Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, 1939-1945: A Study in German Culture

Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, 1939-1945: A Study in German Culture

3.5 2
by Paul Lawrence Rose
     
 


No one better represents the plight and the conduct of German intellectuals under Hitler than Werner Heisenberg, whose task it was to build an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. The controversy surrounding Heisenberg still rages, because of the nature of his work and the regime for which it was undertaken. What precisely did Heisenberg know about the physics of the… See more details below

Overview


No one better represents the plight and the conduct of German intellectuals under Hitler than Werner Heisenberg, whose task it was to build an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. The controversy surrounding Heisenberg still rages, because of the nature of his work and the regime for which it was undertaken. What precisely did Heisenberg know about the physics of the atomic bomb? How deep was his loyalty to the German government during the Third Reich? Assuming that he had been able to build a bomb, would he have been willing? These questions, the moral and the scientific, are answered by Paul Lawrence Rose with greater accuracy and breadth of documentation than any other historian has yet achieved.

Digging deep into the archival record among formerly secret technical reports, Rose establishes that Heisenberg never overcame certain misconceptions about nuclear fission, and as a result the German leaders never pushed for atomic weapons. In fact, Heisenberg never had to face the moral problem of whether he should design a bomb for the Nazi regime. Only when he and his colleagues were interned in England and heard about Hiroshima did Heisenberg realize that his calculations were wrong. He began at once to construct an image of himself as a "pure" scientist who could have built a bomb but chose to work on reactor design instead. This was fiction, as Rose demonstrates: in reality, Heisenberg blindly supported and justified the cause of German victory. The question of why he did, and why he misrepresented himself afterwards, is answered through Rose's subtle analysis of German mentality and the scientists' problems of delusion and self-delusion. This fascinating study is a profound effort to understand one of the twentieth century's great enigmas.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Rose addresses several important and interrelated historiographical questions. He analyzes how Heisenberg and other prominent physicists dealt with the moral issues of working for the Nazis and how Nazi ideology intersected, and influenced, their work. Rose argues that Heisenberg misunderstood several key physical principles; consequently, Nazi scientists were directed away from the development of atomic weaponry. Interestingly, Rose uses this information as part of his analysis of Heisenberg's post-war 'confessions,' in which the scientist described himself not only as apolitical but claimed he never intended to build an atomic bomb. Rose concludes that Heisenberg was attempting to cloud his support of the Nazi state, much as Albert Speer did when he claimed to be an apolitical technocrat. -- Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
One of the most frightening 'what-ifs' of history is the Nazi effort to build a nuclear bomb. Here is a close-up look at that failed attempt. Rose (Modern European History/Penn State Univ.; Wagner: Race and Resolution, 1992) focuses his study on Werner Heisenberg, leader of the German A-bomb project. One of the giants of modern physics, Heisenberg remained in Germany despite his differences with Nazism (he never joined the party and defended 'Jewish physics,' i.e., Einstein's work, when the Nazis denounced it), heading a project that he must have known had the potential to insure German victory. Rose argues that Heisenberg's actions, including his failure to make a fundamental determination of the mass of uranium required to build a bomb, can be understood only in the context of the moral, cultural, and scientific attitudes of the German scientific establishment. Among these attitudes was a persistent self-delusion, endemic in German culture from the mid-1800s through the end of the Nazi era. Rose begins with a detailed critical analysis of Heisenberg's account of the bomb project, drawing on contemporary documents and subsequent revelations. The book's second part examines Heisenberg's fundamental inability to grasp the principle of an atomic explosive, a failure that ultimately allowed the U.S.' Manhattan Project to win the race for the bomb. This failure has been painted by Heisenberg's apologists as a subterfuge to undercut the project; Rose finds little reason to grant his subject that escape hatch. Finally, Rose examines the moral issues of Heisenberg's willingness to work with the Nazi regime, and his post-war accounts of that work, which the author terms 'historicallyfalse and morally corrupt.' While heavily footnoted for the benefit of an academic readership, this meticulously detailed and definitive book should also appeal to any reader intrigued by the moral dimension of scientific work.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780520210776
Publisher:
University of California Press
Publication date:
10/16/1998
Pages:
391
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.13(d)

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