Article in the weekly Newspaper Die Zeit p.46
March 14, 2002
German Title: Mit der Bombe für die Bombe.
The myth of Hitler's nuclear power had to be kept alive, for it alone could lay the foundation of the allied nuclear weapons program: A personal reading.
Frequently over the past few weeks I was asked about the Bohr letters and their echo in the press. It seems to me I get a stronger sense than do other readers, of how friendly the tone stays even in anger and amid reproach. Such letters are written only to a friend, even if one does not send them. On careful reading of the letters an impression of the relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg can be gleaned. Luckily not only my father but Bohr too has documented his memory of their meeting in Copenhagen. Together these two accounts provide impressive witness of the moment of utter stress in a great friendship, but do not point to a break. As late as 1957 Bohr was at our house in Göttingen, and one or two years earlier we visited the Bohrs in Tisvilde. I can remember the harmonious, friendly atmosphere. But with corrective commentary in this whole debate one can never quite catch up. Therefore it may be appropriate to address its deeper background more carefully.
I can hardly imagine that the publication of the Bohr letters would have gotten so much attention, or the debate about the moral dimension of Heisenberg remained virulent for so many years, had there not been this scandalous aggravation that Heisenberg in Hitler's Germany was exactly not working on the atom bomb. If you leave out the speculations over Heisenberg's motives, the historical facts are simple.
Between 1939 and 1941 both sides made feasibility studies. After that Germany made the decision not to attempt the production of atomic weapons. The reactor research which resulted from the decision was pursued with low priority and intensity. There isn't really more to say.
More surprising therefore that to this day it does not seem possible to admit to these historical facts without Ifs and Buts and with some equanimity. Too great, it seems, would be the suspicion that Germany wants credit for moral merit and thus, implicitly, the allied atomic bomb project would be criticized. But how, one wonders, could there be reservations about the allied bomb program? Wasn't the fear of atomic weapons in Hitler's hands sufficient justification to get this project under way with highest priority? Wasn't bomb building a defensive manoeuver on the highest level? If one asks why Heisenberg is criticized for his demeanor in the "Third Reich", one should look more closely at the development of the Uranium project in the US. It seems to me not incidental that Bohr's critique was ignited by Jungk's statement that Heisenberg had wanted to talk with Bohr about possibly achieving a moratorium for physicists engaged in work on the Uranium problem.
Surely, the rapid start and the incredible extent of the allied program can only be explained in the context of the assumption that Nazi Germany was already engaged in the building of an atomic bomb. Thousands of physicists and technicians from all over the world , most of them people with integrity , thoughtful and responsible, immersed themselves in this project and pushed on with utter effort and personal investment. Neither could they nor should they have hesitated on account of the question of conscience as to whether it was right to build atomic weapons, as long as they saw themselves in a race with Germany whom they had to outpace. The firmly anchored belief, honed over the years of daily toil, that it was Heisenberg who was building atomic weapons for Hitler, became a solid aspect of their motivation.
Later, Germany was conquered and one searched in vain for the alleged nuclear facilities that had inspired the immense personal efforts. In Hitler's Germany there had been no work on atomic weapons. The race as the foundation of the unequivocal
answer to questions of conscience had only been happening on the allied side, and only in the minds of the participants. But at the end of the war many of them had already internalized too deeply the image of Heisenberg as enemy for it to be available for revision. (One did not even want to concede he might have travelled to Copenhagen among other reasons to protect his fatherly friend from the intrusions of the occupation forces, although Bohr himself, as we are now learning in the letters, has understood this).
Aside from the fact that each and every time my father has made a statement which would put into question this enemy image, the suspicion of historical revisionism was raised, it is precisely the moratorium, which he came to talk over with Bohr in 1941 (as my father writes), that is such a poignant topic. Might there not have been a chance to omit completely the building of atomic weapons if the two had been able to communicate? Might there have been two years later a chance to stop the program?
To my knowledge, the US secret service were at the latest in 1943 well informed that Germany had no serious program to build an atomic bomb. Why were the reports from the secret service kept from the scientists during the war, which showed that in Germany no atomic bomb program was pursued? Would not many of them have asked their conscience then, had they known that no Nazi atomic weapons were threatening? What exactly were the new reasons? After all, the continuance of the Manhattan Project after Germany's surrender, and the deployment of the two atomic bombs in Japan demonstrate that the efforts were not solely on account of the alleged race with Hitler's atomic bomb, but pursued other, more general aims.
So one needs to ask why on the one hand in the American and British public discourse, one is still writing and talking of "Hitler's atomic bomb project" and of the "German atomic bomb", whereas the public discussion about the allies' lone road to atomic weapons has been absent to this day. It is true that to engage in it is difficult, for to do so would put another question, inexorably, on the agenda, namely who really is entitled to i produce, own, and deploy weapons of mass destruction, and why.
Instead, one is busying oneself with assumptions about Heisenberg's motives and character. However, the image generated in the process is so far removed from reality that it will not endure. Only when the naked facts of the history of the atomic bomb can no longer be experienced as a secret criticism of the allies - today's friends of the Federal Republic - and are delivered from the footnotes of historians into the public consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic, only when the burden of explanation is adequately distributed, will this topic calm down. Then too a less distorted image of the person Heisenberg will prevail.
Martin Heisenberg is the fourth of seven children of the physicist Werner Heisenberg. The Würzburg neurobiologist thinks that anyone judging the demeanor of his father during the Nazi era has to consider the atomic weapons program of the USA.
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