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FAITH MATTERS: Explaining Germany’s anti-nuclear fanaticism: In a word, Schwärmerei

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By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Germany’s radical decision to quit nuclear power by 2022 has me worried, and not just for economic reasons. My concern is primarily philosophical for this development suggests the robust return of a troubling mindset that has served Germany and the world badly for centuries. It is called Schwärmerei, which translates literally into “swarming.”  Martin Luther invented this term for a murky combination of utopian mass enthusiasm and fanaticism.

Luther used the word, Schwärmerei, to describe 16th-century theological-political movements that taught that man should give God a helping hand by establishing Elysian entities already here on earth in anticipation of His ultimate paradise. The quintessential “Schwärmer” was Luther’s antagonist Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525), chief ideologue of the 16th-century peasants’ wars in Germany. Müntzer had a great influence on the bloodiest political movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Marxism and National Socialism.

Anti-nuclear protesters march past the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant near the southern German city of Bergrheinfeld in April. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany could serve as a global trailblazer with its decision Monday to phase out nuclear power by 2022 in favor of renewable energy sources. /

Both Friedrich Engels, the father of Communist theory, and Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg deferred to Müntzer, even though they were atheists and he was not.  But it was from Müntzer that they inherited the idea of having to create a miniature paradise with limited access here and now. The Communist self-declared goal was to create a “Worker’s and Peasants’ Paradise;” the Nazis tried to establish an idyllic reservation for one particular tribe, the Aryans. Both proved to be irrational and ultimately lethal schemes.

It would be unfair to suggest that the unattractive alliance between environmentalists and dull populists driving Germany’s exit from atomic power is in a league with genocidal fiends such as the Communists and Nazis. My point is merely that, like those movements, they are responding to irrational sentiments like fear, envy and insularity; the dreaded German word, Sonderweg, springs to mind.

That the earthquake and tsunami disaster in faraway Japan should send a majority of Germans, whose country rarely experiences seismic tremors of a magnitude of a minor itch, into mass hysteria, and that their center-right government now responds to this frenzy in the manner of populist Pavlovians, is very disturbing. It seems no less alarming than Chancellor Merkel’s and Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s flip-flop policy of breaking ranks with Germany’s partners in NATO and the European Union in the Libyan crisis, thus catering to the mushy pacifist mindset that has taken hold of the German people since World War II.

The spectacle of the world’s most successful economic power succumbing to its people’s angst seems unbecoming, all the more so as there is no European nation more dependent on electricity that Germany, and none with more open borders; Germany has 10 immediate neighbors, all with nuclear reactors whose radiation clouds, if there were ever to be a disaster, would not ask Berlin for permission before traversing German territory. Thus it is fallacious Schwärmerei to assume that a nation of 80 million surrounded by ten other nations could be turned into a nuclear-free land of bliss.

Not that concerns about atomic power lacked legitimacy; particularly the issue of what to do with the nuclear waste remains unresolved. But it surely makes no sense to act according to the motto of “stop the world I want to get off.” By all means let’s accelerate the search for alternative energies, but in the meantime build the safest reactors imaginable, which is precisely what German manufacturers have been doing thus far.

It is sad that the German genius to which my country owed its postwar success has appears to have deserted the political arena. At least it is still present in the economy and in industry, where imaginative minds will doubtless find a response to the mess our latter-day Schwärmer and populists are currently causing. This is of course a statement of faith of sorts. Would it be that I could be as confident about my country’s future leaders!

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, is conducting a lecture tour related to the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall, which he covered as a young reporter of The Associated Press. For information, contact: uwesiemon@mac.com . He has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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