The get-to-know: Martin Diebel

Dr. Martin Diebel is a Research Fellow at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam. He is a member of the research group for the history of the Interior Ministries in Bonn and Berlin-Ost; Main focus on the history of civil defence and contingency planing in the Federal republic of Germany, from the 1940s until the 1960s.

Abstract of Martin Diebels dissertation:
ATOMKRIEG UND ANDERE KATASTROPHEN.
Z
IVILUNDKATASTROPHENSCHUTZ IN DER BUNDESREPUBLIK UND GROßBRITANNIEN NACH 1945“

War, floods and nuclear energy – since 1945 western societies are faced with very different kinds of threats. Security, as the historian Eckart Conze and many others ascertained, is a key term of the 20th century. However, there were not just the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation governments in the Federal Republic and the United Kingdom were confronted with. Since the late 1960s, British civil defence officials as well as their German counterparts tried to wide their concepts of emergency management and civil protection respectively. Ecological and technical calamities such as floods, forest fires and, especially, chemical or nuclear disasters were perceived and defined as public task. The reason for this transformation of the civil defence rational is twofold. At first, after the financial and material decline of war related civil defence in the middle of the 1960s their proponents were seeking for new tasks. Furthermore, since the beginning of the 20th century there was a more or less intensive – personal as well as ideological – nexus between emergency management and civil defence. Secondly, civil defence manager draw on a general social shift of perceiving threats and hazards respectively, a shift expressed efficaciously by Ulrich Beck’s “Risk Society” in 1986.

However, as the Peace Movement’s protests at the beginning of the 1980s shows, Cold War remained as menacing as the last 30 years. Nevertheless, the policy, polities and politics of civil defence has changed significantly since 1945. Moreover, the comparison of both civil defence systems unveils: Despite some kind of similarities during and after the Second World War, the ideas and politics of civil defence diverged from year to year until the end of the Cold War. There are numerous reasons for this process. One of them is the distinction in defining the functions of the state and the duties of society and citizens. Another is the power of national relief organizations like the German Red Cross, which had a special interest to be involved in civil defence work. Moreover, the public-private partnership, which is so characteristic for German civil defence, helped the latter to survive the lean years of the 1960s– and to transform it to the German integrated rescue system of today. Finally, the different experiences with Second World War civil defence influenced the policies of civil defence fundamentally. With the Nazi past as background, it was not wise for German civil defence officials to choose the same path as Hitler Germany. While the “Blitz” did not require a change of British policy.

In conclusion, research on civil defence enables us to trace back the transformation of security perceptions in society and politics as well as the ideas of the relation between state, society and the individual. In addition, this transformation was and is always, as the history of British and German civil defence reveals, always both ambivalent and complex as well.