About Me

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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.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Changing World War II Atomic Research for the Story

Werner Heisenberg
Historical mysteries must balance the dual elements of historic events with the mystery story. Within the use of history are an author’s decisions of how closely to adhere to historic facts. Last Wednesday I posted a review of Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers. The book is a non-fiction account of German WW II atomic research focused on Nobel Prize Winner Werner Heisenberg. On Friday I put up a review of In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi. The book is a search for the scientific mastermind of the same German wartime research. In this post I will discuss how Volpi changed some facts for his work of fiction. For some, not all, readers the post may have some spoilers.

As set out in my review Volpi’s narrator, Gustav Links, is saved from certain execution by the death of Judge Roland Fleisler through a bomb while the People’s Court was in session on February 3, 1945. In real life Fleisler was killed in a slightly less dramatic fashion by dying after adjourning court though there are conflicting stories on whether it was from a falling beam or from a bomb fragment outside the building. What was true is that one of conspirators in the July assassination attempt of Hitler, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, was on trial that day and survived the war because of Fleisler’s death.

Jorge Volpi
Volpi acknowledges the American Alsos missions which sought out information on German scientific research during the war. He adds the twist of a scientific adviser to Hitler who operates under the pseudonym of Klingsor. There was no secret adviser. For much of the war Hitler relied on the recommendations of such men as Albert Speer whom he had made Minister of Armaments. There was far too much competition for power between competing leading Nazis for there to have been any secret adviser.

Volpi has Heisenberg justify working on the bomb for Germany when, in reality, as outlined in my post on Heisenberg’s War he led German physicists in avoiding bomb development by stressing technical difficulties. Heisenberg clearly stated that they did not want to put the bomb in Hitler’s hands.

In the book Volpi then has Heisenberg dramatically reverse the accusation against him by saying it was the Allied physicists who actually developed the bomb and brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no indication Heisenberg ever made such a statement.

Volpi posits there was a battle to make the bomb. There was no battle. The U.S. invested huge resources to build a bomb. The Nazis puttered along contributing enough for basic research that never progressed beyond a small reactor.

In the book Heisenberg is made into a bad guy to provide a worthy adversary for Bacon. In history he was the man who denied the Nazis the chance at the bomb.

I acknowledge the facts of history are not clear. There are conflicts over Heisenberg’s role. In Albert Speer – His Battle with the Truth by Gitta Sereny there is a Heisenberg more eager to develop the bomb than is portrayed than in Heisenberg’s War. Examining the respective accounts I found Heisenberg’s War more convincing.

At the end of the war Volpi adapts the secretly taped conversations of the 10 interned German physicists to have them assert their failure to progress on the development of the bomb was because they were denied funds by the mysterious Klingsor. In real life they never asked for the funding that would have let them try to develop the bomb.

In real life there would never have been a need after WW II to search for a Klingsor for, even if such an anonymous figure existed, the Allies and Soviets had swiftly searched out all the leading scientists of Germany and took them into protective (from each other) custody. The top 10 physicists were actually in American hands before the war ended.

I admire how Volpi used history as the foundation of his book and was intrigued by how he adjusted history to tell his story.


  1. Bill, I read your three fascinating posts, this one included and the previous two, "In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi" and "Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers," and realised just how little I knew of Nazi Germany's atomic bomb research as opposed to America's successful effort in that direction. Likewise, I knew nothing about Werner Heisenberg, except that he was a noted German physicist, while I was more familiar with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project.

    Two points in this post, namely Heisenberg being the man "who denied the Nazis the chance at the bomb," and who "did not want to put the bomb in Hitler’s hands," suggests that he, like many physicists of his time, was opposed to the atomic bomb and might have been a secret pacifist. I don't know how far this is true. If he was, indeed, against the bomb then one wonders why Hitler or the pro-bomb hawks in his regime did not see through him, in spite of being tied up with more serious matters on the war front. Heisenberg appears to have escaped Nazi persecution on this score. Of course, this point flies in the face of the possible fact that the Nazis were never serious about the bomb.

    I have read about Oppenheimer being a pacifist which, I believe, came about only after he saw the mind-numbing destruction of the Japanese cities. Later, he became a keen follower of the Vedas, the sacred Hindu scriptures of ancient times.

    Your posts have got me interested in WWII literature, both fiction and non-fiction, all over again and I'd certainly like to read "In Search of Klingsor" by Jorge Volpi. Many thanks, Bill, for stirring my interest in this area.

  2. Bill - Thanks for this very thoughtful post about the differences between what really happened and what's fiction. It's so interesting to learn the real story, even if it doesn't make for fiction that's quite as riveting. And in my opinion, it takes a lot of thorough research to make a work of historical fiction ring true. One has to know what the facts were and create the overall atmosphere before one can 'tweak' what happened and adjust it to make for a good story. I've really enjoyedy our posts on this.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating novel. Thanks for looking at the history as well as the fiction. A lot of people feel Thomas Powers is rather too inclined to excuse Heiseberg, who is such a fascinating figure. I think his motives were mixed and we'll never know exactly how committed he was to the project (and I suspect he wasn't even sure).

    Frayn's play Copenhagen is all about that in-between nature of knowledge. We can't really know what Heisenberg intended (though Frayn also comes in for a bit of bashing for being too sympathetic to Heisenberg) - and that uncertainty is something Frayn links to fiction, to history, to the space between people trying to understand each other, and of course to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It's the stuff of drama!

  4. The most convincing arguments about Heisenberg's opposition to bomb
    are given in a talk given by Jochen Heisenberg (his son) at MIT
    on the occasion of Frayn's play. Here is the link:

  5. Prashant: Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I think Heisenberg was less pacifist than a scientist who realized the enormous destructive capacity of atomic bombs.

    The leading German physicists skilfully deflected Nazi interest in the bomb. They never said it was not possible. They highlighted the expense and technical difficulties and time required. In the midst of WW II the focus was on weapons that could be ready for use in the existing war.

    I hope you get a chance to look at both books.

  6. Margot: Thanks for your comment. I agree authors writing historic fiction must undertake major research.

    I believe Volpi achieved a key element for changing history in that his alterations were all credible.

  7. Barbara: Thank you for an interesting comment.

    I thought Powers found Heisenberg so cautious about revealing himself during and after the war that researchers and readers are somewhat left to divine his position.

    I heard mention of Frayn's play and would like to see it. I think a play could be better suited as a structure to exploring ideas and principles than a mystery book.

  8. karabekius: Thanks for the comment and the link to the son's defence.

    Reading his comments very closely parallels the statements in Powers' book.

    It is always difficult to rely on observations after the war. Gitta Sereny in her biography of Albert Speer points to changes he made in his memoirs after being released from prison with earlier notes written just after the war. She made the point he shifted some of his comments possibly to accord more with public perception of issues.

    The son's quotes from his father's wartime writings were more convincing.