The German physicists who stayed in
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
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
and U.S. on
developing the bomb. Germany
committed vast resources to the Manhattan Project. America
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
could not develop a bomb for use before 1945. America
In the West scientists took the lead in emphasizing the danger of atomic bombs and the risk they were being developed in
The German physicists never stressed the risks of Western development of atomic
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
at that point to benefit from much larger amounts of research money. America
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
as in the West. Germany
In hampering German atomic bomb development the Allies correctly identified the production of heavy water in
as a key resource. Between sabotaging the plant, then bombing the plant and
finally sinking the ship transporting the last major shipment to Norway
they prevented any significant quantity of heavy water reaching the scientists
in Germany . 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
agent who was sent to OSS
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 Switzerland
he saw no need to pull out his gun when the seminar was a discussion of S
matrix physics. Switzerland
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
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? Japan
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.