Rainer Karlsch, Zbynek Zeman. Urangeheimnisse: Das Erzgebirge im Brennpunkt der Weltpolitik 1933-1960. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2002. 320 S. EUR 19,00 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-86153-276-7.
Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (History Department, Portland State University)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
The notion of "secrets" in the title is apt, in that this book describes one of the most obscure aspects of the history of the DDR and Czechoslovakia, particularly in comparison to the vast number of people involved and the economic, social, and political effects involved: the development of Soviet-controlled uranium mining operations in the Erzgebirge in the years after World War II. This volume represents a synthesis of a decade or so of specialized research by various scholars, including the two authors, on the technical and social history of uranium mining in the DDR and Czechoslovakia. Although it probably contains little new for this rather small group of specialists, it constitutes an accessible--indeed, at times exciting--introduction to this long-obscured topic for more generalist historians of Germany and eastern Europe, and for historians of technology and science.
The strength of the volume is its multi-layered description of the effect of the rapid growth of these mining enterprises on the communities and individuals involved, a description which effectively pulls together many historiographical sub-genres. The authors also draw connections between the story of these local communities and broader themes of international politics, diplomacy, and strategy in the early Cold War; these connections, though often intriguing, are not always presented with the same degree of convincing detail as the story at the local level.
Brief opening chapters survey the history of mining in the Erzgebirge region, as well as the events leading from the discovery of radioactivity in the late-nineteenth century to the first fission bomb in 1945. The mountainous Saxon-Bohemian border region had been a mining center since medieval times; silver from Jachymov (in German, Joachimsthal) was coined into the Thaler which were the numismatic ancestors of the dollar. It was also known long ago that miners from this area frequently suffered from the Joachimsthaler or Schneeberger Bergkrankheit. We now surmise that this disease was lung cancer induced by exposure to radon gas, which signaled, in turn, the presence of radioactive minerals. Ores from the Erzgebirge were the raw material for Marie Curie's discovery of radium in 1898; during the vogue for things radioactive in the early 1900s, a "radium spa" was opened in Oberschlema. Although uranium was also detected in the Erzgebirge rock formations, it was commonly believed that it was only available in quantities too small for commercial exploitation.
This assumption remained even after the 1938 discovery of uranium fission led physicists to conclude that this element could potentially be used as a source of energy or, even more dramatically, of an unprecedentedly large explosive. The Americans, of course, were the first to develop the atomic bomb, and despite the warnings of leading scientists, American political leaders believed they could maintain a "nuclear monopoly" for many years, not least because, as of 1945, the vast majority of the world's known uranium reserves were under U.S. control, either directly or through agreements with friendly governments. The Soviet Union, which by 1945 was firmly committed to its own atomic weapons program, hence faced an apparently insuperable "uranium gap." Ironically, the very regions which were to provide the material to cover this gap were either occupied by U.S. troops or altogether unoccupied by the Allies at the close of World War II, but were delegated to the Soviet Zone in the Potsdam agreement. As the authors show, rumors of conspiracy to the contrary, neither the Americans nor the Soviets were aware of the large uranium deposits in western Saxony during the negotiations leading to the withdrawal of American troops. Soon thereafter, however, Russian geologists investigated radioactivity in the Erzgebirge more carefully, and they decided that exploitation of uranium ores was much more promising than hitherto suspected. Rich deposits were discovered near Schneeberg, Johanngeorgenstadt, Aue, Annaberg, Oberschlema, and other towns in Germany, and near Jachymov in Czechoslovakia.
In Czechoslovakia, the consequence was a secret treaty, signed in November 1945, which committed that country to sell the entirety of its uranium production to the Soviet Union. The "National Enterprise Jachymov" was founded in 1946 to exploit the uranium reserves there. These steps were undertaken under considerable Soviet pressure, but the authors argue that President Edvard Benes and Prime Minister Zdenek Fierlinger were eager--even apart from such pressure--to have congenial relations with the Soviet Union and saw in the treaty an important tool towards that end. Conversely, according to Zeman and Karlsch, consternation over Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk's statements that Czechoslovakia would open up its "radium mines" to international inspection was instrumental in causing his fall from power. They also maintain that questions about the management of the mining enterprise catalyzed the purge of Rudolf Slansky in 1951-52. The uranium story is perhaps here overplayed in comparison with other factors in the complex (and dangerous) world of Czech politics in the late 1940s, but the authors leave little doubt that this issue, largely handled in top secrecy, played a more important role than was perceived by the public then or since.
Production demands increased rapidly, leading to a shortage of workers for the mines. The solution was forced labor, at first from German prisoners of war and later from domestic political prisoners. The authors describe the mines as a "Czechoslovakian Gulag archipelago" (pp. 119-40)--admittedly not on the same scale as the Soviet system, but with similarly atrocious conditions--which endured up until an amnesty declared in 1960.
