Memories of My Father, Werner Heisenberg
Eltern 2003, copyright: Langen-
from the German by Irene Heisenberg]
He was not the
kind of father who lived up to the role expectations of today. He was not
present at a single birth and has never changed diapers or fed a child,
although he would have had ample opportunity in our family. Opportunity as
such was actually a different matter altogether: Only his youngest child was
born in post war time, the other six before or during the war, and during those
years the father was mostly absent from home. In order to keep the family safe,
he had moved his home from Leipzig into the Bavarian Alps, to Urfeld on the
Walchensee. He himself commuted between Leipzig and Berlin for professional
reasons, then in 1943/44 moved with his Berlin institute to the Württemberg
town of Hechingen, and was interned in England at the end of the war. How was
he supposed to actively take care of the daily welfare of the family?
But even with a
different set of circumstances the distribution of roles between the parents would
not have been much different: The father represented the obvious framework for
the family, but my mother was in charge of the internal matters of concern. In
daily life, with its never-ending grievances and joys, my father was noticeably
absent. And yet, in terms of relevant importance, he was constantly present.
Family life took place in relationship to his comings and goings. Was he home
in order to work from there, it meant for us children be quiet, instead of
the usual ruckus up and down the stairs.
Only on Sundays and holidays we knew we would
have him available to us, and then there was a rising anticipation, as to what
kind of special undertaking he would treat us to.
Whether he was traveling, or at the institute, his presence was,
nevertheless, felt everywhere at home. Our daily activities were measured
against what he might think of them, and his return often became an opportunity
for little presentations of a musical nature or some other kind.
My very first memory is related to this strange presence- in- absence of
his. My twin brother and I must have been three or four years old, when the
doctor prescribed UV light treatments for which we were allowed into the
paternal study, which otherwise was more or less closed to us. It was the
place, where a tall, gray globe- like lamp stood. We had to undress and lie down on a carpet in
front of it. As if this entering into a sanctified room without clothes was not
exciting enough, the whole thing became much more mysterious, once the lamp was
turned on, casting a faint, ghostly blue
light on our bodies and the surrounding book shelves, while the room became
filled with a strange smell. This was very important, mother reassured us, for
our wellbeing, and so we overcame our reluctance and in a certain sense
relished having the paternal room to ourselves, but we were relieved all the
same when this sun lamp bath ended and we could get out and back into our
Later on too, after the war, long after we no longer lived in Leipzig,
but in Göttingen, the fathers study continued to be a place one could enter
only with a reverent shudder. A quiet
room, encircled by books, the windows to the outside obscured with white sheer
curtains, it seemed to call out You, human, become essential. Was my father
present, we only were allowed to enter the study to have him explain math
homework to us or when we had done something wrong and a serious admonition
was in order. Both of these were not to his liking, and thus his come in,
after our knocking, always sounded a little put out, and the papers in front of
him, covered with formulas, made it unmistakably clear that we were disturbing
him in important thought processes.
Thus it was most enjoyable, to secretly enter the study when our father
was not there. Then one could be near him undisturbed, surrender to the pregnant
silence, and peruse the books for secret knowledge. Most frequently, we were
attracted to the 24 volumes of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia which we had already
discovered early on as a never ending fount of knowledge.
It so happened that during the first few years after the war, when we
had moved from the Bavarian mountains to Göttingen, we children in various
combinations were laid up with all the illnesses of childhood. At the
Walchensee we had rarely been in contact with other children to build up immunity
to infections, and so, in Göttingen, we were subject to every infection,
spending much time in bed. We were bored to death, until one of my brothers had
the brilliant idea one day to get himself a volume of the Brockhaus
encyclopedia. From then on, there was no stopping us; once we had received
permission, more and more volumes of the Brockhaus traveled from the fathers
study into our sick room and there from bed to bed. Actually, if someone had
detected something especially exciting, a wild bidding war could break out, as
to who would get the volume next. Most difficult was the acquisition of the
volume with the letter >H< which contained a wonderful pull- out representation of a human. Even later on, when
the childhood illnesses were past, the Brockhaus beckoned us back to the
study- especially the letter >H< - and the absence of our father suited
us just fine then.
Music too was a realm that connected us invisibly yet most closely to
our father. Our mother loved to sing with us -rounds, three part folksongs- and
she lured us with being able to surprise our father with a new song when he
returned from travel. I can remember how we rehearsed a difficult round for
many a day and exalted in the text to the point of a veritable delirium of joy
about his imminent return. To this day I can sing it by heart, although I have never
heard it from anyone else: He is back, he is back, in all his glo-ho-ho-ho-ry,
in a-ha-ha-ha-hall his glory! The joy will surely smother us; we can barely
contain ourselves with delight
Later on, the singing was augmented with instruments, like the recorder,
flute, violin, and cello, depending on which was on hand then. Every child was needed,
and so it went
without saying that each studied an instrument. My mother was very ingenious
in combining pieces on everyones practice schedule
with songs and motets into extensive Christmas and birthday musical
performances for my father, which were presented as a joint gift after
meticulous rehearsing and with proper stage fright. Well into our adulthood, we
have kept this up, and got to know the music of Bach, Schütz, Scheidt,
Pretorius and many others this way. My father did not participate in these
concerts; he claimed he could sing only like a rusty watering can, and
while we would have loved to hear what a rusty watering can sounded, he never did
let us in on this secret.
We needed our father primarily as audience and as someone to surprise
with our increasing musical accomplishments. Accordingly, he was an attentive,
benevolent listener, who would afterwards , although not indulging in vociferous
hymns of praise, express his joy, nevertheless, clearly by occasionally asking
to see the score, and insist on a repeat of particularly well done pieces.
Of course, as far as music was concerned, he was not only the quiet
listener. He himself played piano as often as possible which made him present
in an invisible way as well. Because, when he practiced nobody got to disturb
him, but naturally he could be heard throughout the house. Usually he practiced
at night, when we children were already in bed, and I can still hear the exact
same ritual of finger exercises with which he would commence. They evoked in me
a mixture of admiration and
terror, but they were always the harbingers of more beauty, and when I was
fortunate, I was lulled into sleep by Beethovens piano sonata op.110 or
Chopins E-major etude.
At times, however, the finger exercises were omitted, and the piano
would unite with the sounds of a violin, a viola, and cello for trio or quartet
playing. It then swelled up to powerful orgies of sound when Brahms or Dvorak
was on the program, and Beethovens Ghost trio was quite capable of making you
scared right in your bed. On the other hand, the long musical sequences of
Schubert were the most beautiful music for going to sleep.
The crowning moments came when the evenings music on occasion was meant
for us children, and our father would sit down at the piano to accompany our
mother at her daily good-night song. Then it likely went beyond the >Good
evening, good night< or >The little flowers are asleep<, because
lieder by Schubert, Brahms and Hugo Wolf would be included, and the more lieder
we knew, the more we demanded. We soon counted among our favorites the ballads
of Carl Loewe >Heinrich, the birder< or >Archibald Douglas<. I am
convinced that my love of the historic novels of Walter Scott stemmed from the
musical sounds of the Loewe ballads.
As we grew older, playing trios became an internal family kind of
activity. Usually, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, our father would snatch
his sons and then, gradually, the Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms trios
would be studied and presented to the rest of the family. I myself was only in
the audience, although I studied piano, but was far inferior to my father
during my childhood. Only as I became an adult and studied music could I
compete with him. By then, the brothers
had left home and I had to find my own partners for getting to know the chamber
Although I liked listening, I was always a little envious of my brothers
for the privilege of being in demand by our father. In that regard, it was
little consolation that I played the same instrument as he did, since I did not
practice on >his< grand piano, but on the piano in my own room. Besides,
I had to contend with the fact that all the pieces I had worked on for long
periods of time, he could play simply by sight reading and on top of it nicer
and more smoothly than I could. How on earth did he manage to navigate all the
unexpected challenges and difficult passages of a Beethoven Sonata so
effortlessly? You know what, you are taking every single note much too
seriously he told me once with a slight grin, one has to learn to fudge a
little! And this at the time, when I was just beginning to differentiate right
notes from the wrong ones and was chided by my strict piano teacher for every
Music was undoubtedly the most important common connection for the
family across time and age differences. Even our household help or any live-in
university student, as well as friends of the children were included, so that
later on the family core group could be expanded once in a while to an
orchestra or choral ensemble.
