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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers

Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers - As WW II was about to begin America had gathered in many of Europe’s leading physicists either because they were Jewish or, if German, because they did not want to work in Nazi Germany. Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel Prize winner for the development of his “Uncertainty Principle”, was repeatedly urged during his 1939 trip to the U.S. to leave Germany. He stayed and was the leading physicist in Germany as the war began.

The German physicists who stayed in Germany during the war, led by Heisenberg, wanted to be perceived as avoiding the development of the science needed for the atomic bomb. Early in the war they appreciated the importance of the discovery of plutonium and sent messages, at peril of their own lives, to American scientists that they had sought to “hinder the idea of making the bomb” but expected pressure to work hard on developing the bomb. As common in war the messages were discounted or viewed sceptically.

By the end of 1941 Heisenberg’s experiments had established that large scale reactors could produce plutonium. At this time the Allies and Germans were about equal in bomb science.

It was the Allies good fortune that the leading German physicists were not dedicated Nazis. Led by Heisenberg they did not want to place the bomb in Hitler’s hands.

In early 1942 the critical decisions were made in the U.S. and Germany on developing the bomb. America committed vast resources to the Manhattan Project. 

In Germany Heisenberg at a pivotal meeting with Albert Speer in 1942 stressed the problems in developing the bomb and the probability it could not be developed in time to have a role in the existing war. He was prescient in estimating that America could not develop a bomb for use before 1945.

In the West scientists took the lead in emphasizing the danger of atomic bombs and the risk they were being developed in Germany. The German physicists never stressed the risks of Western development of atomic bombs.

Still had the German physicists led by Heisenberg pushed, as scientists normally do, for massive funding to pursue new frontiers and develop practical applications the Nazis would have had a chance of developing atomic bombs. Speer would have found them money had they indicated a bomb was feasible in the near future. Instead of seeking millions of marks they asked for hundreds of thousands.

In Gitta Sereny’s book, Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, Speer says he offered far more but Heisenberg said their research was too far behind America at that point to benefit from much larger amounts of research money.

Heisenberg had a vague idea that the world’s physicists could delay the bomb in every country if they discouraged their respective governments that the bomb was a very expensive project with only potential results long into the future.

German scientists in 1942 again sent messages to the West that their focus was on developing a nuclear reactor rather than the bomb. With most of the messengers and recipients non-scientists once again the messages were downplayed or misinterpreted. Allied scientists and intelligence consistently over-rated German progress. They assumed the same efforts were being made in Germany as in the West.

In hampering German atomic bomb development the Allies correctly identified the production of heavy water in Norway as a key resource. Between sabotaging the plant, then bombing the plant and finally sinking the ship transporting the last major shipment to Germany they prevented any significant quantity of heavy water reaching the scientists in Germany.

There is a long stretch of the book which discusses the American atomic bomb program and the intelligence efforts to gather information on German atomic research.

Most of the intelligence plans sound amateurish. Part of the problem was the reluctance to give any agents information about atomic research to be knowledgeable enough to obtain useful information.

It was interesting to read about the plots, never attempted, to either kidnap Heisenberg or bomb his Institute. A primary reason for not proceeding was the Allies did not want to give notice they considered atomic research important.

I would have preferred the book concentrate on Heisenberg. Still if the book had been solely about his war it would have been a short work. He was engaged quietly in research focused on developing a nuclear reactor rather than a bomb.

Heisenberg had social and scientific contacts with numerous plotters in the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Innate caution kept him just far enough away to escape arrest and execution.

There was a fascinating section on Moe Berg, former major league baseball catcher and polymath, turned OSS agent who was sent to Switzerland in late 1944 and attended a seminar and a meeting at which Heisenberg was present. It was clear his instructions were to kill Heisenberg if he felt the German scientist was involved in atomic bomb research. Fortunately, both for Heisenberg and the relationship of the U.S. with Switzerland he saw no need to pull out his gun when the seminar was a discussion of S matrix physics.

After the war many American scientists, led by Samuel Goudsmidt, mocked the German program and its physicists as never understanding what was needed to build the bomb.

To the contrary, I believe German physicists could have led a bomb building program and had Heisenberg been as committed as Robert Oppenheimer, probably would have progressed faster for Heisenberg had a better mind. At the same time I expect the Allies would have attacked the program by air with even greater vigour than the attacks on the rocket program. I doubt the Nazis could ever have won a race for the bomb.

Moral qualms proceed by degree in war as touched upon in the book. To help end WW II in Japan was it worse to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians through the atomic bombs or through incendiary bombs or through a land invasion? Should weapons of mass destruction have been used to minimize casualties of the attacking Allies?

I liked the book though its title was misleading in that a major part of the book had nothing to do with Heisenberg. The subtitle of The Secret History of the German Bomb better describes the book though far from accurate since there was no German bomb project. Ultimately, it is hard to put together a biography where the subject is not doing more than research at a modest pace with limited resources. (Nov. 2/12)


My next post will review a mystery, In Search of Klingsor, involving the German atomic bomb research of WWII.


  1. Bill - I'm so interested in the perspective of this book The background on how and why the nuclear program was developed in the U.S. when it was has always interested me. I really should look for this one...

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. For a long time my reading of WW II history was with regard to the Allies. This book adds further to my knowledge of what was taking place in Germany with regard to atomic research.

  3. Excellent review that underlines the most important point in that book
    which removes the last remnants of the myth that Germans were making atomic bomb,
    a lie that has been served every day to the scientists working at Los Alamos,
    otherwise most of them would walk away. Government knew it, but kept to itself.
    Such a wasted opportunity: if American scientists had followed Heisenberg's approach,
    we would not have Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    1. It certainly is not a lie. The fact is that Heisenberg was not working on an Atomic bomb but contemporaries like Schumann Trinks and Diebner were under an entirely different project under German Army Ordnance (Heereswaffenamt).

      There was a further rival SS project under Leonard Stark operating in Vienna which assumed control over all nuclear projects following the july 1944 bomb plot against Hitler. By September 1944 the SS had embarked upon obtaining Tritium for use in a project under the codename Hexenkessel.

      These points are noted from OSS reports, US Naval Intelligence files (COMNAVEU) and US Army Counter-Intelligence-Commission investigations at Salzburg conducted in 1945. If you wish to argue then do so with these US Government documents, not with me.

  4. karabekirus: Thanks for the comment. With all major physicists realizing the bomb potential of fission I wonder how long there would have been no bomb if Western scientists had not pursued a bomb during WW II.

    1. The fact is that France was already embarked upon an Atomic bomb project as early as April 1939 and the Germans were well aware of this. German efforts in early 1940 to procure heavy water from Norsk Hydro and a rebuff by Norway's government was one of the key incentives for Germany's invasion of Norway.