Proxy wars: the Deutsches Museum and the peaceful atom

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The article discusses presentations of nuclear power in the Deutsches Mu- seum in Munich from the 1950s to the 1980s. The discussion serves a dou- ble purpose in that it discusses the museum’s history in its own right, with particular attention to the glaring leadership vacuum that allowed things to go off rails repeatedly, while at the same time treating museum debates as a microcosm of Germany’s nuclear history. Except for a 1955 guest exhibition in the context of the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” initiative, nuclear power received rather lackluster treatment until the 1970s. Growing attention was a result of the heated debates over civil nuclear power that saw determined efforts from industrialists and other pro-nuclear leaders to enlist the Deutsches Museum in the defense of an embattled technology. The result was an unabashedly partisan exhibit that was opened under police protection in 1978 and closed after a grace period. A second initiative took place in the context of culture wars over a perceived hostility towards science-led progress that the Bavarian prime minister Franz Josef Strauß, the towering figure of Bavarian politics in the 1980s, stoked with delight. The article chronicles a surprisingly inept attempt to use the museum’s resources in the fight for a controversial nuclear reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf. The attempt made national headlines and failed in the face of widespread protest. Culminating in 1986/87, the conflict mirrors the gradual transformation of the nuclear debate in post-war Germany: what had previously been a struggle over real-world projects increasingly bore the marks of a symbolic conflict over cultural capital.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63 - 86
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2022


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