Biological warfare

Biological warfare

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Biological weapons are natural substances that warring powers use to destroy or weaken their enemies. These primarily include pathogens, but also biological poisons, animals and plants. The 1972 Bioweapons Convention prohibits the use of these warfare agents.

This includes viruses, bacteria, fungi and toxic substances. Biological weapons are characterized by the fact that they have a fatal effect on humans, livestock or plants after a short incubation and at the same time are largely immune to medication or prophylaxis. Possible biological weapons are also rats, mice, grasshoppers, ticks, lice, fleas, mosquitoes, wasps, tapeworms, bark and Colorado beetles.

First, biological weapons can be aimed directly at people. Pathogens that are quick and deadly and for which there is no vaccination are suitable weapons of mass destruction. From a military point of view, epidemics are perfect, against which the enemy has no means, while the own soldiers are protected. That is why, for example, the U.S. Army planned to use smallpox against the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War because the American GIs were vaccinated, and the Soviet Union even developed a modified anthrax virus that was resistant to the known antibiotics and also produced a new antibiotic, the protected Russian soldiers.

Slow-acting viruses and bacteria, which only occasionally lead to death and can be treated well with medication, are unsuitable for committing a mass murder - but they are always suitable to wear down an opponent of war.

Mass destruction

The most dangerous bioweapons not only kill people on the spot, but threaten the inhabitants of entire countries. First of all, such epidemics are easy to transmit and, secondly, almost certainly fatal. First of all, this applies to anthrax, but also to the botulinum bacteria or pneumonia.

Today internationally banned and known as the most dangerous pathogens: anthrax, plague, smallpox, tularemia, Queensland fever, snot, encephalticides, hemorrhagic viruses, ricin and botulinum (poison produced by bacteria), as well as staphylococci. They are either highly lethal, easily spread, highly infectious, or all at the same time.

The botulism poison produces the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It leads to food poisoning. Victims who inhale or eat the poison suffer from diarrhea, nausea, drowsiness, and respiratory paralysis hours or days later. The death rate is high, but there are antidotes.

Yersinia pestis, the bacterium of pneumonia, was the most feared epidemic in the Middle Ages. When the bacteria get into the bronchial tubes, there is difficulty in breathing, coughing and delirium; pulmonary edema develops. Pneumonic plague is almost always fatal, but vaccinations and antibiotics are available today.

Pathogens that can be spread over the air with “bombs” or as a spray are particularly suitable as weapons of mass destruction. In the age of aviation, such "plague pots" and anthrax sprays caused the greatest damage; they killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Protection against biological weapons?

In 1970, the WHO calculated that spraying 50 kg of anthrax spores on a city with 500,000 inhabitants would result in 95,000 deaths and 125,000 sick people. Such a biological weapon has as bad an impact as an atomic bomb. It is much cheaper to do so, and nuclear weapons cannot be controlled much better.

In general, possible targets of biological weapons attacks are large cities, as well as areas where crowds of people are located, such as city centers, football stadiums, airports or train stations. Subway stations are particularly suitable because the contaminated air can hardly escape here.

A biological weapon attack is suspected if unexplained cases of illness suddenly appear on a large scale, and those affected show the same symptoms, this disease is not typical for the country, or the pathogen does not even occur in the country if the diseases are fatal and transmitted unusually . For example, anthrax usually spreads through the skin; but when masses of people receive anthrax through the air, that's strange.

Bioweapons almost always spread without sound and without being visible to the naked eye, at least for viruses and bacteria, but not for rats or mice. Military security programs do not target pathogens.

The bio-weapon is usually only recognized when it is already successful, i.e. an unusually large number of people die from a hardly widespread disease.

Those affected must be removed from the contaminated area as soon as possible. Rescue workers may only stay in the contaminated terrain for as long as necessary and must wear protective clothing. When they leave the area, they hand in the protective clothing so that it is destroyed.

Every doctor, paramedic and nurse who comes into contact with the patient's body and penetrates the contaminated area is at risk of infection.

The vehicles must be disinfected after transport, the sick must be brought to suitable care facilities.

Destruction of the infrastructure

The military is often not about destroying the civilian population of a country being fought, but about forcing its leadership to surrender, and biological weapons that deprive those affected of food, i.e. kill the cattle or destroy the harvest, are suitable for this.

