Biological weapons and biological warfare - A short history

Biological weapons have the reputation of being ‘exotic’, in reality, they are as old as the history of warfare itself. In the hope of infecting their enemies with illnesses, the Romans threw faeces at them. In the 6th century after Christ, the Assyrians used certain fungal spores to poison the wells of their enemies. According to accounts from the Middle Ages, the bodies of those who had died from the plague were sometimes catapulted into besieged cities—which possibly accelerated the spread of larger centres of the epidemic across Europe.

There are a variety of further historical examples for the use of pathogens in violence. The blood of those who had contracted leprosy was known as a powerful poison. In the 17th century, a Polish general filled artillery shells with the saliva of rabid dogs. Biological weapons were especially destructive during the violent colonization of America. In the 15th century, for example, the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro gave woollen blankets infected with the smallpox virus to South American native Indians—a strategy imitated later by many other conquerors, and that was also adopted during the American Civil War.

In more recent wars, too, biological weapons were used multiple times. After Robert Koch had developed a method to cultivate bacteria in the 19th century, many countries began to test the systematic military application of biological weapons. During World War I, the German Reich had its programme to test these warfare agents. Allegedly, German agents were able to infect thousands of horses and cattle destined to be transported from the United States to Europe with the anthrax bacillus.

The National Socialist Party continued the research on biological weapons during World War II and mostly experimented with pathogens for weapons on detainees in concentration camps. Between 1918 and 1945, the Japanese Army also experimented on Chinese prisoners of war whom they infected with the pest virus and meningitis, amongst others. About 3,000 prisoners died, either directly from the illness or, after having completed the test, from being executed. In 1941, the Japanese Air Force spread about 150 million flies infected with the pest virus by plane over cities in Manchuria, which frequently resulted in the outbreak of the epidemic.

The Allied armed forces reacted to these measures by establishing their biological weapons programmes. The United States started its biological weapons research programme in 1942. Until 1945, Great Britain produced about five million ‘cakes’ contaminated with anthrax spores and considered dropping them over Germany. The plan was finally abandoned. Tests with the virus, however, contaminated the Scottish island of Gruinard that remained uninhabitable until it was decontaminated in 1990.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union continued their research on biological weapons. Until its dissolution, the Soviet Union carried out an extensive biological weapons research programme, the scope of which only became known in the 1990s. It allegedly comprised dozens of research sites, spread all over the country, that employed tens of thousands of staff. As a result of the accidental release of anthrax spores in a military research facility near Sverdlovsk in 1979, 66 people died.

In the 1980s, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and Iraq started to conduct research on offensive biological weapons. As of 1983, the South African research programme attempted to develop improved methods to kill individuals in secret; South African researchers also worked on the development of the notorious ‘ethnic bomb’, that is on pathogens that would only infect humans of a certain skin colour.

Saddam Hussein started the biological weapons system in Iraq in the mid-1980s. In 1991, after the end of the first Gulf War, UN weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq had cultivated larger cultures of anthrax and botulinum and was working on developing suitable means of delivery. After UN Security Council Resolution 687 had addressed this issue, Iraq stopped its research programmes regarding its weapons of mass destruction. Still, some suspected the country of doing secret research on biological weapons; these suspicions, however, were put to an end in 2003 at the latest after the occupation of Iraq by US-American troops.

The accusation that the United States had dropped potato beetles over the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s to destroy the harvest and to starve out the population was simply state propaganda.

Irrespective of unsubstantiated accusations against the Soviet Union of having used biological agents in the war in Afghanistan, there is no overall evidence of these weapons having been deployed in the latest past. In the 1980s, Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population in the north of the country; the deployment of biological weapons in this context is not known. In 1997, Cuba accused the United States of having exposed the country to certain pathogens that would cause plant diseases. While nothing could corroborate this accusation, there is some evidence in the literature that the United States has repeatedly toyed with the idea of killing undesirable leaders abroad with biological agents.

Sources and further information:

  • Leitenberg, Milton (2001): Biological weapons in the twentieth century: a review and analysis. Crit. Rev. Microbiol., 27, 267–320.
  • Miller, Judith, Engelsberg, Stephen und William J. Broad (2002): Germs. Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. Simon & Schuster, New York, USA.
  • The History of biological warfare

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