It was, however, not only music which connected us to our father. The Sunday
excursions with him were best of all. Then he changed from the scientist, who
was always somewhat remote and unavailable to us children, into a solid boy
scout who would know even in the midst of a dense forest which direction we had
to go in, and could demonstrate how to set up a fire pit and extinguish it at
the end with due diligence. During these kinds of undertaking, my mother mostly
stayed back home with the little girls, while my father set out with the four
Those were wonderful moments, when some days in May we would set out,
either on foot or by bicycle, to the woods near Göttingen and locate a nice
place to settle near a spring or a little brook, and be sent off to collect
wood. A few large rocks also had to be found and hauled over to serve as a
platform for the cooking pot. The collected twigs were stacked between the
rocks with newspaper, and soon the seductively smoldering first wave of smoke
was rising. The old soot-blackened aluminum pot, that had crowned fathers
backpack on the way over, was filled with water and set on the fire. And while
the water was heating, our father mixed up the cocoa powder which finally was
poured into the pot with energetic stirring motion. Now our drink was ready,
but the very best was still missing: the marshmallows in the American Care
packages we received occasionally in post war time, since we were a family of
many children. Marshmallows were gummy, small compact sugar balls, white, pink
or light green, which were stuck on the end of a stick and rotated above the
fire, until they puffed-up and were covered in a delicious caramelized crust,
while the center became soft and creamy. The trick was to keep turning them
long enough, yet prevent their catching fire or dropping off the stick into the
flames. Otherwise, they were a true delicacy together with the warm cocoa.
Afterwards, we again had to fetch sufficient water to extinguish the
fire because now the outdoor games began: Hide and Seek, Robber and Gendarme or
our very favorite >Holland in Peril<. There our father always was totally
on board, and we were especially delighted when we slipped out of his grip when
he belonged to the robbers, or to free
him when he was captured.
During summer vacations, we regularly stayed at our country house in
Urfeld on the Walchensee where, gradually, the excursions became real mountain
tours, sometimes even lasting for two days. Here too the excitement in some sense
arose because my mother did not
come along, but sometimes friends of my
fathers with their children or our
current au pairs who had to make sure we brought the right night clothes and to
brush our teeth at the water trough. To overnight in a mountain hut was the
pinnacle of adventure for us children. We loved to roam at dusk in the vicinity
of the hut, and only the cold evening winds managed to send us to bed at last.
The next day there could yet be, under certain conditions, a special highlight.
If we happened on the way to the summit to pass a snowy field, then we stopped
for a rest and our father created a >summit ice<. We were sent off to
scrape up fresh snow, to be stirred in a cup with cocoa and sugar, which
everyone found outstanding and tasty. Let it be said that the cooking skills of
my father did not go beyond this.
he claimed he could prepare roast potatoes, as well as pancakes, we have never
seen proof of it.
The mountain tours required a certain degree of tenacity and effort and
it must not have been all too easy to keep us kids going. I can remember once,
at the finish of an
ascent, our father set a penalty of 1 Deutsch Mark for each >defeatist
utterance<, which resulted in a discussion all the way down over what would
count as a defeatist utterance and what would not. Generally, though, our
father would entertain us with challenging riddles and brain games which kept our
minds engaged for long periods during the hike. And of course, it always was
about who would be the first at the destination. He liked teasing us and
prodded our competition with paradoxical statements. For instance, he would say:
> He who goes slowly, is the first to arrive at the destination<, or >we dont
have the time to take shortcuts<. Our attempts at contradicting these claims
invariably had the result that we would pick up speed and were mighty proud if
we could prevail once in a while.
Whenever we sat down for a rest, some competitive games would often
start as well, such as hitting a target with rocks or wood, or, at the lake,
skipping flat stones as often as possible across its surface. If we sat near a
brook, little boats were carved for a race, or we constructed together with him
flow reducing steps or great waterfalls.
Our father was not an overly talkative man and not a fairytale raconteur
either, but he loved nonsense stories, slapstick jokes, Limericks and such, and
if a walk became all too long, we would urge him to tell us the story of Herr
Wuppdich, which I will share in an abbreviated version here:
Once there lived a man named
Wuppdich. Herr Wuppdich was strong, he was very strong, he was so strong that
he could stop a railroad train with the pinkie finger of his left hand, and
burst a monocle with his powerful vision. Thus a splinter once ended up in his
eye. Someone else would have removed the splinter from his eye. He however did
not do that. He pulled the log from his brothers eye and began a thriving wood
business. It made him super rich (in German: stone-rich).
With the stones he built himself a
house, lied excessively (in German: lied the blue down from
the sky) and used that to paint it. When it was finished, he decided to get to
know the world and went traveling
Thus he also came to the desert. There a
lion began chasing him. Someone else would have given up all hope. Herr
Wuppdich did not do that. He laughed heartily (in German: laughed himself
a branch) and sat down on it. When the
lion wanted to lie down beneath the tree, Herr Wuppdich was mightily astonished
(in German: he marveled building blocks)
and clobbered the lion with them until he ran off. Now Herr Wuppdich
jumped down and fell into a hole. The hole was deep, it was very deep, it was
so deep that he could not climb out. Someone else would have starved down
there. Herr Wuppdich, however, whistled to himself a musical scale (in German:
tone ladder) and climbed up on it.
Unfortunately, he missed the last note, so that he had to turn around. Someone
else would have been completely devastated at this point. That is not, however,
what Herr Wuppdich was. He went home, got himself a ladder and used it to climb
out of the hole
Whenever we begged our father to carve small boats for us, he ventured
into an area he was not comfortable in. He admired good workmanship, but rated
himself as much too sloppy and clumsy for it. In spite of this, he was
interested in projects involving handiwork: For the large trainset which was
set up at Christmas time in the verandah, he loved to fashion new stations with
the requisite lighting, tunnels and railroad crossings, or building kites in the
fall and glider planes for us to fly. What he enjoyed there, was mostly solving
the resulting technical problems, while he took great liberty with improvisations
in the execution. The outcome of his work did not capture you on account of its
beauty or elegance, but simply because it did function.
On Sunday afternoons, we gathered- unless we were traveling or making
music-to play all kinds of games. My father liked to play, and the large family
suited him perfectly in this respect. In the summer, one mostly played bocce in
the garden, or sometimes croquets and, above all else, table tennis.
In winter, though, the family came together
in the living room for various guessing games: songs, persons, things the
latter, especially, were perfected over the course of years to a high degree.
Since the technique of asking became increasingly sophisticated, the objects in
question became more obscure, and vehement discussions would arise whether, for
instance, the Man in the Moon or the toast father would eat the next morning
were concrete or abstract things.
Next to these communal games, the greatest interest of our father was,
without a doubt, directed towards the competition fought in table tennis and
chess. Table tennis was at times a veritable family obsession. Hours and whole
days during vacations were spent behind the table, always with the goal to make
winning as difficult as possible for our father. We sensed instinctively that
we were the more interesting to him as an opponent the better we played. My
brother, Wolfgang, in particular, was wildly determined to conquer him. That
was, however, not easy, since our father always gave it his all. On occasion
his opponent received a few points in advance, but only to make the game more
exciting. Basically, he preferred opponents who were stronger than he was. My
brother was, actually, in many ways superior after a few years: he had acquired
an extremely forceful, rapid style, cutting the balls so that they curved
wildly. There my father often was losing in the early phase of a game. When the
game neared its end, however, he became more and more careful, avoided
grandiose attacks and concentrated on an impeccable defense and thus remained
the winner- if not of the first round, then at least in the repeat.
The same thing played out in chess. I can still picture to this day, how
the two sat across from each other, my brother quick and in full attack mode,
my father slow and deliberate in moving the pieces across the board. Later on
they would at times sit together without a chessboard and it sounded something
like I move my queen from E3 to C5 and only the furrowed brow of the other
would betray that he now was in dire straits. I would sit there a bit
incredulous and, looking at my brothers intense
face, I often could not understand why my father would not just
let him simply win once in a while.
Only much later I gained perspective on that. My father did not play for
the sake of winning, but of the game, and in deference to the game with its rules,
it was incumbent upon the players to employ all their might for a win. It was
not about honor or applause for him, but winning pleased him as a signal that
he had played well. Thus he could also enjoy the victory of the opponent and be
motivated to try harder, since it demonstrated that the thing offered yet more
In one of his letters from 1930, in which he comforts his mother about
the early death of the father, he writes:
Also, Papa once said to me verbatim:
You know, Werner, getting old is really the worst of all
If I were to sense that it has come to the
point of you letting me win in chess, then life is no longer fun for me. Exactly
this was also my fathers position on any kind of game, and he assumed quite
naturally that my brother did not see it any differently.