The animal diseases that have historically served as weapons of war include snot, foot-and-mouth disease, cattle and swine fever. In times when dogs played an important role in the war, be it as detection, fighting or messenger dogs, rabies was also an option. However, there are very few traditions in which this virus was used.

In the long term, that is, in protracted wars, there are also mushrooms that infest food plants or “cash crops” and insects that eat the plants.

There are also biological weapons that destroy material, meaning that they do not harm humans or livestock. These range from termites that destroy wooden structures to bacteria that break down the protective layer of military vehicles.


Anthrax is to be discussed in more detail because this bacterial infection caused the most deaths in biological warfare.

Anthrax is internationally known as anthrax, after its causative agent, Bacillus anthracis. Of course, it mainly affects animals, in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Anthrax forms spores, and these trigger the disease in three different ways: as a skin, lung or intestinal anthrax, whereby only the pulmonary anthrax is suitable for biological warfare.

However, "normally" is the most common form of dermatitis. It occurs primarily in humans when their skin comes into contact with spores that adhere to dead animals, for example in the fur. To do this, the person affected must have a skin injury, which can also be tiny, so that the pathogen penetrates the skin. 95% of all people who contract anthrax naturally suffer from cutaneous anthrax. This type of anthrax can be combated with antibiotics.

Even without treatment, 7 to 9 out of ten patients survive the disease. Days after the penetration of the pathogen, bubbles form that fill with liquid, then the blisters form scab and, ultimately, lymphangiitis, followed by sepsis, can follow.

The intestinal anthrax is very rare. It arises when people eat meat from sick animals, which is also not cooked at all. Today, this form of anthrax affects almost exclusively the locals in non-industrialized countries, but in the early modern age this infection was also common in Germany because the poor bought meat infected by the concealer at low prices and also consumed carrion in times of hunger.

What is interesting for biological warfare is the naturally occurring lung anthrax. Here, those affected breathe in the spores. Lung anthrax is the deadliest form of the disease and can be easily spread via aircraft aerosols.

This type of anthrax usually breaks out days after inhalation, but if the aerosol occurs in large quantities, as during warfare, the incubation is reduced to a few hours. The first symptoms are fever, headache, nausea and anorexia like a flu infection.

Then it goes downhill rapidly: the fever rises sharply, the sweat breaks out, the person affected wallows in chills attacks. Severe pneumonia followed by bloody cough, pathological noises when breathing, and the space between the two halves of the lungs widened pathologically. Untreated people die 100 percent in a few days.

The pulmonary anthrax can also be treated with antibiotics today, but many of those affected still die.

Contagion routes

Not all dangerous pathogens are suitable as weapons of mass for biological warfare. It is not only the lethality that is important, but also the type of infection.

Diseases that are transmitted by droplets, i.e. by the moisture when exhaling, are of military interest because few pathogens can infect masses of humans, but at the same time have the disadvantage that they are difficult to control if they spread. Plagues that spread by droplet infection include plague, smallpox, Ebola, flu and herpes simplex. Plague and smallpox were among the most used biological weapons in the past.

Animals serve as hosts or intermediate hosts for pathogens; the plague bacterium was sitting in the rat flea, and this on the house and wandering rat, while the Anopheles mosquito carries the malaria carrier. As a consequence, infected animals can also be used as biological weapons, for example by releasing rats suffering from plague in hostile cities.

Other pathogens can only enter the body orally, especially through food, food and drink. The botulinum bacterium is one of these types of pathogens. Such epidemics are excellent biological weapons: if the enemies' food is poisoned, only those who eat them die, but land and air are harmless when conquered.

Many pathogens are transmitted through body fluids, i.e. via the blood, sperm, vaginal secretions, tears, saliva or nasal mucus. This transmission is hardly suitable for genocide, but disastrous effects can result if infected blood gets into the blood donation.

Antique well poisoners

Biological weapons are "natural products" and therefore one of the oldest means of waging war. Millennia before scientists discovered viruses and bacteria, our ancestors observed that contact with humans and animals who died from diseases triggered the disease in the living.

Many funeral rituals and taboos on touching the dead body probably stem from the experience of epidemics in which the dead, figuratively speaking, dragged the living to the grave.

The well has been known to poison since ancient times; the easiest thing to do was throw corpses or carcasses into your opponent's watering holes. The body poison then contaminated the water and those who drank from it. Persians, Greeks and Romans knew the "poison well" as a regular part of warfare.

