procurement system, better equipping the armed forces, and developing an integrated European air and missile defense system. Conversely, the current coalition’s compromise decision to attend Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons meetings as an observer will continue to give air to those opposed to nuclear weapons, which might turn public opinion back to its pre-war “normalcy.”

This all means that the short-term shift in German attitudes toward nuclear weapons is unlikely to lead to any long-term shifts in policy. Many of the crucial decisions, such as the acquisition of the F-35 fighter jets, have already been made, setting the country on a particular policy path for at least the next decade. In the long run, however, public attitudes are likely to constrain policymaking, especially as NATO’s nuclear posture will most probably remain far removed from the public’s position. The overt acknowledgement of the importance of nuclear deterrence in the recently released National Security Strategy is likely to be an exception, not be a long-term feature of German strategy documents and policy positions.

Still, the swing in public opinion that has been observed over the last two years has revealed that German public opinion is not as resolutely averse to nuclear weapons as many believed. The public can be swayed by changes in the geopolitical environment, and by changes in Germany’s own media environment. This means that rather than let public opposition limit their freedom of action, German leaders can play a more active role in shaping debate. The first step is to abandon their longstanding desire to downplay discussions on nuclear weapons within NATO.

With Washington increasingly focused on China, and perhaps poised to turn much more inward looking after the coming election, Germany will likely be asked to do more, both within Europe and within the alliance. If German officials want to have sufficient political space to respond to such challenges, they should get ahead of the curve and actively communicate to the German public why nuclear deterrence is important to the Federal Republic.

 

 

Dr. Liviu Horovitz is a research associate within the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and an affiliate at the Brussels School of Governance.

Dr. Michal Onderco is a professor of international relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam and an affiliate at the Peace Research Center Prague at Charles University in Prague, Czechia. He was earlier a junior faculty fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is currently researching nuclear politics in Europe with funding from the Stanton Foundation. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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