Balance of Terrors

A Cold War-era theorist saw the only way to curtail the worst was knowing the worst was possible

Full-text audio version of this essay.

It has been 70 years since Bert the Turtle instructed U.S. schoolchildren to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack. Today, Bert and his survival advice have become something of an amusing artifact of Cold War nuclear paranoia. But Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine, alongside that ratcheting up of nuclear rhetoric, has once again prompted fears about the end of the world, not just as we know it, but full stop. Many people find themselves wondering what they should do — if there is anything to be done — in the event of a nuclear war. The threat of nuclear catastrophe may have seemed less immediate in the years after the Cold War, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains a danger that such weapons might be used. 

Some suggest that too much time is already spent darkly ruminating on apocalyptic threats. Yet in the estimation of the nuclear philosopher — or  “Atomphilosoph” — Günther Anders, the problem is not that we spend too much time thinking about armageddon, but that we don’t spend nearly enough. “Don’t be a coward. Have the courage to be afraid.” These words, from his 1957 essay “Commandments in the Atomic Age,” stand in contrast to analyses that highlight the benefits of positive thinking, emphasizing that fear is a wholly legitimate response to a dangerously unstable world. Indeed, fear may be the most legitimate response to such a world. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries fixating on best-case scenarios, Anders didn’t worry that the admission of fear would give rise to defeatism and lethargy

Anders perceived his age as being characterized by an “inability to fear” in which people could not bring themselves to truly confront the “the magnitude of the apocalyptic danger” before them. Unlike many of his contemporaries, as well as our contemporaries today — who often fixate on best-case scenarios in predicting technological futures — Anders didn’t worry that the admission of fear would give rise to defeatism and lethargy. On the contrary. Far from suggesting that nuclear annihilation was inevitable, Anders emphasized that what mattered was that it was possible, and that it was essential not to lose sight of this potentiality. By his description, once the “atomic age” began it created a new world situation after which humanity would perpetually “live under the dark shadow of the monster.” The danger here was not that people would fear the monster, but that people would believe the monster would not harm them, or simply forget, over time, that the monster existed at all.

An uplifting thinker, Anders is not. With his indefatigable focus on the threat posed by nuclear weapons, he presents a view of a world in peril, where the sword hangs overhead by a thread, and where it becomes a moral obligation to watch that thread carefully. His fulminations on nuclear matters were part of a larger oeuvre in which he wrestled with the darker technological trends of the 20th century. Instead of seeing humanity as the master of the techno-scientific forces it was unleashing, Anders saw a world in which humans were becoming mere cogs in the machines they had themselves created, even as the spread of new media technologies inaugurated a society of “mass-produced hermits.” As he put it in his 1981 book Die Atomare Drohung (The Atomic Threat), the trend was towards the creation of “tools by which we make ourselves superfluous.” The motto of this technological world was “without us.” 

Anders is not the sort of thinker who will tell you not to worry, not to be afraid; rather, he is the sort who tells you that you should be worried, that you should be afraid. And perhaps more importantly, that there is nothing wrong with being worried and afraid. Near the end of his 1960 book on Kafka (cleverly titled Kafka), Anders notes, “From great warnings we should be able to learn, and they should help us to teach others.” In this moment of renewed anxiety about the prospect of nuclear war, Anders’s work represents just such a “great warning.”

Anders begins “Commandments in the Atomic Age” with a pithy statement: “You should not begin your day with the illusion that what surrounds you is a stable world.” This adage captures something of Anders’s experience of the world. Günther Anders hailed from the same social and intellectual milieu as figures like Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, and the Frankfurt School. Born in Poland and educated in Freiburg, he studied philosophy with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and like many other Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s, found himself forced to flee once the Nazis came to power. 

Having made his way from Paris to the United States, Anders did not enjoy the same access or affiliation with academic and cultural institutions as certain other émigrés (though he did periodically publish in the émigré newspaper Aufbau). After the war, Anders returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, where he became an active writer and a prominent figure in the anti-nuclear movement. Much of his voluminous work has not yet been translated into English, meaning that Anders is, unfortunately, often overlooked in the English-speaking world. His influence can be detected in the work of other prominent thinkers like Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman, though he often appears as a footnote in the stories of other more prominent figures — he was Hannah Arendt’s first husband, and Walter Benjamin was one of his cousins. Nevertheless, Anders was and remains a vital and challenging thinker in his own right.

