In his first book, Dead Funny, Rudolph Herzog explored the tricky history of humor and satire addressing Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. The Atlantic named Herzog’s debut one of their Best Books of 2012, writing that, “Dead Funny isn’t just a book of wildly off-limits humor. Rather, it’s a fascinating, heartbreaking look at power dynamics, propaganda, and the human hunger for catharsis.”
In his new book, A Short History of Nuclear Folly, once again translated from the German by Jefferson Chase and published in the U.S. by Melville House, Herzog turns a similarly critical eye on humanity’s reckless use of nuclear technology, starting in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when German scientists were courted by both the Americans and the Soviets to create the most destructive weapons in human history, to more recent examples of negligence at a nuclear reactor in Kinshasa and a medical equipment scrapyard in Brazil. Herzog mines history for stories of governments and militaries sacrificing the safety of the people they are meant to protect, all in the name of a misguided sense of technological progress. He renders each story with a deadpan wit and attention to absurd details that will be familiar to fans of the documentary work of his father, Werner Herzog.
Rudolph Herzog is also the director of Amundsen: Lost in the Arctic (2010), a film about the Norwegian polar explorer, and The Agent (2013), about Werner Stiller, the Stasi’s top nuclear spy. He’s currently at work on a film version of A Short History of Nuclear Folly.
While your subject matter in A Short History of Nuclear Folly is very serious, ranging from the likelihood of a manmade apocalypse during the height of the Cold War to the reckless disposal of radioactive materials, you treat these stories with a light, occasionally humorous touch. Did this approach come naturally or did you have to work at keeping the book from becoming a depressing tour of the horrors of our past?
The style came naturally. It is informed by the experience of my own childhood and youth, the experience of the final years of the Cold War, when all-out nuclear war still loomed as a possibility. I also remember Chernobyl and the paranoia we all experienced the moment when the radioactive cloud drifted to the place where I grew up. I wouldn't say that I find these things particularly “humorous”. It's more a sense of disbelief that this was once the reality of my life. I think this sense of wonder at the grotesqueness of it all, of the magnitude of human folly, permeates the book. There's no other way I can explain why I chose this particular style, even though it's a strictly factual book.
I suppose “humor” isn’t exactly the right term to use in describing these stories, but I do see your work as part of a tradition of art and narrative that uses the grotesqueries of the atomic age as the elements of a tragic, black comedy. Did works like Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove influence you? Are there other more obscure books or films that influenced you?
Yes, that's right. Dr. Strangelove was an influence, as was the 1980s film Atomic Café. Then, of course, there is a lot of interesting documentary and newsreel footage in Russian, American, British and French archives that I've been looking at. Some of that is stranger than fiction. I'm currently working on a film version of the book and going back to those sources.
Why do you think readers are so interested in stories of disaster and human folly? Do you think disaster tourism is an expression of healthy curiosity or just morbidity?
I still hope and think that it is possible to learn from history. We need to take an unflinching look at ourselves, and at human nature. There is nothing healthy or morbid about that. It's just a wise thing to do.
You don’t tell the stories of any of the major, well-known nuclear disasters in A Short History of Nuclear Folly. You only mention Chernobyl, Fukushima-Daiichi and Three Mile Island in passing. The stories you tell are much more obscure. Where did you find information on these less well-known events? Did you know about them before you began the book? Which was most surprising to you?
I knew about most of the stories since I had been collecting them for years. I looked at old press clippings and declassified documents (the freedom of information act is a wonderful thing), and talked to eyewitnesses and experts. The stories of nuclear weapons accidents were quite shocking to me. In one case, a bomber went near Goldsboro and a hydrogen bomb was retrieved from a tree. It had gone through its entire triggering sequence – only a single trigger hadn't been tripped, otherwise it would have detonated. In another case, a bomber accidentally dropped an A-bomb in a train conductor's yard. And about 40 nuclear bombs were lost during the Cold War.
Do you view the accidents and tests you write about as intentional criminal acts or as acts of ignorant negligence?
They are renderings of human folly and stupidity on an epic scale. Some things were intentional, others weren't.
I think your description of uranium enrichment early in the book is more clear and understandable than any expert could provide. How difficult was it to put the sometimes complex and technical details of nuclear technology into plain language?
Thank you. That was indeed a big challenge. I worked on that right to the end, almost to the moment it was sent to the printer.
Do you think your father’s work has influenced your own work? Like him, you explore people and events on the fringes and at the extremes of humanity. What attracts you to this subject matter?
The Cold War and the nuclear threat was not at the fringe, but right in the mainstream. I think instead of searching my family for clues, you need to look at the world I grew up in. It was very different, even though it's not all that long ago. My country was directly in the crosshairs of a nuclear conflict. In Germany, we kids grew up thinking that missiles could be flying at us at any moment. I remember the dad of a school friend dug a nuclear shelter in his garden. It was on everyone's mind all the time and part of normality, even though it may seem extreme now.
It’s interesting to me that an overall anxiety about a nuclear apocalypse has dissipated since the end of the Cold War and that we are only occasionally reminded about the dangers of nuclear technology when something goes wrong, such as the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011. Do you fear that we’ve entered a period of complacency concerning these dangers?
More than anything, I'm worried that we're at the beginning of a new phase of nuclear proliferation. There are hotspots in Asia where there's a nuclear arms/ballistic missile race already going on. As this heats up, it may spread to neighboring countries and cause them to join the "club" of nuclear nations. Similar things may happen in the Middle East. By the middle of the century, the situation could have turned very messy, and become a threat to humanity as a whole.
Do you think any amount of caution would make nuclear power safe?
No form of energy production is ever 100% safe. Nuclear carries special risks, not only because of the consequences of meltdowns (you mentioned Fukushima, which had a fairly low impact because of the incredibly favorable wind conditions throughout the incident), but also the problem of huge amounts of extremely dangerous nuclear waste that is generated. Some of that waste could also be weaponized which adds another dimension to the problem.