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At Germany’s last nuclear base, fears of a new arms race as U.S.-Russia treaty collapses

Elke Koller stands on the “peace lawn” outside Büchel air base. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

BÜCHEL, Germany — The home Elke Koller chose for her retirement has horse pastures and bird song, a tranquil garden where her grandchildren love to play and views that stretch for miles across the green hills of western Germany’s Eifel region.

It is also close enough to a stash of nuclear weapons that should they detonate, it would all be vaporized within seconds.

“It’s so nice here. I didn’t know about the bombs. They were secret,” said Koller, a gray-haired former pharmacist. “When I found out, I thought, ‘The military doesn’t need them anymore. They’ll be gone within a few years.’ ” 

But that was nearly a quarter-century ago, in the heady post-Cold War days when the fearsome nuclear arsenal arrayed across Europe appeared destined to become a relic. Now, far from disappearing, those weapons could proliferate.

With the Trump administration’s decision last month to ditch the treaty that ended an era-defining standoff — and with President Vladi­mir Putin following suit, signing a decree Monday suspending Russia’s participation — the prospect of a nuclear arms race is back. And so is the debate over whether Europe should host more American weapons of mass destruction.

The last remaining U.S. bombs in Europe are stored in Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. France and Britain remain nuclear powers, too, although they have vastly reduced their arsenals.

Across the continent, there is little public appetite for escalation. A request from the United States to store and be ready to use new bombs and missiles would likely spark a furious backlash, while exposing fractures in an alliance already strained by the mistrust between President Trump and his European counterparts. Meanwhile, Russia could menace the continent and exploit divisions in the West.

“The current situation is very clear: Besides the Poles and maybe one or two others, nobody in Europe would be willing to deploy additional midrange nuclear weapons,” said Otfried Nassauer, an arms control expert with the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security. 

So far, the United States hasn’t asked. Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the ­Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last month, citing allegations that Russia had violated the landmark 1987 agreement stipulating that neither nation would deploy land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. (Unlike missiles, bombs were never covered by the INF Treaty.)

Technically, the two nations have the next five months to try to salvage the deal. But no one is very optimistic. 

A renewed weapons race between the world’s two great nuclear powers would contribute to an already grim global picture for advocates of disarmament, with the Iran nuclear deal on the verge of breaking down, talks with North Korea at a standstill and India and Pakistan trading fire. 

It would also add back to the nuclear chessboard a continent that for decades lived under the threat of an apocalyptic exchange but that more recently seemed to have little to fear from the world’s most devastating weapons.

The last time Washington was building up its arsenal, in the 1980s, Western European governments were willing to host weapons systems as protection against a Soviet empire that dominated half the continent, leaving them on the front lines of a standoff between superpowers.

Their populations weren’t always so acquiescent, however. The stationing of thousands of nuclear missiles across Europe spawned mass protests. A half-million people converged on Bonn, West Germany, in what were the largest demonstrations in that short-lived ­nation’s history. The controversy contributed to the collapse of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s government. 

The United States' plan to scrap this Cold War treaty raises fears of another nuclear arms buildup. (Video: William Neff/The Washington Post)

The signing of the INF Treaty by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev threw the nuclear buildup into a rapid reverse, with missiles withdrawn and destroyed. By the time the Soviet Union fell apart a few years later, the nuclear threat in Europe had dramatically receded.

The 20 nuclear bombs stored at a joint U.S.-German air base in the tiny town of Büchel are largely an afterthought.

“When I say to people that I live near atomic bombs, they say, ‘No, it’s a lie. Germany has no atomic bombs,’ ” said Koller, the retired pharmacist. 

The presence of the weapons has never been officially acknowledged by the U.S. military that owns them, nor the German military that has been entrusted to use them. 

But it is not denied, either, and it is an open secret. Each morning and afternoon, German Tornados — the fighter jets that would carry the bombs to their target in the event of a decision to attack — streak the skies above Koller’s home. 

Koller had owned the house for years — with plans to retire there — long before the existence of the weapons became widely known, in the mid-1990s. Ever since, she has been campaigning for their removal, demonstrating outside the base hundreds of times. 

It has been a somewhat lonely struggle. In a politically conservative region that relies on the German military to provide jobs and boost the economy, her neighbors may occasionally give a furtive thumbs-up. But they have been reluctant to provide open support. 

Some have been hostile. 

“When I go to a bar, people say to me, ‘You people are crazy. You’re destroying our jobs,’ ” said Rüdiger Lancelle, a 79-year-old retired teacher and longtime antinuclear activist. “They don’t want to recognize that atomic weapons are a threat to all of humanity.”

And yet, there are signs that concern is rising, as the treaties that have constrained nuclear proliferation for decades fall away. 

The protests outside the base at Büchel have been growing. Organizers say a demonstration planned for Easter Monday will be the biggest one yet, with younger protesters injecting new energy into a movement that had been dominated by senior citizens. 

“For my generation, nuclear war is something that seems very far away. But it isn’t,” said Clara Tempel, 23. 

Tempel will be going to jail for a week later this month after infiltrating the base during a protest last year. In response to the breach, the German military is constructing a taller and more forbidding security fence, to the tune of about $12 million.

Trump has helped to galvanize the anti­nuclear movement in Germany. The U.S. president is widely disliked — just 10 percent of Germans say they trust him to do the right thing in world affairs — and the idea that he is the ultimate commander of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has added to unease with American weapons on German soil. 

“Nuclear rearmament has a very bad taste in Germany,” said Christian Mölling, a defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “And Trump is the focal point, the caricature to which everyone can point.”

In Germany’s 2017 election, the center-left Social Democrats attempted to capitalize on that feeling, campaigning on a pledge to get rid of the weapons at Büchel.

Now the junior party in a coalition government, they have indicated they will oppose any attempt to deploy nuclear missiles in Germany. The ruling Christian Democrats have been more vague, saying all options remain open.

For now, at least, the status quo seems to be holding. And that’s all right with Walter Schmitz, mayor of Cochem, the castle and vineyard-strewn tourist mecca that is the nearest town of any significant size to the Büchel air base.

The town’s 5,000-plus residents are a mere 20-minute drive from the base. But Schmitz said there are no contingency plans in the event of a nuclear accident or explosion — and no need for any. 

The base is well secured, and the chance of attack is remote — thanks in part to the nuclear weapons that have helped, he said, to deter major war in Europe for 70-plus years.

“Fundamentally, atomic weapons are a bad thing. They’re destructive, and we should be getting rid of them,” said Schmitz, whose town was heavily damaged in both world wars.

But as long as adversaries have them, he said, it makes sense for Western allies to, as well. 

“That,” he said, “is the price of peace.”

Luisa Beck contributed to this report.

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