It has been handed down that the Hittites already 1000 BC. Chr cattle drove into the country of the opponent. The Assyrians of antiquity are said to have poisoned the wells with fungal spores, and the Romans threw human feces into the enemy ranks. The Scythians smeared their arrows with feces, the blood of the sick and the offal of decaying corpses. King Prusias of Bithynia finally let 184 BC. Throw clay jugs filled with venomous snakes onto the ships of Eumenes II.

The Middle Ages - Bees and Pest

The medieval rulers were no less imaginative when it came to using biology as a weapon. Richard the Lionheart besieged Akkon Fortress in the Third Crusade. To force the locals to surrender, his soldiers threw hundreds of beehives over the walls.

The most powerful use of biological weapons in the Middle Ages took place in 1346 in the city of Kaffa on the Black Sea, a trading post in Genoa. The Tartars besieged the city for three years - to no avail. Then a plague broke out among them. In all likelihood, it was the bubonic plague that the Tartars had carried with them from their home in Central Asia.

Shared suffering is not only half suffering, but was also an extremely effective weapon in this case: the Tartars catapulted the bodies of the infected over the city walls and shortly afterwards the plague broke out among the besieged. The Genoese then fled to their ships to escape the "black death". But it was in vain. They brought the pest pathogen to Genoa and in a few years the largest plague wave to date devastated the European continent.

The modern era - smallpox and leafing

In the early modern era, the use of biological weapons reached a new high: the indigenous people of America had not developed any defenses against the viruses and bacteria of Europe, the European conquerors quickly recognized this and used pathogens against the locals - with tremendous success.

Fransisco Pizarro, the Conquistador of the Inca Empire, gave the Indians wool blankets that were infected with smallpox viruses, and the Anglo-Americans killed Indians by giving them blankets, too, but contaminated them with leaf viruses.

In 1763, a great uprising by indigenous peoples led by Chief Pontiac raged in the eastern part of what is now the USA. The front lines ran not only between the British and the Indians, but also among the insurgent tribes and Indians who remained loyal to the immigrants.

Pontiac's troops devastated the colonists' settlements; they burned down one village after the other, which was easy because the British built their houses out of wood and the civilians had little means to defend themselves. Therefore, they fled to Fort Pitt, which soon broke all seams. Hygiene was catastrophic, people were weakened, and smallpox soon broke out.

Colonel Henri Louis Bouquet, the commander, quarantined the sick. On June 23, 1763, two delegates from Pontiac's army came to the fort to ask the British to surrender. Bouquet declined, but gave the Indians two blankets of smallpox.

To this day it is unclear whether these two blankets were the cause, at least the pox broke out immediately afterwards among Pontiac's people and took the insurgents away. To this day, we do not know whether the British commander-in-chief gave the order to infect the Indians with pox viruses over the blankets, but he played with the idea because Jeffrey Amherst wrote in a letter to Bouquet on July 7 whether it was not possible is to "send the smallpox to these unfaithful Indians".

Smallpox viruses are also believed to have been used in the American Civil War. At that time, inoculation replaced vaccination as a primitive form; the pathogen was brought into open wounds, the infected became ill, but much less bad than with a "normal" infection.

The Americans believed that the British infected the rebels with smallpox by inoculating the British soldiers, making them immune, and then spreading smallpox to the Americans.

In 1781, rebels came across several dead African slaves who had died of smallpox. The British had actually sent these slaves to spread the disease to American settlements.

The First World War - Deadly Animal Feed

Modern medicine increased the murderous potential of biological warfare agents. Until well into the 19th century, it was only possible to target already widespread diseases to the enemy - without the smallpox epidemic, for example, the British could not have contaminated Pontiac's warriors.

In the 20th century, however, the pathogens were artificially produced. During the First World War, the enemy powers were able to breed various deadly bacteria. Germany in particular had a large arsenal of bioweapons, including pest pathogens, and the German military command wanted to use them against the English. But she decided against it - for humanitarian reasons, because the plague could not be used specifically against soldiers.

However, these humanitarian reasons did not apply to animals, and the German Reich deliberately contaminated animals in hostile countries to destroy the infrastructure necessary for warfare. Horses, in particular, were still of great importance in the First World War, if not in battle, because they were necessary to transport the equipment of the troops, including the artillery.

But sheep and cattle were also the focus of these secret attacks. German agents smuggled animal feed containing bred pathogens into the countries of the enemy. How many animals of which species fell victim to these attacks is unknown.

