“STEALING THE FIRE”
The Centrifuge Scandal
In 1996, German nuclear engineer Karl-Heinz Schaab was accused of selling secret information about a nuclear centrifuge to Iraq. With this stolen data, Saddam Hussein was able to obtain indispensable information on the production of nuclear arms. What we do not know is if Schaab was only a shrewd traitor or a simple pawn in a much more extensive network.
Directors John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler use Schaab’s trial over the centrifuge scandal as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and to decipher grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations.
Through the use of archival footage and interviews with scientists, historians and prosecutors, Friedman and Nadler discover the centrifuge scandal’s incredible chain of events. The roots of the scandal began in Nazi laboratories and the centrifuge cylinder got to the Soviet Union via German prisoners of war but first made a brief two-year stopover in the U.S. and finally wound up as the property of Degussa, a German company that supplied concentration camps with Zyklon-B.
Karl-Heinz Schaab is a deceptively drab German technocrat with one discernable character trait and that is his love of bad wigs. discernable character trait is a weakness for bad wigs. He says little and reveals less. In a Munich court in 1999 he was convicted of selling German nuclear technology to Iraq: appropriating the secret plans for an array of centrifuges used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
The filmmakers have attempted to follow Schaab’s trail in Iraq, where he met with Khidhir Hamza, the former director of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear project (now defected) and in Brazil, where, the filmmakers say, he was involved in a plan to build a Brazilian nuclear submarine.
Most of Mr. Schaab’s story is told through his defense lawyers. The film moves among Rio de Janeiro, Munich and Baghdad (with several side trips) and it comes across as an espionage thriller. It is interesting to note that the centrifuge technology was first developed by scientists working for the Third Reich’s atomic bomb project. Several of those scientists went on to work for the Soviets, the Americans or both during the cold war. The Nazis’ corporate partner in their atom program was Degussa, a multinational corporation that continues to try to sell atomic technology to governments like those of Iraq and Pakistan. We are told here that Degussa’s corporate history includes a contract with the SS to process the gold and silver fillings taken from the death camp inmates, as well to manufacture Zyklon B, the gas used to murder many of them.
Questions about the reasons for have become more complex at the same time that they have become urgent. Ever since the efficiencies of the industrial revolution were used to service of the globe’s most powerful war machines, many have seen the ever-growing refinements of warfare as leading, inevitably, to the end of civilization. Yet, for whatever reason, this hasn’t made war rare or brought about the enduring peace many scientists and humanists expected after the devastation of World War II. This video documentary uses Schaab’s trial as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and questions why warfare has continued to endure despite the consequences.
Our collective best hope is not to worship wars but to eradicate them by discovering why they are fought, and do so the sooner the better. We know that While mainstream media, the press, and the government are collaborating to create a simplistic fantasy of good vs. evil in America’s New World Order, there is a contrary, terrifying global reality that is quietly taking shape, one in which uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation, combined with growing inequity in the distribution of the world’s resources, will lead to wars without clear moral purpose.
Schaab’s trial for treason—which led to an astonishingly lenient 100,000 deutsche-mark fine and 5 years’ probation. It is the frame for the film and it would be easy to blame Schaab for the predicament that now supposedly confronts the free world: a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
To understand why wars are fought, it helps to understand the system that victimized Schaab, the same system that makes criminality of the sort he practiced so lucrative. His trial is shown to be a waste of time, and the film concludes that if Western leaders seek peace as they claim to, they will eventually desist from their misguided strategy of ferreting out and prosecuting corrupt individuals, or bombing them into oblivion. Instead, the industrial complex that sustains and rewards this corruption must be examined and reformed.
The trade in war materials—convoluted, interconnected, plagued with shifting alliances and ethical lapses—is seen here mostly through the German firm Degussa, and Leybold, a Degussa subsidiary. Degussa helped to manufacture Zyklon-B, by processing metals taken from concentration camp victims, and by aiding in the Third Reich’s atomic program. This story is told partly in the testimony of Erna Spiewack, who was a lab technician for Degussa in 1941. She was horrified about the bloodstained dental fillings that were shipped to Degussa to be smelted and refined. But, she also says that she was young and had no idea where they came from. Even if she had known, there was nothing she could do. This type of question comes up fairly often. What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade? Time and again, individuals can easily contribute to these systems but rarely can individuals oppose them.
A particular individual contribution to Degussa’s war effort, that of Gernot Zippe who was known as the “father of the centrifuge” made contributions to Degussa’s war effort and after the war was over, the Russians captured him to help them develop the atomic bomb. Shortly following his return to Germany in 1956, Zippe was snapped up by the CIA to work on U.S. centrifuge technology. We, therefore understand, that through a convoluted trail involving meetings of nuclear scientists in Amsterdam, Austrian bank accounts, and contacts with Iraqi and Egyptian diplomats, there existed a variant of the sophisticated uranium centrifuge technology Zippe had created and it turned up in an Iraqi weapons site in 1996.
In trying to deciphering grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations, only one thing can be known for sure and that is that weapons are of great value.
Thus Degussa is spared the defendant’s chair at Nuremberg because of the firm’s association with American companies such as the DuPont Corporation, and NASA sells rocket technology, much of it lifted from the Nazis after World War II, to the Egyptian government in the 1960s, only to see the rockets used against Israel in the Middle East wars of 1967 and ‘73. NASA’s and Degussa’s technologies are later combined for nuclear missile plans found in Iraqi possession following the Persian Gulf War. All of this leads Nir Amit, a former head of Israeli intelligence, to call the targeting of civilians in Tel Aviv by Egyptian and Iraqi missiles a “continuation of the Holocaust.” And in that he has a point.
Institutional problems can be neither attributed to nations nor solved by individuals. They can only be addressed through fiercely collective intellectual work and ethical contemplation.
“Stealing the Fire” conveys the price of war for U.S. audiences by intercutting footage of the World Trade Center collapse with the testimony of a civilian who suffered under the state of war in Tel Aviv. “Either we collectively learn to manage the global industrial weapons network, no matter its intricacies, or we will eventually learn, as individuals, a lesson of brute simplicity: what these weapons do.