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East, West Germany Dealt Differently With Chernobyl

Kateri JochumApril 26, 2006

Following the reactor meltdown in Chernobyl, information didn't flow -- it trickled. While media coverage in the West was quick to depict the "worst case scenario," the media in East Germany downplayed the "incident."

The Tagesschau report on the fires in ChernobylImage: ARD-aktuell

The first reports that hinted at a meltdown from the Soviet nuclear power plant did not come from Moscow -- they came from Sweden. On April 28, 1986, technicians at the Swedish Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant detected a radioactive cloud passing from East to West. They soon confirmed that the leak was not coming from their own reactors, but coming with air currents from the Black Sea. At 9 p.m. that evening, Moscow officially announced to the world that an "accident" had taken place at the Chernobyl power station.

Too little, too late

News spread quickly, but information was thin. The first reports in West German media came as a short news brief in the evening news.

"Our correspondent in Moscow reported about the accident, but there was no information about any potential danger," Jan Hofer, a newscaster that evening for Tagesthemen, the nightly news report of German public broadcaster ARD, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "We had no idea what a GAU was -- a nuclear worst case scenario -- there was little information to go on and no images. The fear came later, as the bad news was made public."

No milk, no mushrooms, no playing outside

Trink Milch
Warnings against fresh milk held in the weeks following the accidentImage: AP

West German politicians went into an uproar against the Soviet Union, condemning its lax safety measures and the concealment of the potential threat of radiation. But the Soviet authorities maintained tight control of information in and around Chernobyl, only releasing sketchy details about the cause and extent of the accident.

Within less than two days, the wind changed and the radioactive cloud dropped poisoned rain on Bavaria. News coverage in West Germany turned to the danger of contamination for the German public. People in Bavaria were told to stay indoors as much as possible. The government issued warnings for German citizens to refrain from eating salads and forest mushrooms and drinking milk.

The young political party, the Greens, quickly staged protest rallies, carrying banners bearing the slogan "Chernobyl is everywhere." In television, politicians debated about the future of nuclear energy in West Germany. Nuclear power was no longer considered "safe energy."

"Chernobyl no danger for the GDR"

Anti-Atomkraft Demo
The Chernobyl disaster gave new wind to Germany's antinuclear movementImage: AP

In East Germany, the state-controlled media remained loyal to its Soviet partners. The news broadcast Aktuelle Kamera issued the initial news statement about the meltdown simultaneously to the West German media. But it was called an "incident," not a complete meltdown. In the days that followed, the focus was on downplaying Chernobyl -- both in its extremity and in the potential danger for East German citizens. On the evening of May 1, a panel of nuclear scientists spoke on East German television.

"The East German experts tried to reassure people," said Hardy Graupner, a reporter for DW-RADIO's English service who worked for Radio Berlin International in East Berlin in 1986.

"But the information was contradictory. They said it was a Russian problem, that East Germany wasn't affected by contamination and that our nuclear power plants in Greifswald were of a younger generation, and therefore completely safe."

If anything, Graupner said, it gave East Germans the chance to look down on their big brother, the Soviet Union.

"The Chernobyl reactor that exploded was old," he said. "Experts said that the Soviets should have modernized it. The consensus was that East German technology was more sophisticated. They said that a nuclear meltdown could never happen in the GDR."

Clueless until 1990

East German newspapers also downplayed the explosion.

"Experts say: No danger from Chernobyl in East Germany," read the headlines in Saxony's newspaper, the Sächsische Zeitung, the next day.

Rennsteigregion im Frankenwald
Were the mushrooms in Turingia safer than in Bavaria?Image: frankenwald tourismus

"It was a two-column article on page six," Thomas Schade, an editor at the paper, told DW-WORLD.DE. "That was typical for the GDR -- the story didn't make the front page because that was full of coverage of the government's official May Day parades."

Saxony was one of the few regions in East Germany with little access to Western media.

"We were dependent on expert opinions," Schade said. "There weren't any official warnings about not eating fresh vegetables or drinking milk, and so in Saxony, we weren't very concerned. It wasn't until after the reunification in 1990 that we found out the real extent of the catastrophe."