In addition to the playful competitions, my father also loved reading
aloud to us. I cannot remember him looking at picture books with us, but very
clearly in my minds eye is us sitting in Urfeld on rainy days around the large
table and listening intensely to the Adventures of Homers Odyssey. We were not at all content that Odysseus eventually had
returned to the harbor home, and passionately desired some new adventures. But
our father did not want to offer us the Iliad;
it would not be so suitable, only dealing with war. At the time, I thought he
had decided this out of the usual parental concern for the children, but later
on, as I got hold of the Iliad, I
comprehended that the deeds of the inventive Odysseus were much more agreeable
to his own natural make up than the relentless heroic battles in the Iliad. Instead he began reading
Gottfried Keller to us: The Little
Banner of the Seven Righteous, Spiegel,
the Little Kitten, or Clothes Make the People. I believe
there followed also Eichendorff, Mörike, Hauff, and Hebel, but I cannot be sure
anymore, whether I, motivated by his reading to us, read it myself or heard it
from him. As we got older, the idea arose to read plays in distributed roles. This
way Schillers William Tell became unforgettable to me.
But during this time the interests of the adolescent children began to
shift noticeably to the outside: The older ones had ballroom dancing lessons
and were gone much more frequently to meet with friends. Many family activities
dwindled and were replaced by dance parties, some of them also at our house.
The preparations for such parties were fun for my mother, and also signified
the reawakening of a joy of life during the fifties.
My father was noticeably absent from these
social events. He practically never danced, and suffered during the chaotic
rearrangement of the house, necessitated by such a party. Carnival parties were
particularly questionable, and I cannot remember ever seeing him in costume. Not
implausibly, he would always resurface towards the end of the festivities, when
the guests had left, to actively make sure that the space was brought back to
its familiar state. He was innately a man of order and, above all, a man of
Noise and clamor of any kind were abhorrent to him. I can still picture
his tortured, strained face, when we children spoke all at once at the dinner
table. Whenever possible, he avoided jubilation, turmoil and loud merriness,
and in gatherings around a weekly buddies table he never felt at ease. He grew
silent, when it became loud and only thrived when conversations in a social
gathering turned to serious topics. I cannot remember ever hearing him with a
belly laugh. Yet he was not lacking in humor. He loved, as I said, witticisms
and nonsensical stories and read to us children with obvious enjoyment The Ghost of Canterville or The Flaming Punchbowl. But just as he did not allow himself to show anger,
rage or impatience to the outside, he did not do so with loud expressions of
joy either. His own renderings of funny stories were accompanied by a slight
smile, betrayed in the little laughing lines around the eyes, and in extreme
cases by the gentle rhythmic movement of his shoulders.
When he would show up in the later hours at our house parties, the
previous activities would have already given way to some exhaustion, and the
pauses between dancing and conversing were longer. His appearance then was like
a signal for the guests to present themselves once more at their personal best.
A little awkward and shy, my father would greet everyone, ask a few friendly
questions and begged the group to go back to their uninterrupted state. It was,
of course, already disturbed: pleasant
excitement and awkwardness on account of the high visitor were intermingled and
changed the atmosphere. The glasses were filled once more, the last party
delicacies offered to Herr Professor, one more record of music to dance by started
up. But the gentlemen became increasingly tired of dancing and would not
infrequently end up gathered around the professor and listen to the intensive
conversation that had developed in his immediate circle.
Rarely did it deal with problems in physics, but rather with general
questions such as the relationship of science and technology, science and art,
of music, of the responsibility of science, and the political questions current
at that time. I was at these talks more of a listener, since I was more
interested in the dancing, and responsible for the food and general hospitality
shown our guests. But I clearly recall
my slight concerns that our guests might come up short in front of the
patriarch. This fear proved always
unfounded. My father listened to every speaker intently and with respect. He
waited patiently until someone had finished with his observations and tried to
address their thought processes, even though they might have been formulated
clumsily. It would never have occurred to him to rebuke someone or make him
look silly. He did not want to hurt anyone and avoided the direct
contradiction. Instead, he always aimed at simplifying and objectifying a problem
to allow for clarification and reconciliation of the various viewpoints. In
this he spoke calmly and thoughtfully and often one had the impression he was
still searching for the right wording while he was talking.
At our dinner table discussions it did not always go so peaceably. My father came home for the midday meals with
the family, but he often arrived too late and would sit at the table a little
exhausted and quiet. So it was mostly my mother who conversed with the children
and who set the tone. She was much more spontaneous and impulsive than my
father and would easily get swept up in un-reflected statements. This gave my
smart brother, Wolfgang, the opportunity to prove to her that she was wrong and
talking nonsense. In her distress she would turn to my father with the words: Werner,
why dont you say something too! Then he would collect himself and make a
genuine effort to stand by her. Not wanting to leave his son stranded, either,
he often ended up in the middle, as he tried to mediate between mother and son.
With his factual, calming statements, he sometimes did not do right by either one:
My mother felt misunderstood in her emotional engagement and my brother
betrayed in his intellectual claim. Thus, I think, my father was quite content,
when he could retreat to his study after dinner.
Reflecting on the relationship between my parents, I immediately come up
with this unconditional willingness of my father to stand by my mother and to
protect her. I cannot remember him ever criticizing her, reprimanding her or in
other ways treat her poorly. She could rely on his assistance in every
situation. If she got angry and annoyed in her spontaneous makeup he tried
to calm her down, and if he did not succeed, he became mute and disappeared.
But he never became angry or loud.
It troubled him when he could not help her. But of course that was often
the case, simply because he was away so much, and for long periods of time even
his workplace was far away from the familys stay. He trusted her completely in
matters of household management and shaping family life, and gave her free
reign to do what she deemed right. But this entailed also that she was often
left alone with difficult decisions, and, especially at the beginning of their
marriage, must have felt overwhelmed. Over time she did grow into the tasks,
became ever more independent and, eventually, ran the large household in her
own way with much care and skill.
She needed my father, above all, when it concerned complicated, basic
conversations with the children questions of a future professional choice,
the conduct in life, the relationship with other people and such. Then my
father was instructed about the problem at hand and sent on a walk with the
child in question. Naturally, one set off to these excursions with the heart in
ones throat, but the discomfort was balanced by the feeling of ones own importance.
One never ran the risk of getting reprimanded or humiliated, but felt called
upon to take responsibility for ones action or lack thereof.
As for myself, I can remember one such walk when I was sixteen and
totally in love, spending my afternoons figuring out how to meet my sweetheart,
rather than attend to my daily obligations. He clarified for me in his gentle
way that love, although being something very beautiful, also was definitely a serious
matter that could cause pain and in certain circumstances even cost ones
life. Therefore one had to take good
care of oneself and not let the feeling become the end all, be all too early
on. It also mattered and was advantageous for love that one first could stand
on ones own two feet, before one tied the knot with another person.
While his words did not curtail my infatuation much, it did have the
effect that my usual activities, be they in school or at the piano, intensified
with the notion that I could, ultimately, do something that also benefitted the
advancement of my love.
It was characteristic for my father that in these talks he avoided becoming
all too personal. He almost never talked about himself and his experiences, and
likewise was taking care in these talks not to intrude on the other. It
sufficed for him to talk about the problem under discussion in a general way. Despite this, the discussions did not happen
in an abstract linguistic space; behind the fatherly words one could always
sense the personal experience, which added the necessary significance to them.
Most of all, I learned in the talks with my father something I found useful
later on in my profession and generally in life: that is the insight that
language and reality are two very different things. That which one cannot
speak about, one must keep silent about< my father liked to say with a
slight, amused expression. I clearly remember how this saying initially annoyed
me in its superfluous form, before I began to comprehend that it helped express
a deeper truth: Language can deal with reality only as an approximation. It
forces lived experience into a Procrustean bed of linguistic formulation,
whereby the singularity of an experience often gets lost. The most precious
moments in life can only be preserved in the silent remembering.
The limitation of language was a life-long issue for my father, and it
is not accidental that he retreated so frequently to other languages: The
language of mathematics, when it was about formulating scientific relations, to
the language of music or poetry, when he wanted to render the secret of human
emotion. When playing the piano, he devoted his careful attention most intently
to the slow movements of, say, Schubert or Beethoven, and I remember so well
with how much tenderness he would accompany my mother when she sang lieder by
Schubert or Schumann.
As far as poetry is concerned, my father had, thanks to his outstanding
memory, always a few favorite poems by Goethe, Eichendorff, Mörike or George
ready and, in rare cases, he himself would also write poetry. Thus, for my
wedding, he composed the so-called wreath poem which in accordance with an
old custom- my siblings recited at the presentation of the veil and headdress.