The central thesis animating much of Anders’s thought, which is articulated in his two-volume opus Die Antiquierheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings, 1956 and 1980), is that there is a widening gulf between what humanity is able to create and what humans are able to imagine. Having stolen fire from the gods, Prometheus unthinkingly sets himself (and the world) on fire. Anders described this human “defect” as “Promethean shame,” whereby “the incapacity of our imagination to grasp the enormity of what we can produce and set in motion” leads to a “fatal disjunction” in which “we accept the ominous machines that we produce and use, and the apocalyptic effects that they entail.” In his estimation, a reversal had occurred in which technology replaced humanity as the subject of history. People could scarcely even be seen as “shepherds” of the machines, having been reduced to the role of “servants (as consumers or owners)” of machines. As he noted in his “Commandments in the Atomic Age,” technological developments revealed that “we humans are smaller than ourselves.”

While Anders’s concerns range over a host of different technologies, the key technological shift at the core of much of his work is the atomic bomb, which “inaugurates a new historical epoch,” as he put it in his 1956 essay “Reflections on the H Bomb.” What sets this “epoch” apart from previous ones is that nuclear weapons represent a distinct shift in the human condition, from one wherein “all men are mortal” to one wherein “Mankind as a whole is exterminable.” This new epoch, beginning with the flash of an atomic bomb in 1945, heralds the “end times.” Where the biblical apocalypse represented the coming of God, the nuclear apocalypse portends only the coming of death. Humanity now finds itself in a liminal space that he referred to as “the reprieve” — the world that exists in the shadow of the nuclear bomb. Humanity must act to ensure that “the reprieve” continues while never forgetting that the “end times” are still at hand.

What does it mean to live during “the reprieve”? As Anders explored in his provocative “Theses for the Atomic Age,” that was no longer the right question to ask. The question was no longer “How should we live?” but rather “Will we live?” — a shift that re-oriented the focus squarely back on the looming (if not necessarily impending) threat. In recognizing that “at any moment The Time of the End could turn into The End of Time,” all of us are obligated to “do everything in our power to make the End Time endless.”

The danger here was not that people would fear the monster, but that people would simply forget, over time, that the monster existed at all

Though he was writing during the Cold War, Anders’s focus shifted attention from the states boasting nuclear arsenals to the weapons themselves. While different nations could ostensibly see one another as enemies, Anders highlighted that the enemy in this situation is “the atomic situation as such,” as these weapons represent an enemy for all of humanity. Here, Anders was not only concerned with the humanity of his age, but with future generations whose lives were also at stake. As he put it, these are our “neighbors in time,” and “by setting fire to our house, we cannot help but make the flames leap over into the cities of the future.” Granted, this presents a challenge: The fact that the threat extends beyond the present and into the distant future only makes the potential scope of disaster harder to imagine. Anders believed that it was necessary for people to expand their imaginations. Imagining the future of technology is not normally a problem for technologists; Anders believed that people had to imagine not just floating cities and space rockets, but irradiated ruins and nuclear missiles. After all, imaging the future and realistically predicting the future are quite different things. 

Far from treating fear as a cowardly emotion, Anders looked to it as an expression of bravery — as he put it, “don’t fear fear, have the courage to be frightened, and to frighten others, too.” He was drawing a deliberate contrast with President Roosevelt’s famous line, from his 1933 inauguration, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In Anders’s opinion, there were things in the world for which fear was precisely the correct response. Against optimistic future assessments that sought to swaddle people in “the Freedom from Fear,” Anders argued that what was needed in the nuclear era was precisely “the Freedom to Fear.” This was not some kind of all-consuming dread, as he was careful to make clear. His goal was to give rise to action. The necessary fear that Anders sought to inspire represented a “fearless fear” that focused on the real dangers at hand — “a stirring fear” which would “drive us into the streets instead of under cover,” and “a loving fear,” which entailed “not fear of the danger ahead but for the generations to come.” 

There is not much of anything resembling a utopian vision in Anders’s thinking. He saw himself as a sort of “inverted utopian,” for “while ordinary Utopians are unable to actually produce what they are able to visualize, we are unable to visualize what we are actually producing.” Utopian hopes so often involve the fulfillment of a Promethean dream of mastery over technological and natural forces. In his “Reflections on the H Bomb,” Anders emphasized the dark side of such technological might: “because we are the first men with the power to unleash a world cataclysm, we are also the first to live continually under its threat.” Here in the “reprieve,” we humans “are mortal not only as individuals, but also as a group, and who are granted survival only until further orders.” 

