Air raid sirens were part of my childhood.
Every Wednesday at 1 p.m., their eerie howl permeated the East German town of Strausberg where I grew up. The purpose of these weekly drills was to keep us alert, to remind us that no matter how peaceful things appeared, nuclear war was always just one bad decision away. Germans — in the East and the West — knew that the fault line of the Cold War was right underneath their feet.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, our collective tensions fizzled out, and most of the sirens were dismantled. (Only 15,000 remain functional today.) Universities stopped teaching undergraduates how to put on gas masks and “NBC” — for “nuclear, biological and chemical” — suits, and a unified Germany’s defense budget was cut until it reached its nadir at 1.2 percent of gross domestic product in the 2000s.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has served as a rude awakening from Germany’s pacifist dream. Days after the Russian invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a “watershed” moment and announced a cash injection for the armed forces amounting to twice their regular annual budget. Separately, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the German newspaper Welt that Vladimir Putin’s advance “demands that we strengthen our defenses against military threats significantly.”
Putin’s references to nuclear war have hit a raw nerve in the German psyche, sending government departments into overdrive to revive Cold War defense systems that have been neglected since 1990. This includes installing the sirens — for which Faeser has made 88 million euros available, admitting, however, that the amount “as far as nationwide coverage is concerned, we’re not even close.” But the move would go some way to — literally — alerting Germans to the reality of a threat of war now very close to home.
Today, only 599 of what were once 2,000 German air raid shelters remain available, providing capacity for just under 1 percent of the population. This is particularly troubling given that Russia has stationed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its westernmost outpost of Kaliningrad. With a range of 300 miles, the guided missiles are capable of reaching Berlin within minutes. Faeser has ended a 2007 policy that allowed local authorities to abandon the shelters, and the German government is looking into ways to fortify existing structures such as subways, basements and underground parking lots.
The government is also keen to invest some of Scholz’s cash boost in a missile defense system that might shield it (and Europe more broadly) from Russian attacks. Code-named “German Iron Shield,” the concept could include the acquisition of Israel’s Arrow 3 or Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system from the United States. Eberhard Zorn, Germany’s chief of defense, said no decision has been made, but “one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there.”
And, yet, for all the urgency among officials, a concern remains that 30 years of relative peace has made the German population complacent.
To that end, Germany’s Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance has introduced a website urging people to “plan your personal emergency strategy!” It includes advice on where to collect potassium iodide in case of a nuclear attack as well as a checklist for a permanent stockpile of supplies for 10 days that includes food items, bottled water (20 liters per person!), medication, soap, candles, torches, batteries, radios and bandages.
The interior ministry is also ramping up its defense against an increasing barrage of cyberattacks, according to Spiegel. The ministry’s internal reports admit that it can’t rule out “that individual, targeted harm will befall institutions.” The Office for Information Security has raised its alert level to the second-highest stage: orange.
As uncomfortable as this might be for Germany to accept, the end of the Cold War did not end the nuclear threat. Russia inherited much of the Soviet Union’s legacy, its personnel and its weaponry. For too long Berlin has ignored the warning signs from its own intelligence and NATO partners. But the war in Ukraine has proved once and for all that the threat wielded by Russia as the world’s single largest nuclear power is real.
Germany must now try to remember what it was like to brace itself against the nuclear threat — from the politicians at the top to the people on the ground. The unthinkable has become thinkable again. If waking up means a return of the bone-chilling blare of sirens over Germany, so be it.