NUCLEAR WEAPONSGermany's Balancing Act on Nuclear Weapons

By William Noah Glucroft

Published 29 March 2023

Germany is not a nuclear power, but it is part of U.S. nuclear strategy. In light of the war in Ukraine and the undoing of Cold War-era arms control, the country’s balanced approach is coming under more pressure.

If the Cold War had gone nuclear, it would have likely begun on German soil. Geographically, Germany sat between the United States and its NATO allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries on the other. Politically, the country was split between West and East. Strategically, that was where the US and Soviet militaries faced off — on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Germany was therefore a nuclear tripwire between the enemy superpowers, and the country both benefits from the supposed safety of the US nuclear umbrella, and still faces the direct risk of nuclear escalation. Former West Germany has been home to a strong pacifist movement, while many in former East Germany hold a less hostile view of Russia.

These factors help make the issue of arms control a particularly sensitive one in Germany.

Germany remains clearly committed to its engagement in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, even given the changed conditions,” an official from the German Federal Foreign Office told DW.

That is a reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which some military analysts fear could lead President Vladimir Putin to break the “nuclear taboo,” if his conventional forces continue to struggle on the battlefield.

The federal government, with its partners, unequivocally opposes any softening of the taboo,” the German government official added, referring to an unwritten understanding not to use nuclear weapons ever since the US did twice against Japan, ending the Second World War in 1945.

Nuclear Balancing Act
Germany’s opposition to nuclear weapons competes with the expectation that it supports the security status quo. NATO nuclear sharing — the US-led military alliance’s long-standing policy that permits the stationing of US nuclear weapons on non-US territory — means German warplanes could carry them in the event of nuclear war.

As many as 20 such warheads remain at the Büchel Air Base in western Germany, according to an estimate by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The think tank, based in Washington, DC, counted some 130 others at the Ramstein Air Base, until they were removed between 2001 and 2005.

The nuclear balancing act adds tension both to German domestic politics as well as to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Any disagreement, however, has taken a back seat after Russia’s war in Ukraine.