(Not yet available in translation)
Seit alter Zeit sind dies die Zeichen
Der Braut, die zum Altare geht,
geliebtem Freund die Hand zu reichen,
der fürder ihr zur Seite steht.
Nimm diesen Kranz im Kreis der Gäste
aus der Geschwister Händen an,
er schmückt die Braut zum höchsten Feste,
das dieses Leben bieten kann.
Nicht Schmuck nur-wend er die Gedanken
nochmal zu der Geschwister Kranz,
den Du verlässest ohne Schwanken
zu neuen Lebens neuem Glanz.
Du tauschst den Kranz dem härtern Ringe,
der fest Euch bindet, überall.
Das Leben, selbst wenn viel gelinge,
ist oft auch hart wie aus Metall.
Der Schleier mag als Zeichen gelten
Der Jugend, Morgennebel gleich,
der noch verhüllt besonnte Welten.
Nun öffnet Dir sich dieses Reich.
Doch sei die mahnung nicht verborgen:
Die Klarheit, die Dich nun umgibt
ist nicht nur licht, nicht ohne Sorgen.
Doch tragen hilft sie, der Dich liebt.
Wenn jetzt der Blick sich vor Euch weitet:
die offne Welt im hellen Tag,
wenn Ihr entschlossen vorwärts schreitet,
nicht achtend mancher Müh und Plag,
so sei doch beides nicht vergessen:
des Morgenschleiers heller Glanz,
das Elternhaus, das Ihr besessen
und der Geschwister bunter Kranz.
Sie sollen auf den neuen Wegen
Als Bilder Euch zur Seite stehn,
die leuchten, spenden ihren Segen,
und die erst ganz zuletzt vergehn.
So nimm denn diese beiden Zeichen,
schau heute vorwärts, nicht zurück!
Wir wünschen Dir, dem Freund desgleichen
Ein unermesslich Mass von Glück.
It needs mentioning here, that my
father refrained from giving me directives about my conduct, even at the time
when he had the belief that he should caution me with respect to the dangers of
love. On the contrary, he stood by me steadfastly and defended me when
necessary. This happened, for instance, during the beginning, when the
attraction between me and my later husband unfolded mostly as we took lengthy
walks in the Göttingen Hainberg, and a colleague said to my father: Herr
Professor, I have seen your eldest daughter often walking in the woods
accompanied by her brother. They must be getting along very well? My father
answered without hesitation: Yes, they are, and we parents are very happy
If my father reacted so positively here, it probably was partly due to
the fact that walking as a joint activity was a basic element of his own life
ranking among the most rewarding experiences. His scientific ideas and
friendships unfolded in the rhythm of forward movement with others in walking,
hiking and mountain tours. Differences of opinion were settled this way,
friction eliminated, decisions investigated with all their consequences. It
also was by no means just a literary device or deference to the old Greeks, when
he later on wrote his own memoir in the form of conversations- conversations
taking place during hiking tours and similar undertakings -, but it
corresponded to his concrete experience where thinking is readily fostered
during a discussion in motion, and will result in useful outcomes.
It definitely suited my father to tackle difficult issues with the
adolescent children by taking a walk with them, where one could concentrate
together on a distinct problem without interruption. A common topic for me and
my siblings was, of course, the fundamental question what to study after
finishing high school. At the time, I found it difficult to decide between
studying music and psychology. Psychology fascinated me, because it dealt with
the questions that agitated me at the time: Why people want to do the right
thing and yet do the wrong thing; why they get caught up in lies and falsehood
while incessantly hungering for truth; why they persecute others and torture
them, although they are themselves dependent on the protection and care from
others, and similar conundrums. Of all the fields of study that I found
interesting, psychology appeared to address these questions most directly, and
the notion that I might someday help people who are struggling with similar
problems appealed to me very much.
was firmly convinced that such questions ought to be pertinent to anybody who
was engaged in life. So I found it curious that such a discussion was not
happening in our conversations at home. My father, in particular, who liked to
converse on politics and science, art and philosophy, became noticeably
monosyllabic, when the conversation moved to people and human relationships. I
drew the conclusion that people simply did not interest him.
His entire attention seemed to be geared to
the interactive forces and general connections in the material, external world,
but not to that which went on in the human, inner realm. Only later did I
comprehend that this hampered willingness to talk about human affairs and
people was not due to a fundamental disinterest, but rather out of his respect
for other people.
For me at the time, this apparent
lack of interest was actually an extra instigator to turn my attention to these
neglected areas. But would I manage to finish my education before I got
married? For that was a done deal: I already had known my husband for a few
years, and we were getting married, as soon as he finished his law degree. In
music it was different. There I had already - at least in terms of the selected
instrument, the piano, - considerable advance training and could expect to
finish with a degree in an area that lent itself to further studies, even in
addition to marriage and children.
The talks with my father about this
were at first not suited at all to make my decision any easier. He did not urge
me in any one direction, but saw it as his task to elaborate on all the
consequences each decision would bring with it: the opportunities I would derive
and the possible drawbacks associated with it.
Even though a rapid decision making
mode was not the immediate outcome, over the course of the discussion I became
much less fearful of making a wrong decision. Suddenly I could see that there
was no absolute right or wrong decision. Each decision carried with it
opportunities and dangers, and the trick was to find out which consequences one
wanted to live with in the future.
Years later, I learned in a
conversation with my brother, Jochen, that he had made the same discovery when
he debated the question whether he should follow an offer from America, or stay
in Germany. Here too my father restrained himself from telling the son what
would be the right thing for him, much less offer up as a model his own
decision on that question. Instead he discussed patiently and with insight
every likely consequence arising from the possible decisions, and thus enabled
him to stand behind his decision in the years to come.
My father also made the important decisions in his own life by trying to
use all available information and play out in his mind the possible
consequences, in order to live with that decision later on as well. It was true
for his resolution not to emigrate, which we will address later on again. Even
when he had to decide, in 1926, whether to accept a call to Leipzig, or go to
Copenhagen as Bohrs assistant, he listed, in a letter to his parents, very
meticulously what the advantages and disadvantages were in each case. He did not
take the easy way out with his decisions, nor did he renounce them afterwards.
When my brother, Jochen, asked him whether he might regret, in hindsight, not to
have gone to America, he said: There is no reason to regret something you have
given enough thought to beforehand.
This readiness to stand by what one has deemed right for oneself, is
probably also why my father had a reputation with my mother to be incredibly
unbending in certain things. Nothing could dissuade him from a choice, once it
was made. On the other hand, he also met the decisions of others with
unconditional respect, even when he would have made different choices. For
instance, in his letters, he backed up his brother, Erwin, and called on his
parents to be tolerant, when he converted to Anthroposophy and wanted his
children raised in it. His parents could not at all agree to this, and hoped to
be able to change his mind with his younger brothers help. Nothing became of
this. Although Werner found Anthroposophy rather strange, he felt nobody had
the right to question the spiritual experiences of his brother and to make
critical comments about his decision.
Similarly, he also took my wish to study psychology seriously and
respected it, although I knew through my mother, that he had a rather skeptical
view of it. What that was about, became clear to me many years later only, as I
was actually studying it. For one, my father certainly shared a widespread
prejudice at the time that most young people only study this field in order to
solve their own problems and to find themselves a kind of self-therapy so to
speak. My father did not think much of
that. He was convinced one could only help oneself by turning energetically towards
challenges outside the self.
This was, however, not the main objection to this field. Even more than
the self- centered outlook, he distrusted the methodology of psychology. It was
his conviction that the integrity of science is essentially defined through its
tenet that man does not decide what is correct and false. Scientific hypotheses
must be proven with external, observable criteria, thus making them independent
from the randomness of predisposed opinions. Psychology, on the other hand, had
opened for itself a back door with the idea of the unconscious, which allowed
it to exempt itself from these criteria. For instance, a diagnosis that the
patient was suffering from an oedipal complex cannot be checked for its truth.
Regardless whether the patient accepts this statement about himself or not, the
therapist can always point out that such a conflict is possibly repressed and
thus not consciously available. This way, his statement that he loves his
father and never fights with him, might even count as an extra confirmation of
the medical diagnosis. A science that makes itself unassailable in this fashion
was in my fathers view unacceptable, even if it has the best intentions and
contains decent theoretical constructs.
I did not get deterred in my plans by these objections. They were, in actuality,
only pertaining to certain partial aspects of my field, did refer mostly to
psychoanalysis which, at the time, predominated in the public discussion about psychology.
