World Set Free
human being always wants to explain,” Michael Rietz says, “why are there wars?”
At first blush, one suspects that Rietz should know perfectly well why there are wars, since he aided a warmaking regime by defending Karl-Heinz Schaab, a German traitor on trial for selling nuclear technology to the Iraqi government. To answer his own question, surely Rietz need only examine his client’s motives for committing such a reprehensible act and his own for defending it.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. Questions about the reasons for war—which were first asked, undoubtedly, in concert with the first war, an episode lost in prehistory—have become more complex at the same time that they have become urgent. Ever since the efficiencies of the industrial revolution were pressed into the service of the globe’s most powerful war machines, many have seen the ever-growing refinements of warfare as leading, inevitably, to the end of civilization. H.G. Wells saw it as early as 1914. In his little-known novel The Last War: A World Set Free he predicted that the atomic bomb would some day bring a conflagration that would claim organized society among its casualties. Life afterward would not be worth living.
For some reason, this hasn’t made war rare or brought about the enduring peace many scientists and humanists expected after the devastation of World War II. John Friedman and Eric Nadler’s Stealing the Fire, a video documentary using Schaab’s trial as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade, puzzles frankly over why warfare has endured despite its dire consequences. Stealing the Fire is a modest film, likely to be lost in the parade of jingoistic blockbusters issuing from Hollywood with the frequency and uniformity of one-ton bombs. But the movie makes an urgent point: our collective best hope is not to worship wars but to eradicate them by discovering why they are fought, and the sooner the better.
While mainstream media, the press, and the government are collaborating to create a simplistic fantasy of good vs. evil in America’s New World Order, a contrary, terrifying global reality is quietly taking shape, one in which uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation, combined with growing inequity in the distribution of the world’s resources, will lead to wars without clear moral purpose.
Stealing the Fire takes an appropriately roundabout course to reach this conclusion. Schaab’s trial for treason—which led to an astonishingly lenient 100,000 deutsche-mark fine and 5 years’ probation—is the frame for the film, which ranges wildly over Schaab’s history. But Rietz’s question—“why are there wars?”—is of particular interest. It would be easy to blame Schaab and Rietz for the predicament that now supposedly confronts the free world: a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. But Rietz claims, rightly, that this would be a gross oversimplification. He replaces it with another: Schaab, who sold the Iraqis sophisticated centrifuge technology to refine weapons-grade uranium, is “50% victim and 50% criminal.”
To understand why wars are fought, it helps to understand the system that victimized Schaab, the system that makes criminality of the sort he practiced so lucrative. His trial is shown to be a waste of time, and the film concludes that if Western leaders seek peace as they claim to, they will eventually desist from their misguided strategy of ferreting out and prosecuting corrupt individuals, or bombing them (and everyone around them) into oblivion one after the other. Instead, the industrial complex that sustains and rewards this corruption must be examined and reformed. Given the U.S. government’s current policies, this won’t happen anytime soon.
The trade in war materials—convoluted, interconnected, plagued with shifting alliances and ethical lapses—is represented here mostly through the German firm Degussa, and Leybold, a Degussa subsidiary. Though little known in the United States, Degussa contributed to the industrial might of the Nazi regime by helping to manufacture Zyklon-B, by processing metals taken from concentration camp victims, and by aiding in the Third Reich’s atomic program. This story is told partly in the testimony of Erna Spiewack, who was a lab technician for Degussa in 1941. She puzzled in horror over the bloodstained dental fillings that were shipped to Degussa to be smelted and refined. But, she says, “I was 18 at the time and didn’t really reflect where they had come from.” And one wonders: as a single teenage girl in history’s most brutal military regime, what could she have done had she known?
This type of question comes up fairly often. What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade? Time and again, individuals can easily contribute to these systems but rarely can individuals oppose them.
A particular individual contribution to Degussa’s war effort, that of Gernot Zippe (known as the “father of the centrifuge”), was of great interest to the militaries of several industrialized nations. After the war was over, the Russians captured Zippe to help them develop the atomic bomb. Shortly following his return to Germany in 1956, Zippe was snapped up by the CIA to work on U.S. centrifuge technology. Subsequently, through a convoluted trail involving meetings of nuclear scientists in Amsterdam, Austrian bank accounts, and contacts with Iraqi and Egyptian diplomats, a variant of the sophisticated uranium centrifuge technology Zippe fathered turned up in an Iraqi weapons site in 1996.
The course by which Degussa’s centrifuge work ended up in Iraqi hands is too complicated to recount in this review, or even to grasp fully on a single viewing of Stealing the Fire. This is part of the point. In deciphering grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations, only one thing can be known for sure: weapons are of great value.
Everything else—Degussa’s allegiances, Iraq’s motives, Karl-Heinz Schaab’s affiliations—trails off into murk and confusion under scrutiny. Thus Degussa is spared the defendant’s chair at Nuremberg because of the firm’s association with American companies such as the DuPont Corporation, and NASA sells rocket technology, much of it lifted from the Nazis after World War II, to the Egyptian government in the 1960s, only to see the rockets used against Israel in the Middle East wars of 1967 and ‘73. NASA’s and Degussa’s technologies are later combined for nuclear missile plans found in Iraqi possession following the Persian Gulf War. All of this leads Neir Amit, a former head of Israeli intelligence, to call the targeting of civilians in Tel Aviv by Egyptian and Iraqi missiles a “continuation of the Holocaust.” He has a point.
Following this disturbing train of thought, Rietz says that the Scud-B technology Iraq used in the Gulf War is “90% German,” and culpability for Iraq’s success in procuring atomic bomb precursor technologies is “60-70% German.” The rest of the blame can be placed on the Americans, the Russians, and other participants in the grotesque weapons trade. But all this comes with a bit of a shrug. What can these numbers possibly mean when the borders between the nations involved are continually being compromised, and when the individual participants—Zippe, Spiewack, Schaab, and many others—are acting not out of national interest so much as motives of personal gain, advancement of scientific knowledge, or youthful naïvete?
One would like to imagine that a single expression of outrage anywhere along the line, from Erma Spiewack, Zippe, Schaab, the “intelligence” people in the CIA, or the jurists at Nuremberg, would have halted the free and lucrative trade in the deadliest weapon ever invented—that individual resistance would have averted this imminent global proliferation of nuclear technology. But of course, this isn’t likely. Institutional problems can be neither attributed to nations nor solved by individuals. They can only be addressed through fiercely collective intellectual work and ethical contemplation. The price for not solving them, however, will be paid by individuals, one person to the next, as it always has.
Stealing the Fire conveys the price of war for U.S. audiences by intercutting footage of the World Trade Center collapse with the testimony of a civilian who suffered under the state of war in Tel Aviv. “We’ve only had the tiniest taste” of these weapons’ destructive power, she says. “It will destroy you, the same way it destroys everyone else.” Either we collectively learn to manage the global industrial weapons network, no matter its intricacies, or we will eventually learn, as individuals, a lesson of brute simplicity: what these weapons do.