The work of Günther Anders offers a cutting rejoinder to the irresponsible refrain, in the face of calamity, that “nobody could have seen this coming.” It’s a reminder that generally there are people who see it “coming,” and a challenge to individuals who should have seen it coming as well. The phrase represents a failure of imagination, hence Anders’s insistence that we need to expand our imaginations. The inability, or refusal, to see catastrophic threats with the requisite seriousness was to Anders a symptom of what he termed “Apokalypse-Blindheit,” or “blindness to the apocalypse.” This concept summarizes his assertion, in “Reflections on the H Bomb,” that “we are incapable of producing a fear commensurate” with the threats at hand, “let alone of constantly maintaining it in the midst of our still seemingly normal everyday life.” 

Attempting to further explain what keeps people from seeing the dangers before them, Anders directed his scathing gaze to media forms as well. In “The World as Phantom and as Matrix,” published in 1956, Anders argued that television and radio were creating a “new human type,” namely “the mass-produced hermit.” Unlike ascetic hermits who renounce the world, the objective of these “hermits” was “to be sure they won’t miss the slightest crumb of the world as image on a screen.” Anders’s reference was television, wherein “the events come to us, not we to them,” but above all he was concerned with the ways people are turned into voyeurs of the world instead of participants in it. Screens create a barrier between the event which seems to be “out there,” and the individual who perceives themselves to be safe “in here.” Strained through the sieve of the screen, the apocalyptic becomes the banal.

An uplifting thinker, Anders is not. He recognized that all of us are obligated to “do everything in our power to make the End Time endless”

There is something off-putting about being told that you are not frightened enough — especially in moments when many people are in fact quite terrified. Such claims unsettle the belief that everything will work out alright in the end, and that despite some bumps in the road, we are still on track towards a brighter future. Those who issue dire warnings tend to be scoffed at, derided as Cassandras and Jonahs — though, of course, in the end Cassandra was right, and the people of Ninevah were saved precisely because they did heed Jonah’s warnings. Every era has its doomsayers, but it’s important to differentiate between those who chant “the end is near” with anticipation, and those who raise the specter in hopes of preventing it. Ample scorn is directed at the “doomsday prepper” types, who seem eager for an apocalypse that will suddenly transform them into Max Rockatansky. But too often, those who even raise the possibility of catastrophe are derided as doom-mongers. As Anders reminds us, pretending those threats do not exist, or simply scrolling past them, does not protect us. He provides a discomforting, if needed, reminder that being afraid is a completely rational response to the world as it is.

His work provides no simple solutions. The “reprieve” can be extended, but its extension does not mark the end of the threat. Insofar as hope animates his work, it is the hope to be proven wrong. “I have published these words in order to prevent them from becoming true,” he wrote in the conclusion to his “Theses for the Atomic Age.” His pessimism was a discipline: His belief was that “If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of the disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out.” The word “act” should not be overlooked in that line, for Anders believed that those who were sufficiently aware of these probabilities would feel that they had no choice but to act. Though “the gloomy likelihood of catastrophe” may be overwhelming, one need not be crushed by it. 

To the question of what it means to live during “the reprieve” Anders’s own life provides some answers: he was active in the anti-nuclear weapons movements of his day, he doggedly wrote and spoke out about the threat these weapons posed, and even though focusing on these dangers could induce anxiety, he refused to look away. Bert the Turtle’s admonition to “Duck and Cover” may strike many today as an absurd relic of past paranoia; but it behooves us to remember that, as ridiculous as it is to think hiding under a desk will protect you from a nuclear blast, willfully forgetting about the nuclear threat will not make that danger vanish. Anders reminds us that in moments such as this, there is nothing wrong with being afraid, so long as that fear motivates us to face and challenge the source of our peril. 

“Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope,” Anders wrote. “Our despair is none of our business.”

Zachary Loeb is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on the ways that complex technological systems generate and exacerbate risk, and the history of techno-scientific doom-saying. He is currently working on a dissertation project about the year 2000 computing crisis (better known as Y2K).