But they certainly had a lasting influence on my attitude regarding the impact of
psychology on behavior: despite my admiration for Freud, I avoided as much as
possible working with the construct of the unconscious, and instead addressed
the conscious strengths within the clients reach. As I treated clients, I paid
particular attention to not making myself the only measure of people and
circumstances, but to make scientifically sound assessments across a wide array
of objective and subjective data.
My studies coincided with the student unrests in the late sixties; the
university, particularly the psychology department in Bonn overflowed with long
haired sandal-clad students, who loved transforming lectures into political
rallies in order to juxtapose their youthful lack of discipline with the stale air of a thousand years. Docents
began addressing my fellow students with the informal you and handing over
the format of classroom exercises to them, and we older ones had to struggle,
not to be seen as smallminded and discarded like rusty iron. The mistrust of
the youth vis-à-vis the establishment with its tacit agreement to let the
past lie undisturbed, did not pass me by altogether. It happened automatically
that I was much more interested than before in the question about the political past of my
parents: What did they do at the time to confront the National Socialist
disaster? What were their attitudes about Jews, about National Socialism? How
did they survive in a time so dominated by inhumanity and destruction?
I reconstructed in my mind what impressions and inner images I had taken
with me from my parental home about the time of National Socialism. I was
remembering clearly, for instance, the changed tonality and the tense voices,
as the parents were talking about the fates of Jewish acquaintances, of
friendships that broke up from one day to the next, of engagements that had to
be dissolved, of children whose paternity had to be kept secret.
To us children the Nazis were the epitome of the unscrupulous evil,
worthy of utter contempt. I know the exact moment when, as a young girl, I came
to recognize that I had something in common with the Nazis which I could never
be rid of, namely the German citizenship. There was a strange attitude of
contempt and bewilderment in the room whenever the National Socialist deeds
were the topic at home. My father only ever spoke of Hitler as a criminal; it
was the strongest expression of disapproval he had available. He found him awful,
a notion I would at once agree with when, later on, I saw documentary films
about Hitlers public appearances. How the loud, boastful manner of the Führer
must have repulsed my father! But he also would often talk about friends and acquaintances,
who also loathed him as much as he did, but yet were impressed by him upon a personal
encounter this he could not understand, and it was unnerving for him.
In general, our parents found it
difficult to talk about this time. Their replies to questions were scant and
factual, but did not encourage us children to keep asking for more. On the one
hand, they must have wanted to spare us the horrors of this past, on the other,
they themselves were in the process of shaking the shadow of this time, in
order to turn to the future. I always had the impression it was like a severe
illness they had been through and did not want to be reminded of.
This changed over time, naturally. The more the years passed, the
clearer the stories emerged, separated out from the unspeakable. Ever more
readily the reports of the worries and deprivation during the war years came
up, of the long nights in air raid shelters and the troubles with procuring
coal and potatoes. What diminished was talk about the various fears of
denunciation, interrogation and abuse, the dismay of seeing a transport of Dachau
prisoners [in 1945], or the rules of language and the compromises necessary for
survival. We knew that our father was working on research during the war years
that could have led to the building of an atomic bomb, and we sensed that he
too was not spared fear and terror as he occasionally mentioned that he was
denounced as a white Jew . Being called to the Prinz- Albrecht-Strasse,
waiting in a room for his interrogation where a blackboard said Please breathe
calmly and deeply.
The first concrete motivation to speak about the past, arose in the
fifties, when the book by Robert Jungk Brighter
than a Thousand Suns, appeared. I first heard from my mother about this
book which dealt with the story of the atomic scientists during the Third
Reich. She told me that my father was not at all happy with this book. He had
known about Jungks intent and hoped the book would not come about, after he
had denied the authors request to collaborate with him. Jungk, being a
journalist with all the best intentions, nevertheless lacked enough information
and the necessary delicate touch for this complicated and multi-faceted topic.
I was well aware that, after the war ended, there had been repeated attacks
on my father. Particularly in America,
there was bitter resentment that he had not immigrated to the US, either in
1933 or in 1939. Therefore one thought of him as a clandestine Nazi and alleged
he had wanted to build the bomb for Hitler, but had failed. These accusations hit my father very hard.
They led to him being ostracized by many colleagues after the war, and his
attempts to correct the facts were met with disdain. He soon gave up wanting to
defend himself and hoped that over time the reservations of his colleagues in
America would subside and yield to a more appropriate assessment.
As I was now informed about his reservations regarding the book of
Jungk, I expected to find the above named accusations in it, and was very
astonished that this was not the case: On the contrary, Jungk is putting forth
the thesis that the German scientists had avoided the building of an atom bomb
in their own country out of conscientious objection, and, moreover, had tried
to also stop the Americans from such an undertaking. What about this
description could possibly displease my father?
Only gradually did I understand that my father had to defend himself in
two directions: one, against the claim that
his work team had, out of incompetence, failed to build the bomb, and two,
against the supposition that the Germans could have built the bomb, but had
desisted on moral grounds. Both did not correspond to the factual situation, as
my father explained it to us children. Naturally, they were utterly concerned
within the Uranium Club, the teams name, when, in 1941, it became clear
through their research that Otto Hahns discovery of nuclear fission, three
years before, could be applied towards building bombs. In a time where,
world-wide, ever new war activities undermined the trust between nations, this
discovery had to raise the highest concerns, in America just as in Europe or
Asia. For the Germans, the idea of having to build a bomb for Hitler had been
especially troubling. Fortunately, further investigations revealed that the
technical effort for the building of such a bomb was much too great, and not
possible within the given time frame of nine months. The armament department
could be persuaded, so that the leadership at the time was content to keep supporting
atomic research on a small scale for peaceful use, but give up the plan of
developing a bomb. The German scientists never had any other options back then,
they had to inform the government, based on their understanding, exactly as
they did, and thus there cannot be talk of a moral decision which does
inherently entail having different choices available.
For the romantic young girl back then these sober explanations were
rather disappointing. I would have liked a heroic father who could boast to
have openly defied evil. I had to grow much older to comprehend that the
greatness of my father was not grounded in heroism. He was no hero and did not
want to be seen as one. A hero is someone who is resisting out in the open and
not afraid to risk his life in the process. That was not his thing. My father
did not believe that open resistance in the given situation would serve any
purpose, and he wanted to survive. His calling was neither to be a martyr nor a
hero. He was a bit fearful, detested physical violence and avoided aggressive
confrontations. I could not have withstood torture he once told my brother.
He protected himself, in a fashion, avoided any provocation, and attempted to
make himself inviolable by way of his professional competence. It was his good
fortune that in 1941/42 he could argue against the bomb on solid, reasoned
grounds which the Nazis also had to acknowledge.
Another reason for my fathers disagreement with Jungks presentation
was the juxtaposition of the German versus the American approach, so that the
American decision for the bomb ended up in a morally questionable light. This was
bound to lead to outrage and protestation in America and to a deepening of the
rift between Heisenberg and his colleagues abroad. That it did, and the
relationship with his teacher Bohr, who had worked on the bomb toward the end
of the war, was affected more negatively by it than by the ill-fated conversation
between the two men in Copenhagen in 1941. Heisenberg, however, has always
defended the building of the atomic bomb by the Americans in countless talks
and also to his children. He stressed that the situation of the German and the
American scientists was in no way comparable. Yet the possibility of
reconciling the old trusting relationships between the atomic scientists was
for all intents and purposes permanently lost after Jungks book.
Jungks descriptions insinuated that the German scientists, on account
of their lack of trust in the political leadership, did not actively
resist. Instead, they played a role in
the armament divisions decision against the building of an atomic bomb, in
their own way: Dragging out the necessary preparatory work, making no related
money demands, and turning to different research projects. My father did not
like being asked about those things. He
wanted to neither confirm nor deny them. The only thing he kept emphasizing
was that it was too complicated to
try and explain to someone who was not present then, the thinking and actions
in lawless times. Thus one statement he once made in this context stayed with
me even more. He said to me: You know,
nobody can force someone to invent what he does not want to invent.
The discontent over Jungks version was certainly one of the instigators
to begin writing his autobiographical work in the 1960s, which appeared in 1969
in Munich under the title Der Teil und das Ganze. [Physics and Beyond]
This book ties in with one of the best memories
of my early married years. My parents had invited my husband and me to join
them on a Mediterranean cruise. For both of us, having been extremely hard
working due to our studies and the birth of our children, this meant having
three weeks of a lifestyle in sheer luxury. Free of all demands, we could
simply enjoy, relishing the feudal life on board as well as the excursions into
the foreign, fairytale world of Athens, Istanbul, Beirut, and the Adriatic Islands.
