The Power of Nationalism

The Romantic Roots of the Antinuclear Energiewende in Germany

The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.

While the planned German nuclear exit following Fukushima was, at face value, an over-reaction given the lack of seismic and tsunami risk, German ambivalence towards nuclear has been building since the 1970s. The student protests of the late 1960s produced a fusion of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and antinuclear, where nuclear power became aligned with distrust of capitalism and militarism. The “laughing sun” symbol appeared everywhere — Atomkraft? Nein Danke (Nuclear power? No thanks!) — and became recognizable as an expression of “polite dissent” as it became cool to be antinuclear.1

This alignment was not altogether surprising given the legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War, West Berlin as the focal point of the Cold War, with Germany hosting NATO Cruise and Pershing missiles along with American, British, and French forces. These fears became entrenched through antinuclear activism by scientists such as Klaus Traube Traube, who was originally a proponent of nuclear power, but became one of the most prominent and influential critics. And it was also the local “Citizens’ Initiatives” organized around local issues that formed the basis of the grassroots campaigns, such as opposition to the siting of a new nuclear power plant in the wine-growing village of Wyhl in 1975.2

It was the uncontrolled radioactive release due to the meltdown of the graphite-moderated Chernobyl reactor in 1986 that entrenched German antinuclear sentiment. Unlike other affected nations, in which hostility to nuclear gave way to pragmatic assessments in the years following, the German reaction was both irrational and sustained. Indeed, even following the release of the 25th anniversary comprehensive UNSCEAR report in 2011, showing that the radiation impacts turned out to be much less than originally feared,3 the German reaction continued to be one of deep skepticism.

Similarly, although the World Health Organization concluded that the public health impacts from radiation from Fukushima were likely to be minimal,4 it nonetheless validated German skepticism of the inherent risks of nuclear — subsequent reports revealed the Japanese institutionalized culture of regulatory capture known as amakudari, literally “descent from heaven,” where senior regulators and bureaucrats retire into the powerful executive posts that they once regulated.5 The consequence of the “nuclear village” was that risks were inadequately borne by operators and the sort of routine safety features found in the United States, for example, had not been implemented.6

Although there is ambivalence towards nuclear throughout Europe, the intriguing question is — what is distinctive about Germany, as opposed to say France, that derives 75 percent of its electricity from 58 nuclear power plants? French policy makers understood the trade-offs of energy policy, and lacking the indigenous coal of Germany, led a strong institutional support that underpinned public support. A popular French response to the question of why they have so much nuclear energy is “no oil, no gas, no coal, no choice.” France has a tradition of large, government-managed projects, which are popular in the same way as high-speed trains.7 Unlike the US model of decentralized projects, the French model was to standardize a single US reactor, which brought the benefits of cost, along with standardized training and safety.

Perhaps the defining answer is the legacy of the distinctive German response to the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which produced a peculiar synthesis of naturalism and nationalism.8 Britain was immunized against the harsher elements of the industrial revolution by the Protestant work ethic; the United States and Australia as pioneer nations, exploited the power of steam and coal for nation building; and France lacked a ready source of coal. But a distinctly German love of nature, rural life, and forests drove a countercultural response — the Romantic Movement was a revolt against the rational and structured world of the Industrial Revolution.9 These ideals were embodied in the völkisch movement, which has no simple English translation, but loosely incorporates ideas of romantic nationalism and homeland.10

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger11 provides an entry point for drawing out some of the ideals in late 19th and early 20th century proto-environmental German thinking. Heidegger provided a critique of Enlightenment thinking and the scientific revolution. He claimed that science had encouraged the framing of the natural landscape as “stuff” and a “standing reserve” for humans. The problem for Heidegger was a lack of respect for nature. His main concern was not pollution, degradation, or limits to growth as modern neo-Malthusians would argue, but the reductionist relationship between humans and their world. These deeply held ecological views were similarly reflected in Ernst Moritz Arndt and his student Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, who both railed against the industrial exploitation of woodlands and soil.8 In the 1850s, Riehl perhaps anticipated modern environmentalism when he argued for “the rights of wilderness.” Both Arndt and Riehl represented a particularly 19th century German fusion of naturalism and nationalism, and hostility to urbanism. Klaus Bergmann used the term Großstadtfeindschaft, which roughly translates as “hostility to the city” or “anti-urbanism,” reflecting hostility to the cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and cultural tolerance of cities.

