Nuclear Anxiety: A Catalyst of Cold War Counterculture and Transnationalism

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Bailey, Nicholas
Issue Date
Working Paper
Scholarship Sewanee 2024 , University of the South , nuclear anxiety , transnationalism , environmentalism , Cold War , ecocentrism , hyperreality
The advent of man harnessing nuclear energy has been a defining moment in humanity’s technological history, with some historians pointing at the detonation of atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the marking of a new epoch in our development, the so-called ‘Atomic Age,’ or as the beginning of the Anthropocene. The novelty of the sheer power that nuclear weapons can yield created an entirely new approach to diplomacy, as states now held the power to annihilate others anywhere in the world with the push of a button. Thus, the implication of nuclear warfare’s very existence has produced a psychological effect named ‘nuclear anxiety’ or ‘Angst vor dem Atom’ (fear of the atom) in German with varying intensity throughout history. This pervasive anxiety of momentary annihilation was exacerbated by the tensions during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, and especially was most geographically intense in a divided Germany, which would be most likely to be a ground zero for the outbreak of nuclear war according to many military simulations and war games. Therefore, out of an environment of Angst (German: anxiety), new cultural trends arose as a counter reaction as nations gained awareness of their new atomic political landscape. This thesis will investigate, not the political effects of nuclear armament, but its cultural and social impacts in the formation of a population more aware of the globe beyond national borders. I study how the culture of protest emerging in the 1960s and beyond reflects the beginning of a transatlantic population more connected through an awareness of the globality of nuclear issues and a shared concern for the environment as well as the popularization of a shared vision for a future as a ‘global village.’ I focus mostly on the effects of West Germans in their cultural transition post WWII until the end of The Cold War as the epicenter of this cultural change and as a battleground between the two ideologies of the US and Soviets prescribing different solutions to modernity. While I concentrate on local cultural phenomena mostly within Germany, I argue that expanded awareness in response to the nuclear threat intensified a global connectedness as nuclear war became the first truly global or transnational issue. Demonstrations at Wyhl and Bonn, Germany were some of the first protests which included and were supported by a large global network of actors. Beyond a global network of anti-nuclear activism, this paper investigates how this same network was intertwined with and influenced a new Western popular culture. This new culture was informed by the development of heightened American security concerns, exacerbated by the proliferation of nuclear technology which compelled the United States to take a more active role in Germany, thereby instigating a process of American influence within German society. Therefore, with an American security apparatus in mind, I simultaneously explore the penetration of nuclear discourse and anxieties into Cold War era pop culture in Germany and the impact this had on intensifying global/transatlantic culture.