It was our first extensive trip abroad, and my parents also had never indulged
themselves in such carefree living. All of us were taken in by the magic; not
least of it was when we would get together after dinner in the cabin of my
parents, as the ship gently swayed and my father read to us the latest chapters
of his book, often written that morning while lounging on deck. Since I had previously
experienced my father
more often as a very reticent, shy man who did not want much ado made about him,
I took it as an unusual expression of trust, especially in my husband. That
made me very happy, since afterwards many interesting conversations ensued. I
could better understand his mental disposition during the Nazi period and why he
came to participate in research on nuclear energy in the first place, instead
of leaving the country for America.
The thought of emigrating had been much on my fathers mind for a period
of time. He knew from his world trip in
1929 that he had friends everywhere who would welcome him with open arms,
enable him to do his research as he liked. In 1933 the golden years of physics
were over. Politics invaded the university environment, chased out the Jewish
colleagues, and made undisturbed scientific work impossible. But my father was
loath to choose the path of
least resistance and simply leave, just because he had that choice available to
him. He felt connected to his country by birth, education, and culture and
would have thought himself a deserter had he left his homeland in dire straits,
although he detested the unlawful regime of the Nazis. What could he possibly
do to counter it?
In answering that question so he
writes in his book- a talk with Max Planck pointed him in the right direction.
Both men were in agreement that the country under the Nazi rule was headed for
disaster, and a war was unavoidable. An opportunity to affect something
positive for Germany from abroad was predictably slim. If one stayed in the country, one could,
however, attempt to build islands of persistent value, meaning: assemble
young people around one, protect them from being drafted into war and show them
how to do good science.
This idea must have resonated with my father, for he was convinced deep
down that National Socialism was a temporary malaise, a terrible political
aberration only due to the fact that all of Europe was in a phase of
reorganization after the disruption of the First World War. The old Christian-
civic values had lost their relevance, and a new significant rearrangement was
not yet in sight. During such times
there is a great danger that demons take over the domain of the Gods as my
father describes it in his essay Reality
and its Order. Even if the individual is unable to prevent the rise of
such destructive forces, he should at least see to it that, within the small
environment of his own activity, the constructive elements remain supremely in
charge of reinvigorating a new life.
Along these lines, he also had the hope that something might happen in
the political arena, similar to what the physicists had just experienced in
their science. The old rules of physics had proven insufficient in light of new
investigations and needed to yield to new overriding models of thought. My
fathers scientific activity during the previous years had consisted of
expounding on these new ideas. It had not been about discarding the old values
but to reconcile them with these new ideas. Why should it not be possible that
opening the path for a new social and political order would include honoring
the values as before, since they had not lost their validity even during the
disruption? The notion of salvaging the scientific culture at least in a small
arena and to counter the general breakdown with a seed for renewal later on, surely
had something comforting, and gave individuals the strength to get through the
horrors of the time.
I gradually realized that for my father working in science entailed much
more than getting nature to reveal itself, or to exploit it technically. It was
rather the place where it was possible even at that time to encounter a divine
order and stand within the absolute truth, not covered over by some
ideology. Here man is confronted with
his own limit: that which is true or false is not decided by belief
or origin or race, but (
) by nature, or,
if you will, the gracious God, at any rate not by men as my father
articulated it in a talk, given in 1946.
There he also mentioned something else which was a seminal experience
during his scientific wander years between Munich, Göttingen and Copenhagen:
The scientific work created a common bond between the participants; it enabled
the integration of people with quite diverse cultural backgrounds, because they
all were pledged to the same meaning of truth.
Thus the thought of assembling around him young people to teach them how
to do good science was attractive on many levels. It offered the means to
counter the mendacious ideology of the national-socialist regime with the
incorruptible truth of science, and through scientific work minimize losing
contact with other nations.
My father pursued these aims with great diligence during the many years
following the conversation with Max Planck. He defended, undeterred, Jewish
physics from German physics, although he was subjected to a hazardous
interrogation as mentioned- and categorized as a white Jew. He brought
foreign scientists to his institute and helped Jewish colleagues find positions
abroad, when he could no longer keep them there. And, continuing into the war
years, his scientific publications brought him invitations to other countries,
where he could meet up with former colleagues and stand by them in their
When, in 1933, my father decided to stay in Germany, it was probably
made easier by the fact that at this time nobody had yet thought about a
possible atom bomb, and also that he did not think it possible that the
National Socialists in their absurd ideology would be in power for so long.
From the beginning, he underestimated the Nazis and did not take them seriously
enough, as some letters to his mother show.
Even in 1939 he did not think it
likely that the war could last longer than a few weeks or months. It must have
come as a shock, when it became obvious that he was wrong, and that Hitler was
much more successful than he would have expected. The realization became
palatable only, because the Communists, whom he detested as much as the Nazis
would be kept at bay this way. Aside from this, he was convinced that after
wars end, regardless of defeat or victory, the Nazis would promptly be
replaced by more moderate forces.
It is characteristic for my father that in 1939, despite the imminent
war, he was not ready to revise his decision from 1933 and immigrate to
America. During his last lecture tour there, he was urged everywhere to stay
on. No doubt, the proposition to work undisturbed on science as in an earlier
time was very tempting for him. His previously mentioned obstinate mind,
however, came through: He had decided in 1933 to remain in Germany to build an
island of persistence and the need for it had not changed.
It could not count as a reason that the
implementation had become more difficult and dangerous meanwhile; and besides,
his chronic contempt of the Nazis, led him to believe that the scientists could
maintain control over atomic research.
My father writes in his book, he had known that compromises with the
ruling order would be unavoidable if one remained in the country, and that it
would be likely, no matter what one did or omitted to do, that one would be
taking part in some kind of injustice. He probably underestimated how long this
period would last, and that one would have to learn to be tactical and speak
with a forked tongue. Any thoughtless,
unguarded word, spoken in the wrong circle of people could bring him and his
team in mortal danger and withdraw the Uranium project from their continued
input. Particularly on his travels abroad, with their increased shadowing, he
could not afford to let his guard down. So it must not come as a surprise that
reports of these travels include his supposed belief in Hitlers victory. When,
in 1941, he was in Copenhagen to meet with his teacher, Bohr, and speak
about the situation in nuclear research,
he wrote to my mother about a social gathering, that he found himself during
the unavoidable political discussion quite
automatically in the role of defending our system.
I suddenly realized why my father became so monosyllabic when it came to
the question whether by his behavior he had helped or hindered the atomic bomb
project. To prevent an undesirable
outcome at the time was limited to small, simple steps, nothing one could
define precisely and could be proud of.
One could not know too much, say too much and at best choose between
different undesirables, instead of doing the right thing in good conscience. If
one wanted to affect something, one only had a strategy of impotence available:
slyness, diplomacy and hiding behind factual impediments. Language became more
a tool for smokescreens instead of an expression of reality. The time of forced
imprecision must have been a constant affront to my father, whom I have always
experienced as a man of special clarity and honesty. It only became tolerable by
focusing on a clear goal: the new beginning after the catastrophe, an open
world in which language would again connect people, not separate them.
In general, my father avoided as mentioned- talking about his feelings
and innermost issues. He deemed it inappropriate to show weakness and burden
others with his personal concerns. In his book
Physics and Beyond, however, there is clear evidence of the inner
despair at the time, and how the increased isolation threatened to make him
sick. He stayed on course, thinking of the people around him for whom he had
assumed responsibility-his family, his colleagues, his friends- and of the
people outside his country with whom he felt aligned through the common
scientific language. But he overlooked that this connection could not be a reciprocal
experience on the other side. To his colleagues abroad, he no longer was the
former cohort in science, but the representative of an enemy power. Nobody
could notice his inner exile, and when he came to Copenhagen in 1941, even his
old friend and teacher could not see him as before: as the man who was his
junior, who revered him and hoped for his help.
The question comes up time and again, why my father participated at all
in the Uranium project. Could he not have, true to his intentions, restrict
himself in 1939 to his theoretical research projects? Precisely that was not
possible, because, like all men in his age group of military duty, he was
commissioned to serve, and, together with other scientists, he was ordered to
research the technical realization of nuclear energy. Above all, the armament
office at the time was interested in a quick, unequivocal reply, regardless of
whether it was positive or negative. In the first instance one could hope to
gain a new source of energy of importance for the war, in the other, one was
assured that the enemy would not possess it either.
The situation became pointed when the opposite was shown in their
research: Chain reactions were -theoretically- possible and could be used for
energy production and thus also for the building of bombs. From then on, it
only became a question what kind of technical effort and time line was
necessary to construct a bomb. In this respect the German scientists were as
my father has always stressed- in the fortunate position to tell their
government in good conscience that building a bomb in less than three to four
years was out of the question.