In the DDR, successful uranium prospecting led to the formation in May 1947 of the Wismut AG--the "bismuth" in the name was merely a fig leaf--a corporation wholly owned by the Soviet military up until 1954, when it was re-formed as a Soviet-East German consortium. Apart from a small percentage, the uranium produced was furnished to the Soviet Union as war reparations; the authors are keen to demonstrate, however, that the impact on the German economy, through the investment of labor and capital, was far greater than the nominal price of the exported uranium. The "interest region" for the Wismut AG in western Saxony (and, later, part of Thuringia), whose population in 1948 included 1.6 million inhabitants, was ordinarily closed to those without requisite identification papers and was patrolled by its own special security service--a virtual "state within a state" (pp. 141 ff.). By 1950 the firm employed almost 200,000 people.
As in Czechoslovakia, the intense production demands led to severe labor shortages, but in Germany these were met differently. Efforts were made to recruit laborers, particularly refugees, to move to the region. When these efforts proved insufficient, however, thousands of unemployed persons throughout the Soviet Zone/DDR were essentially compelled to take up work there. Pay was on a par with comparable work elsewhere, and (perhaps more importantly) rationing of food was, for those who fulfilled or exceeded their quotas, generous by the meager post-war standards. However, workers who failed to meet quotas faced reductions in pay and rations, and chronic "slackers" faced accusations of "sabotage" which could result in more severe penalties. Working conditions were difficult, equipment was often inadequate in quantity and quality, and safety measures were minimal even relative to the then limited state of knowledge about the dangers of radiation exposure.
Karlsch and Zeman vividly document the social dislocations created by the massive influx of population into these previously rather quiet mining towns--the "wild years" of a "mining rush" with its concomitant turbulence--but under the peculiar circumstances of the Soviet-imposed security blanket. Largely due to this last factor, the authors argue, during the labor unrest of June 1953 the Erzgebirge was relatively quiet; however, other incidents convinced both Soviet and German authorities that over the long run the situation had to become more normalized. The result was a backing off from the stricter sanctions; however, the arduous conditions remained, and the special health problems due to radiation were faced only slowly and belatedly. While by no means downplaying the harsh and exploitative aspects of Wismut's operations, the authors also point out that the evidence does not support rumors of slave labor and wholesale deaths of workers which sometimes circulated, especially in West Germany (see p. 221). Indeed, one of the interesting conclusions which emerges is the way in which the Soviet authorities, initially apparently quite uninterested in the quality of the work environment, were more or less forced by their own self-interest to create a sustainable supply of ores to ameliorate conditions, at least to some degree, and to change the management structure (the 1954 reorganization mentioned above).
These accounts of transformations in the mining communities of the Wismut AG and National Enterprise Jáchymov are persuasive and highly readable; however, some aspects of the narrative leading up to the atomic bomb, at the beginning of the book, are more puzzling. For example, the authors include allegations that both Germany and Japan tested atomic bombs before the end of World War II. There is indeed evidence emerging that these countries' nuclear research was more advanced and multifaceted than we have previously realized, but the evidence that either country got so far as to create a working bomb is dubious at best, in the judgment of most responsible historians. (In my estimation, not all of the authors cited by Karlsch and Zeman fall into this category.) The injection of these (to put it mildly) debatable theories into the story is all the more puzzling because it does little to advance the real argument of the book; the strategic importance of the Erzgebirge in the Cold War context is obvious without such conspiratorial speculations. There are also a few small but technically significant errors; for example, the weapon used on Hiroshima was not a plutonium but a uranium-235 bomb (p. 26). These flaws in the introductory pages, however, should not detract from the book's core message: its rich, sometimes harrowing picture of the drastic changes visited upon Erzgebirge mining districts after 1945 because of the presence underground of this suddenly critical element.
. Inter alia: Rainer Karlsch, Allein bezahlt? Die Reparationsleistungen der SBZ/DDR 1945-53 (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1993); Norman M. Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1995), pp. 238-247; Rainer Karlsch and Harm Schroeter, eds., Strahlende Vergangenheit: Studien zur Geschichte des Uranbergbaus der Wismut (St. Katharinen: Scripta Mercaturae, 1996); and Ralf Engeln, Uransklaven oder Sonnensucher? Die sowjetische AG Wismut in der SBZ/DDR, 1946-1953 (Essen: Klartext, 2001).
. On misconceptions about the world distribution of uranium and how these contributed to the "nuclear monopoly" myth, see Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1980 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980); and Jonathan E. Helmreich, Gathering Rare Ores: The Diplomacy of Uranium Acquisition 1939-1954 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
. The brief period after the German surrender during which there were no Allied troops occupying parts of Saxony is the basis of Stefan Heym's novel Schwarzenberg (Munich: C. Bertelsmann, 1984).
. For example, Geoffrey Brooks, cited on p. 19, elsewhere (Hitler's Terror Weapons (Barnsley: Leo Cooper 2002) ascribes to the National Socialist regime not only the production of an atomic bomb but also the creation of flying saucers relying on anti-gravity devices, as well as medium-like contact with supernatural or extraterrestrial beings.
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Richard H. Beyler. Review of Karlsch, Rainer; Zeman, Zbynek, Urangeheimnisse: Das Erzgebirge im Brennpunkt der Weltpolitik 1933-1960.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.