The get-to-know: Jochen Molitor

Jochen Molitor is PhD-student at the University of Cologne. His current research project is named Disaster as Profession: West German Physicians and Civil Defense, 1956–1989.
Quoted from Molitor’s CV: ”Utilizing institutional, social and cultural history perspectives, my current research project will trace both the thought processes and the real-life preparations of West German physicians to save as many lives as possible in the event of a nuclear war or a major technical disaster during the Cold War period. How did medical doctors try to “professionally” deal with these excessively destructive (if unlikely) threats? The transfer and transformation processes of specialized knowledge between military and civilian physicians will be just as important for the analysis as the self-image of the so-called Katastrophenmediziner (disaster physicians) and their relationship to various civil defense organizations, politicians and the general German populace – the prospective patients of the dreaded “nuclear emergency”.”

Keywords: History of Civil Defense & Disaster Relief, History of Knowledge & Professions, Cold War History, German History after 1945.

Selected articles of interest with regard to workshop theme:

Mit der Bombe überleben: Die Zivilschutzliteratur der Bundesrepublik 1960–1964. Marburg: Tectum 2011. [Surviving With the Bomb: West German Civil Defense Literature 1960–1964.]

During the Cold War period, a war between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact could easily have led to the destruction of Germany. Since the 1950s, the expression „Mit der Bombe leben“ [Living with the Bomb] epitomized the wish of many Germans to get used to that latent threat. A large part of the German population was clearly tired of war and craved to go on with their everyday lives above all else. However, it was the task of Civil Defense officials to constantly remind the population about the nuclear threat, to keep them alert and prepare them for the ultimate disaster. This book traces their struggles to teach war torn, disinterested people about ever greater, future horrors.

Lehren für den Verteidigungsfall: Die Sturmflutkatastrophe von 1962 und der bundesdeutsche Zivilschutz, in: Martina Heßler & Christian Kehrt (Hrsg.), Die Hamburger Sturmflut von 1962. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2014, pp 195–221. [A Lesson in Defense: West German Civil Defense and the Flood Disaster of 1962, in: The Hamburg Flood Disaster of 1962.]

Both the Bundesamt für zivilen Bevölkerungsschutz (Federal Agency of Civil Defense) and the Bundesluftschutzverband (Civil Defense Association) considered preparations for a possible, Soviet nuclear attack to be the primary focus of their work. However, key Civil Defense documents of the 1960s rather discussed the Hamburg Flood Disaster than the world shaking Cold War crises in Berlin and Cuba. Closer research reveals that Civil Defense officials tried to rhetorically construct similarities between the flood and the threat of war. They depicted the flood as a metaphor for a possible nuclear strike rather than a natural disaster and harshly criticized the German population for acting in a highly irrational manner. Because they desperately wanted to forget about World War II, most Germans would cast a blind eye on all possible danger. Contrary to that, German Civil Defense officials characterized their own disaster relief work during the flood as a successful rehearsal for the „real“ threat: nuclear war.

Die totale Verteidigung? Zivilschutz – aus zeithistorischer Perspektive, in: Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 8,3/2015, pp 389–405. [Contemporary Historical Perspectives on Civil Defense.]


Historical assessments of Cold War civil defense should strive to overcome certain premises of the peace movements of the time, who regarded it to be little more than a bizarre episode of the arms race. A differentiated look at the civil defense measures of various nations reveals a wide variety of historical insights to be gained, both about respective threat discourses and about the relationship between modern security frameworks and democratic principles. The interdisciplinary nature of civil defense, which affects numerous parts of society, and its links to institutionalized disaster management, should encourage historical research to utilize multiple perspectives.