How much the collaborators did at the time in order
jeopardize this fortunate situation, is described in detail in the
book from 1993 Heisenbergs War by
Thomas Powers, based on a thorough study of the
British Secret Service and other
documentation. Among the many small steps in the right direction was the fact
that the Germans did nothing to warn their government of the possible building
of a bomb in America. What they had to assume, though, was that the Americans
would not hesitate to go forward with the technical execution of such a bomb,
after the road was laid out theoretically.
The concern about it also did not let my father rest, and it led to the
travel to Copenhagen in September 1941. He wanted to talk with his teacher,
Bohr -as he writes in his book- whether it was responsible under the given
circumstances to continue working on nuclear energy research. To me this
phrasing has always remained somewhat curious. What possibly should Bohr have
said in response to such a question? Only much later it dawned on me that this statement,
made after so many years, still exposes what destined the conversation back
then to fail: the requirement to speak vaguely and to express ones actual
concern only in obscure terms.
Heisenbergs hope at the time was that, with Bohrs help, it might be
possible to reach a consensus of the atomic scientists across the world that
their knowledge of the initiation of chain reactions must not be passed on to
the political powers. He did not dare, however, to voice his appeal openly, but
rather hoped that Bohr would arrive at the envisioned notion on his own, once
he heard that the Germans were not working on manufacturing a bomb. But Bohr
ended the conversation at once, when Heisenberg reported that the Germans
understood the way to a bomb in principle. He was so shocked by this news that
he no longer absorbed the actual message that there would not be a German bomb
project. The road to any kind of agreements was now blocked.
For both men the failure of this conversation was so painful that even
many years afterwards they could not bring themselves to talk about it.
Although they met occasionally, they did not
approach this difficult topic any longer in order not to hurt the other.
The differences could not be laid to rest
anyhow, just like the fact that both men at the time followed different paths:
Bohr, after fleeing Denmark, had participated in the Los Alamos laboratory
works, Heisenberg had turned to reactor research.
The goals my father had set for himself in 1933 did, without doubt, help
him weather the national socialist time with its horrors and humiliations. They
also influenced his actions far into the post-war period. Due to his scientific
reputation and the fact that he had not worked on building an atomic bomb, he
could gain the trust of the allies. The result was permission for Germany to
continue its research into the peaceful
use of nuclear energy soon thereafter; as president of the
Alexandervon-Humboldt- Foundation, he made sure that foreign scientists could
work again in German universities and that the scientific exchange with other
countries was revived. In the nineteen fifties, with the
Declaration of the Eighteen, he and other scientists actively
stood up against arming the German military with atomic weapons.
But in reading his book, I was impressed most of all by how steadfastly
my father could see the contours of something new during twelve years of
deprivation and repression. He trusted in a higher power which points each individual,
even in times of deterioration, to a place from where he can work towards a new
order, even when he does not yet know it.
How much my father was sustained by the thought of a new order, I could
only grasp years later, when I got hold of his brief expose
Reality and its Order. He wrote it in 1942, but it was published
only posthumously. It appeared to me like a kind of self-therapy, an active
attempt to shield himself from the growing chaos, the general mood of demise,
and his own discouragement. Here he articulates quite directly and
unapologetically what he is thinking of the political powers of his time.
After describing the order on various levels
of reality, and discussing the need for renewal of outdated orders, he turns to
the present in his closing commentary, writing:
Initially, we have no choice
but to return to that which is simple; we must conscientiously attend to the
duties and tasks which life itself places upon us without much questioning the
whence and whither
And then we have to wait what will happen; the new does not have to be
visible right away
When we ponder the times to come, the greatest threat seems to come from
the confusion between good and evil. Especially in an era where the ties to
established religion are loosening, the danger that demons are talking hold of
the rule of the gods is greater than ever; and demons have always allied
themselves with that glittering phantom that leads people astray at all times:
And a few passages later: The powerful figure who assumes the right to destroy the enemy and who
throws resisters in jail is not important; it is instead the jail guard who, despite orders to the contrary, cannot
refrain from slipping a piece of bread to the prisoners now and then. We need
to remind ourselves again and again that it is more important to act humanely
towards the other than to fulfill any professional obligations or national
obligations or political obligations. Even the din of great ideals at its
loudest must not confuse or hinder us to hear the one, soft tone on which
It has been said so often that
weakness will perish, that only the strong will prevail in the struggle of
life. That may well be true. But what is the strong? In music, the loudest
passages are often not those when the full orchestra fills the whole hall with
sound but the bars when a single violin softly sings a melody. Therefore, those
who still know the white rose or who can still discern the sound of the silver
string must now join together.
Although my father spoke in very
personal terms here and in his book Physics
and Beyond, expressing so much
about himself, his feelings and thinking, never did the attacks on him quiet
down. It saddened him to the end of his life in 1976.
you understand why some people have opposed me so much? he was still asking
my mother shortly before his death. She took it as a plea and has written in
her book Inner Exile how she
experienced his thinking and his actions. At that time it appeared to me that with
this book the discussion about my father also had come to a certain closure,
and the public had made its peace with him.
But I was wrong. The controversies about his person ignited time and
again, and were revived in the eighties and especially in the nineties through
films and other publications. One more time Heisenberg was subject to the
notion that he had wanted to build the bomb for Hitler, but failed due only to
his wrong calculations. To prove this thesis, they pointed out his quick mind
and his extraordinary ambition. He is portrayed as a dashing young man who in
skiing, in chess, or in science always wanted to be just a tad ahead of others.
Even an author as perceptive and serious as Michael Frayn, is falling for this
cliché in his otherwise very engaging and
nuanced play Copenhagen , as he says
that Heisenberg won over the heart of his future wife at a chamber music
evening in Leipzig by playing the last
movement of a Beethoven piano trio a presto at an
incredible tempo. In reality it was the slow
movement of this trio a very intimate, melodious Largo con espressione with
which he had conquered my mother!
I was taken aback and disturbed by these descriptions which matched in
no way my own experiences. The father I knew was rather thoughtful and
restrained in his reactions and took pains not to run rough shod over his
counterpart. To describe him as domineeringambitious is getting off the track.
He was not ambitious, but extremely achievement oriented. In psychological
terms there is a big difference: one is person centered, the other task
centered. Ambition presupposes a manifest ego, a person centered on himself and
demanding attention. My father had a rather underdeveloped ego. Honors and the
cult around his person were often embarrassing to him, and he preferred to
distance himself with a few jesting remarks. Power and leadership did not
interest him, they were more likely offered to him without his seeking.
He was not a leader by nature, he lead by virtue of his human
quality writes a former youth movement fellow in his memoirs.
What mattered to him was not external success but the inner readiness to
engage in something. He admired people who were really good at something and
liked being with them. In this context, I can remember an episode where he
played ping-pong against the friend of our au pairs, a young club player, and
lost. We children were appalled, a world crumbled for us.
He, however, was very cheerful, and invited
the young man back immediately for the following weekend. To us he explained
that it was the most fun to play against a better player than you yourself are.
He demanded much of himself and was often dissatisfied with his effort,
but also could be proud when something turned out well. When he received the
Nobel Prize, he wrote to his mother:
excitement of the first festive day has now yielded to a more quiet and serious
happiness: about fate having given me the joy
of work and, in addition, the success
I think that these words
are also the key to his success: It is not ambition but the joy of work. My
father had a remarkable ability to derive happiness and satisfaction from his
activity and to lose himself in his work.
It enabled him to finish a huge amount of work within very little time
and to face unfamiliar challenges.
His interest was not primarily in other people, much less in his own
person, but in the surrounding nature with its laws. It was a special gift of
his to observe intuitively and formulate the inherent connections. For him it
was not about conquering nature and to change it he was inclined to warn
against the practical consequences of modern natural science. His engagement
was rather in line with the theory of cognition and with aesthetics, making him,
in a sense, more of an artist and philosopher than a politician or technician.
When he had success- whether in physics, in music, or at table tennis,
playing chess or skiing it told him that he was becoming more and more able
and skillful in detecting the laws of this world. And when he often surpassed
his partners, it was like a secondary effect which confirmed for him that he
had approached the matter correctly, but it was no reason to make him feel
superior to others. Along these lines,
his teacher in Göttingen, Born, writes about him:
he is very popular here with everyone and esteemed. His gift is
unbelievable, but especially pleasing are his friendly, humble nature, his good
mood, his effort and his enthusiasm.