Such virus and bacterial attacks have become known in the United States, Norway, Spain, Romania, Iraq and Argentina. In 1918, several hundred mules died in Argentina after an anthrax attack, and in 1916 the authorities in Bucharest found the cause of the snot disease - in the German embassy.

In Norway, the police arrested Baron Otto Karl von Rosen in 1917 for not having a passport. They were amazed: there were sugar cubes in his suitcase that were infected with anthrax. Rosen was said to infect Norwegian reindeer carrying British weapons. Fortunately for him, the baron had not only German, but also Finnish and Swedish citizenship. The Swedish government put pressure on the neighboring country and Norway expelled the saboteur.

Germany was considered a leader in developing biological weapons, but the other nations were not asleep. Between 1922 and 1941, various other countries launched bioweapon programs: France, probably because of the trauma of German poison gas attacks in 1922, the surrounded Soviet Union in 1926, Japan in 1932, fascist Italy in 1934, the United Kingdom in 1936 and the United States in 1941. Germany was under Nazi rule but again among the global players in terms of mass destruction from the medical laboratory.

The second World War

During the Second World War, all the major powers played with the idea of ​​using biological weapons. Aircraft that sprayed the pathogens or dropped them as bombs increased the spread of the epidemics to an extent never before seen in history. To this end, research was in full swing: more and more pathogens could be bred in the laboratory and spread across the entire region.

Hitler of all people, however, banned their use and thus came into conflict with Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and second man in the Nazi state. The Supreme Command was initially against biological weapons, not for humanitarian reasons, because the Fascist regime consistently rejected them; the German military, on the other hand, believed that biological weapons were uncontrollable.

In 1940, however, the Nazi government took over an institute for biological warfare in Paris and researched pest and anthrax pathogens under the medical doctor Heinrich Kliewe. In 1942 Hitler finally banned research on biological weapons in the war of aggression.

His calculation was that German research on biological weapons could inspire the Allies to use biological weapons against Germany and thus decide the war: Germany was a densely populated country, and epidemics would probably have had even worse consequences here than in the sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union - and in 1942 the front line was still far from the German borders.

The Nazi concept of “living space for the national community” may also have played a role in Hitler's decision. The Nazis wanted to create a Eurasian empire, a "new Germania" in which Germans as modern feudal lords had millions of citizens of Eastern Europe and Russia as country slaves.

Viruses, however, do not separate the elites that had the Nazis murdered, as did the Jews or Roma and Sinti, and the rest of Eastern Europe, who were supposed to survive to serve as slaves; Bacteria also hit the SS officer, who oversaw his looted goods in Ukraine as a large landowner.

Himmler, however, was keen on the use of biological weapons and supported Heinrich Kliewe in contaminating raw food with bacteria and in circulating them in the areas to be conquered.

As much as Hitler rejected offensive bioweapons research, he promoted defensive ones. Since 1943, the “Blitzableiter Working Group” has been researching how attacks with biological weapons can be averted.


No other state in the modern age murdered people with such biological weapons as Japan during World War II. A special Japanese unit killed over 3,500 people just for test purposes.

In 1932, Japan conquered Manchuria and planned biological weapons to be used against China's troops and the Red Army. Japan later used anthrax, typhoid, plague, cholera and dysentery.

In 1940 the Empire tried out such weapons for the first time. Japanese aviators threw ceramic pots with plague fleas over Chinese cities. In 1941, Japanese soldiers infected 3,000 Chinese prisoners of war with typhus and then released them, where they infected the Chinese military with the disease as well as the civilian population. The exact number of victims is unknown. In the same year, the Japanese army used pest fleas in Changde, whereupon around 7,600 inhabitants died.

Finally, in 1942, the Japanese troops withdrew from the Chinese provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangxi. They were followed by soldiers of Unit 731, which had previously tested the pathogens on prisoners, and introduced anthrax into the drinking water; At the same time, Japanese aviators sprayed the pathogen over Chinese cities. More than 250,000 Chinese died in this mass murder alone.

In 1943 the Japanese army wanted to capture Changde. Unit 731 sprayed pest viruses on aircraft. A total of 50,000 Chinese soldiers and at least 300,000 civilians came. However, since the Japanese also used all other types of weapons, including chemical warfare agents, it is impossible to say how many of the victims died from the plague.

Rarely have people been as inventive as in war, and Japan planned to attack America. The Empire experimented with balloon bombs. These were supposed to carry pathogens with the winds to the United States to release their deadly cargo there.