Australians would be more likely to have heard of Rudolf Steiner and his renowned “Steiner education.” Steiner blended racist ideology with his unique spiritualist anthroposophy movement, and developed an early form of holistic “vitalist” organic agriculture called biodynamics.8 Biodynamics treats soil fertility and plant growth as ecologically interrelated tasks. Indeed, the term “ecology” was originally defined by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel. Even today, nearly half of global biodynamic farming area is in Germany.9

In Germany in the early part of the 20th century there wasn’t a specific movement that carried the “environment” or “green” label as we define it today. Rather, organizations such as the Deutscher Bund Heimatschutz (Homeland Protection Association of Germany) embodied ideas of homeland protection and nature protection. These carried the ideals of protecting the German homeland and the landscape. Brüggemeier et al explain that in the same way that we think of architectural styles reflecting the preferences of nation, Germany’s landscape bore the distinctly German imprint.12

But it is also possible to identify in the Energiewende the expression of Heimat (homeland), the “feeling of belonging together” and the communitarian impulse.13 This is perhaps the most important lesson of community-driven political movements — the Energiewende is a stunningly successful community-driven bottom-up model with broad support across the political left/right spectrum. Germany is unique in having successfully mobilized the grassroots movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, and converted this support into tangible political outcomes.

At a philosophical level, we see the expression of solar and nuclear as polar opposites of the Romantic versus enlightenment spectrum — solar (and wind) as the return to a simpler way, in touch with nature, and a contemporary expression of the archetypal instinct of sun worship — nuclear representing the pinnacle of science, empiricism, and the harnessing of the unimaginable power of the atom with its attendant risks. These competing philosophies coexist in all countries, but it is only in Germany that this polarity has so starkly fallen at the Romantic end of the spectrum.

Graham Palmer is an industrial engineer based in Australia, and author of Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth. This excerpt originally appeared on Barry Brook’s blog Brave New Climate. To read the full essay, click here.


1. Johnson, Daniel, (2011), Why Germany said no to nuclear power, The Telegraph

2. Brandon, Ruth (1987) The Burning Question: The Anti-Nuclear Movement Since 1945, Heinemann.

3. World Health Organisation (2011) Chernobyl at 25th anniversary Frequently Asked Questions

4. World Health Organisation (2013) Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, based on a preliminary dose estimation

5. Fam, SD et al. (2014) Post-Fukushima Japan: The Continuing Nuclear Controversy. Energy Policy

6. Ferguson, Charles D, Jansson, Mark (2013) Regulating Japanese Nuclear Power in the Wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident. Federation of American Scientists

7. Palfreman, Jon (1997) Why the French like Nuclear Power, PBS Frontline

8. Staudenmaier, Peter/Biehl, Janet (1995) Ecofascism: Lessons From the German Experience.

9. Paull, John (2011) Organics Olympiad 2011: Global Indices of Leadership in Organic Agriculture. Journal of Social and Development Sciences 1/4, pp. 144—150.

10. Uekötter, Frank (2006) The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany, Cambridge University Press.

11. Rohkrämer, T Brüggemeier, Franz-Josef/Cioc, Mark/Zeller, Thomas (2005) How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, Ohio University Press.

12. Brüggemeier, Franz-Josef/Cioc, Mark/Zeller, Thomas (2005)How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, Ohio University Press.

13. Applegate, C. (1990). A nation of provincials: The German idea of Heimat. Univ of California Press.