My father was very conscious of his gift and it prompted him to demand
much of himself. At the same time, he never forgot that a great deed is not
accomplished by the gift of one individual, but always based on the communal
activity of several people. Thus he writes to his mother on the occasion of
receiving the Nobel Prize : I know how
much I owe to both of you and how the
good force in my life has been supported indirectly and directly by both of you
and to Niels Bohr he wrote: I have a bad
conscience vis-à-vis Schrödinger, Dirac and Born about the Nobel Prize;
Schrödinger and Dirac both would have deserved a whole Prize at least as much
as I, and with Born I would gladly have shared, since we were working together.
In my opinion, the term tolerance
would be much more fitting to characterize my fathers behavior and to subsume
it. Tolerance was a basic element in his relationship with other people. In the
hundreds of letters he wrote, you hardly ever find a derogatory remark about
another person. He allowed himself biting comments about books, opinions and
other human productions, but he let the people themselves be as they were. I
have often asked myself how it was possible that someone with such high
expectations of himself could be so patient and forgiving with others.
I think it came from not making himself the measure of all things. He
had the notion that each person on earth is given a certain task. It is what he
will be measured against, not the tasks and accomplishments of other people.
My father felt himself sheltered within a
higher order in which the opposites of the world are fitting together as
one. Ideological thought was profoundly
alien to him. He did not believe in the victory of good over evil. He was
fond of pointing out that the opposite of a deep truth often is another deep
truth as well. Accordingly, he lived with the conviction that only in the
constant friction of positive and negative forces life is unfolding and morphing
into new forms. The challenge for mankind lies in the acceptance of the
contradictory forces, and to balance those out into an equilibrium which will
be the more stable, the greater the variety and opposition is that it can
In his own life too, his aim was always to combine contradictory
impulses. He loved advancing his science in an intensive exchange of ideas with
teachers and colleagues, but equally could disappear into his study to resolve
problems all by himself and to progress in his scientific work. Thereafter he would
devote himself with equal intensity to his youth group and friends, hiked in the
mountains or went on long trips, wanting nothing more than to forget his
science and enjoy the beauty of the world.
To do one thing without omitting the other was his mantra.
He would perhaps have liked to study music,
but then decided on the natural sciences.
All the same, even in times of his most intensive scientific work, he
made sure he had a piano nearby, for practice and playing music with others.
He felt eternally connected to Munich and the familiar mountains, but it
did not stop him from leaving and traveling for almost one year in 1929, and
spending many months studying in Copenhagen. Similarly, he maintained a
faithful connection with his parents throughout his life, although he took full
responsibility for his own life.
In certain areas he demanded of himself a total commitment; nevertheless
he was not a perfectionist. He was aware of his limitations, allowed himself at
times having to fudge and be sloppy, and was always
stressing that he had no competence in certain things. But he enjoyed making an
effort and to notice how his limits could be expanded a little further.
He could over-reach occasionally. His physical strength was not always
on par with his mental and emotional capacity. As far as his vital constitution
was concerned, he was somewhat on the frail side; he suffered from severe
allergies, tended to succumb to infectious diseases, to seasonal mood swings
and exhaustion. But he did not let it deter him. He tried to employ inner
discipline to conquer his physical weaknesses, to use sports and to toughen
himself up. A serene and optimistic basic endowment allowed him to move repeatedly
beyond the times of exhaustion and discouragement, and look towards what he
The ambition which Heisenberg supposedly had is usually seen as a
consequence of a bourgeois-conservative upbringing, dominated by a stern,
driven father who always expected superior performance and played each against
the other. I knew very little about my
fathers family of origin, and was initially inclined to accept this
characterization unquestioningly. Over
time, though, it became suspect, since it did not add up with the few bits of
information I had. I only knew my grandfather
from a photo that stood on my fathers desk for as long as I can remember. The imposing
mustache was modified by the little laughing lines around his eyes. He
reportedly could be jolly and, at times, practically exuberant, and he loved to
sing lieder by Schubert and Hugo Wolf. But I have met my grandmother, who was
always only referred to as >little Omi< due to her small frame, and I
remember her as a very kind old lady. The friendly brother, Erwin, came occasionally
for a visit to our house. I also can
remember how much my father liked to mention his grandparents house in
Osnabrück. He was proud of his grandfather who was a master locksmith, of his Aunt
Grete with her own garden center, and Uncle Karl who immigrated to
As I myself reached the age and position of parent, I became aware
that I have only known my father as an older man, in the time after the Second
World War. I would have liked to learn more about the young man before that
time, who won the Nobel Prize at age 32, and loved going on tours with his
friends from the youth movement; who was reputed to have had a cheerful,
radiant appearance, although he supposedly came from a stern, narrow- minded
Then I remembered the correspondence that had been stored in my basement
for several years: over 700 letters Heisenberg had written to his parents
between 1918 and 1945. I began to read randomly, took more and more time with
them and was, eventually, so captivated that I began transcribing them. What I
was fascinated by the most was the chance to reverse the passing of time and
get immersed in the present of a person who was close to me and yet had long
ago finished his life already.
Most of the letters were written in a great hurry-often every few days
and with an opening apology that he actually had no time at all. Behind this
one easily senses the parental admonition to the son, he should keep in touch
more often. This was sometimes a bother, no doubt, but he soon caught on that
he only received letters when he too wrote them. And he placed great value on
hearing regularly from the parents, he encouraged them to write to him, took
their concerns and needs to heart, thanked them profusely for their
letters and packages, which enriched his
bachelor existence, and left exact instructions how and where he could be
reached on his travels. He wanted to stay in contact with his parents, wanted
to let them participate in his life and did report faithfully what he
encountered in terms of joys, successes, and disappointments. He did not do
this merely out of a sense of duty, but rather because he felt their mutual
connection deep down. He loved them and was forever
grateful for the happy childhood in Würzburg they had given him.
He took note and brought it up occasionally too that they were the foundation
which enabled him to engage at full speed in life with its adventures.
The parents were stern in the sense that they made sure their two sons
would have a thorough education. They expected much of them but were also very
proud of them and fully engaged in everything they did.
The father was not just the disciplinary family elder, but also the
comrade and cohort of his sons, who climbed across fences, bicycled, played
chess and music with them. This is clearly reflected in the relationship of the
younger son with his father. Werner was devoted in love and respect to his
father, but could also tease him gently or confront the parents persuasively,
when he did not see eye to eye with them. The unexpectedly early death of the
father hit the then twenty-eight year old very hard. He converted the grief he
felt into comforting his mother for whose wellbeing he felt responsible from
then on. He wrote to her :When I think
of Papa, one thing stays in my memory above all: that occasionally something
could suddenly glow about him, be it a joyous unimportant issue, be it an
insight into a connection in his science, or something essential in music. This
suddenness and brightness was so important for our life in Munich.
While the father challenged the sons playfully through competitions,
thinking games, or having them perform a piece of music for him, the mother was
incessantly taking care of the familys comfort. And as the older brother
married, she concentrated her whole care on the younger Werner. She helped him
wherever she could, provided him with a housekeeper, or groceries to take to
the skiing lodge, preserved the fruit from his garden and baked the birthday
cakes. He was forever grateful for this loving care, even when he no longer
really needed it. He did invite his mother to join him on his travel to
America, and brought her along to Stockholm to the Nobel Prize ceremony.
There probably was a certain rivalry between him and his slightly older
brother, Erwin, who became a chemist later on. The gifted younger brother must
have been following the elder around, hoping to match him or even surpass him.
From the letters we learn, however, that the brothers were not only competitors
but also good friends who would from time to time ally themselves against the
parents. The brothers made music together- Erwin played the violin, Werner piano
and they even continued their chess games in writing, when the older brother
was sent to the front in the First World War. To the question from us children,
whether he never fought with his brother, he gladly would repeat the story how
they both one time stood across from each other during a fight, one with a
hammer, the other with a chair in his hand. It was then that they suddenly
could see that one cannot resolve conflict this way, and from then on stopped
The parental home was a source of
inner strength and security, as his letters make clear. Father and mother were
always there for him, they stood by him with advice and through their actions.
A combination of love and strictness conferred on him a profound trust, capable
of sustaining him through the storms of his time and his science. It is a
pleasure to witness in these letters how the relationship between parents and
son changes over the years and finds a new equilibrium of give and take. To the
end of life the son stays indebted to his parents in gratitude and care which
he himself had received from them in the early years. In one of his last
letters to the mother, as she is struggling against despair in her life, he
writes: You two have really made our
childhood as beautiful as other people rarely have it, and, even from the time
of the First World War, the good memories by far outweigh the bad. I can only
wish that I can care for my own children halfway similarly as you have done for
us. He did succeed, and I am grateful to him for it.