Japanese doctors undertook human experiments on Americans whom Mengele would have honored: They infected the prisoners of war with various pathogens in order to test the susceptibility of the "white race" to disease.

The Soviet Union

From the start, the Soviet Union saw itself as a state of siege for the capitalist states, and Stalin gave the motto to overcome Russia's industrial deficit from the West within ten years - both militarily and civilly.

Biological weapons consequently had a significant value for the Soviet Union: they were easy to manufacture (if the scientists had the know-how to breed them), easy to spread by air, and were less controllable, but as destructive as conventional weapons - one cheap alternative to the British and American area bombings.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union presumably only used biological weapons once - at Stalingrad. As early as 1926, Soviet scientists were researching cultured pathogens in the White Sea. The Soviet Union had been researching the tularemia pathogen (rabbit fever) since 1941.

1942 German soldiers fell ill with tularemia; the Soviet government claimed that it was a naturally occurring disease, and after all many Russians subsequently died of the plague. But the Russians became infected weeks later, and more than two thirds of all suffered from pulmonary tularemia, which is transmitted through the air.

There is therefore evidence that the Soviet leadership tried tularemia as a biological weapon against the Nazi soldiers. If so, it is also clear why the Red Army decided not to use them. The German troops were in the middle of Russia, only Stalingrad was to bring about the turning point, and a weapon that had been proven to decimate their own population as much as their enemies would have been collective suicide.

Great Britain

British medicine was well advanced around 1939, and British doctors had been researching viruses and bacteria for decades. Churchill personally commissioned the development of biological weapons, for defense as well as for attacking Germany.

MI 5 incorrectly reported that Germany wanted to attack England with botulinum and anthrax weapons. The British government therefore provided 1 million vaccinations against botulinum poison to citizens.

The British government hoped the anthrax was the most likely. She chose Gruinard Island, a tiny island off the Scottish coast with no inhabitants, as the test area, perfect for laboratory conditions in the wild. 60 sheep served as experimental animals. It was not a day after the anthrax spores spread, and no animal was alive.

British scientists produced anthrax spores in large quantities during the war; they were to be processed into animal feed and thrown over German pastures. Production went through the USA, because Great Britain was at risk, if Germany had attacked it, the spores might have spread to England.

The United States planned one million anthrax bombs in 1944. You should meet Stuttgart, Wilhelmshaven, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Aachen. Fortunately for the German civilian population, Nazi Germany surrendered before the spurs were used. It is estimated that more than half of the locals affected would have died from the disease.

Bioweapons of our time

After 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union fought a secret bio-armament race. The Soviet program became known primarily because a leak occurred in a secret laboratory in Sverdlovsk in 1979 and 66 people died of anthrax. The Soviet government hushed up the accident and said it was food poisoning from contaminated meat. It wasn't until 1992 under Boris Yeltsin that the whole truth came to light.

The Americans researched infected mosquitoes in 1950 in order to release them in hostile terrain. The US Army developed special nozzles and projectiles to use pathogens. In the 1960s, the United States officially discontinued its bioweapon programs, but today, U.S. military personnel are researching gene mutations, which is nothing more than biological war planning.

Saddam Hussein had anthrax and botulinum cultures grown, but never used them. This was probably less because of ethical motives, but because Iraq had not developed suitable delivery systems to use these pathogens.

In developed capital states, the danger today is in new biological weapons that interfere with genetics. The classic pathogens such as anthrax or plague are inadequate from a modern military perspective, since they are difficult to focus on a target, depend on the environment, for example the wind direction, and act too slowly.

The advances in synthetic biology already make it theoretically possible today to produce ethnically selective biological weapons and thus come closer to the dream of racist regimes.

The J. Craig Venter Institute warned back in 2007 that it could be easy as early as 2017 to artificially produce almost any pathogenic virus. Bacterial genomes can now also be generated synthetically.

Nevertheless, we do not have to fear a flood of biological warfare agents. "It is impossible to get a strain of pathogen alone, and modifying it is almost impossible unless you have a high-tech laboratory and competent people," says Shell employee Michael Behrens.

Are we facing terrorist attacks with synthetic anthrax? Although this is not theoretically excluded, there are hardly any laboratories worldwide that are able to modify and develop biological weapons. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)


The History of biological warfare on: backgroundtexte-m6/Biologische-Waffen-und-biologische-Krieg-eine-kurze-Geschichte

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