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Top German Politicians Want US Nuclear Weapons Out: Did Anti-Nuclear Actions Propel Issue Into National Elections?

Photo by Neil H | CC BY 2.0

A series of anti-nuclear weapons actions between March and August at Air Base Büchel in Germany brought widespread media attention to the 20 US nuclear weapons still deployed there. Surprising demands for the bombs’ removal soon came from high-ranking political leaders including Germany’s foreign minister. A timeline of events between July 12 and 18, involving a Nukewatch-organized delegation of 11 US peace activists, shows how the work may have moved the officials to speak out.

July 12 — Upon its arrival, four members of the US group held a press conference in Frankfurt accompanied by Marion Küpker, international coordinator for DFG-VK — Germany’s oldest anti-war group — and organizer of the five-month peace camp. News of the unprecedented US group was reported in the daily Frankfurt Journal (“Activists from the US land in Frankfurt: Campaign against US nuclear weapons”), the online magazine FOCUS (“Nuclear fighters receive support from the US”) and picked up around the country.

July 15 — Headlines like “Today in Büchel: Action day against nuclear weapons,” and “Konstantin Wecker sings for the peace,” was news across southwest Germany when the well known singer-songwriter drew about 400 to his performance near base’s main gates. The US delegates all spoke briefly to the gathering through interpreters.

July 17 — Five activists including four from the US snuck deep into the air base at night, clipping four chain-link fences, and climbed to the top of a large nuclear weapons bunker. The five went undetected on base for more than two hours, before they themselves alerted guards. Detained by military and civilian police, the group was released around 3 a.m. without charges, and none have been leveled.

July 26 — News of the “go-in” action reaching a bunker was reported widely. The daily Rhein-Zeitung’s headline used Nukewatch’s moniker: “‘Prison Gang’ Inspects Büchel Air Force Base — Peace movement claims five activists succeeded in penetrating the inner security area.” (The reference was to seven of the US delegates who have served a combined total of 36 years in jail and prison for anti-war actions.)

July 28 — Journalists asked experts and military officials in Berlin whether the go-in group got near the US “B61” thermo-nuclear bombs. Air Force headquarters in Berlin assured the press that “security had been maintained,” and this news went nation-wide. Yet the information center of the Air Force in Berlin did acknowledge the breach of security. One paper reported, “The Luftwaffe confirmed that on the night of 18 July, five persons were in the military security area of the airport, where they illegally gained access by cutting fences with cutting tools, RZ reported,” referring to the regional daily Rhein-Zeitung. Another widely reported story quoted, “Military expert [Otfried] Nassauer: ‘Prison Gang’ was probably not in the sensitive area of the Büchel airfield.”

July 29 — The daily paper of Nuremberg, with a circulation of 300,000, interviewed four of the US delegates and its article was headlined: “At night on the atom bunker” — Joint protest of peace activists from the region and the USA.”

August 7 — Public criticism of lax security at Büchel went national when the Green Party Bundestag Deputy (Member of Congress) Tabea Rössner openly lambasted the base for not stopping the fence-cutting action. Rössner’s call for an investigation prompted the headline: “Is Air Base Büchel just as safe as an amusement park?”

Accounts of Rössner’s statement, circulated widely on social media, reported, “The Greens demanded information about the safety situation at Büchel air base. The reason is an action by activists who entered the inner security area of the airbase.” Rössner’s statement said in part, “The federal government must fully explain the incident. If peace activists are in the inner security area of the Tactical Air Force squadron, Luftwaffe, Büchel, then that can mean only one thing: The security concept is more than bumbling.”

“This is not a trifle,” Rössner said, “even if those responsible would try to downplay the incident. It is more than frightening that at a time of significantly increased terror, the safety measures of such a site fall below the level of a theme park.”

August 22 — The US H-bombs then burst into the national election campaign when Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democrat Party (SDP) and candidate for Chancellor in this month’s elections, unexpectedly called for the ouster of the US nuclear weapons. Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Politico and major German media reported, “German rival of Chancellor [Angela] Merkel vows to remove US nuclear weapons from the country,” “Searching for another point of difference, Schulz pledged on Aug. 22 to have US nuclear weapons withdrawn from German territory if, against the odds, he defeats Merkel,” and “Germany’s Schulz says he would demand US withdraw nuclear arms.” Schulz had said, “As chancellor, I’d push for the ejection of nuclear weapons stored in Germany.”

August 29 — Conservative politicians and editors attacked Schulz as uninformed or naive, but the criticism was short-lived when Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel made a surprise endorsement of Schulz’s proposal. At a press conference with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, Gabrial joined Schulz’s call for withdrawal of the US weapons. The foreign minister’s surprise announcement included his blunt admission that, “I agreed with Mr. Schulz’s point that we need to get rid of the nuclear weapons that are in our country.” The news startled media around the world, which reported: “Foreign Minister joins call to withdraw US nukes from Germany,” and “German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has supported Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz’s pledge that he will push for the removal of US nuclear warheads from Germany if elected Chancellor.”

The International Business Times and the Financial Tribune online declared on Aug. 31, “Top German Politicians Want US Nuclear Weapons Out.” The papers noted that “Germany’s top diplomat has backed the suggestion of SPD leader and Chancellor hopeful Martin Schulz, who has pledged to rid his country of US nukes.”

To help the Germans see the permanent elimination of US nukes, the movement here has to generate enough push-back to cancel Congress’s plan to replace — instead of retire — the US H-bombs in Europe. Nixing the B61-12 plan would save at least $12 billion.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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