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Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, 1939-1945: A Study in German Culture Paperback – October 1, 2001
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From Library Journal
Rose (Jewish/European studies, Pennsylvania State Univ.) 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 postwar "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. A fascinating book, but not for beginners; recommended for specialized collections on the history of science and modern intellectual history.?Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Of the controversies surrounding the dawn of the atomic age, ranking near the top is the matter of Werner Heisenberg and his team's failure to put a bomb in Hitler's hands. Two principal explanations exist. One view, presented in Thomas Powers' Heisenberg's War (1993), is that Heisenberg hindered research, and, in any event, was not ordered to go all out for the bomb; Rose adopts the opposing contention that Heisenberg failed not because of moral compunctions but because he miscalculated the moderator required by a plutonium-producing reactor and the critical mass for a U235 bomb. That Rose spitefully condemns Powers' popular book as "entirely bogus" indicates the passion he brings to arraigning Heisenberg and his historical defense; and on bomb technology, the strictly technical side, Rose bests Powers. However, his attempted clinching of the argument by digressions into German patriotism and Heisenberg's mindset is too speculative to be convincing. Deeply researched scholarship for serious students. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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While most writers give Heisenberg the benefit of the doubt on his character (After all, he was not anti-Semitic, nor was he a member of the Nazi Party.), Rose sees him as a continuation of the German revolutionary spirit that dates back to Luther, and thus condemns Heisenberg as guilty, especially as Heisenberg was a German patriot, and it is extremely difficult for Rose (as with most people) to distinguish a patriot from a Nazi.
However, If Rose were a prosecutor, a jury would need only ten minutes to acquit Heisenberg on all counts. Rose simply fails to make his case. The alleged anti-Semitic remark by Heisenberg is second-hand via Max Born back in 1945. Hardly the testimony that can convict. It also comes late in the book, after we have been subjected to much screed about a German radical anti-Semetic tradition that Heisenberg wanted no part of at any time. Otherwise he would have been a good Party member, as were others in his scientific circle. Also, as the excellent earlier review asserts, this trend would have been long noticeable at Gottingen, the center of German physics and natural science. No, Rose simply has no case and spends over 300 pages making a hysterical justification for something that simply never was.
However, this does not mean I am leaning toward the portrait of Heisenberg given in Thomas Powers's book. Powers makes Heisenberg out to be a sort of James Bond character, brilliantly defying the Nazis to prevent the mad Hitler from obtaining the ultimate weapon. Nonsense. The simple truth about Heisenberg was that he was both naive and a coward. Any chance of him openly defying the Nazis was laid to rest with the attacks on his "Jewish physics" in the SS newspaper. It is interesting that he had to have his mother intervene with Himmler's mother to clear his name. It tells us much about the character of Heisenberg.
Also consider Heisenberg's theory that Hitler would lose the war and then evertything would come out all right. Heisenberg felt the scientist was above mere politics, and politics were only an unwanted intrusion into science. As the Second World War bore out, he was not the only one to have that view. Heisenberg's visit to Bohr may have been to ask for advice on how to proceed in building a bomb. It seems Heisenberg wanted some sort of absolution for remaining in Germany, and if he confessed to Bohr, that would have assauged his guilt. But because Bohr refused to speak with him in private, Heisenberg did the next best thing: he took the money for nuclear research and farted it away on baseless research. The Allies were surprised at how little the Germans accomplished in their program. But the real question is how much did the OSS know? Powers has Moe Berg walking next to Heisenberg in Switzerland with a revolver in his pocket, ready to blow Heisenberg's brains out. Yet, he doesn't pull the trigger. Could it have been that Berg discovered how little progress Heisenberg had made? If that were to be leaked out, especially to those at Los Alamos, would our scientists, many of whom were Jewish German emigres, hace continued work on America's A-Bomb?
It is most interesting that Rose never touches on this point in his screed, for it would undermine his argument. Instead he focuses on Heisenberg's lack of technical expertise in understanding how the bomb could be built. Heisenberg did indeed lack those engineering skills, but so did his counterpart in America, Robert Oppenheimer. But Oppenheimer compensated with a tremendous will to build the unthinkable, while Heisenberg was content not to ask to further funds or to even speculate that a bomb could be built. The transcripts at Farm Hall pretty much seem to bear this out, and in the process, destroy Rose's case.
Heisenberg did not build the bomb, and he was crucified for it. One only pauses to think how history would have treated him if he actually did build a bomb.
1) If Heisenberg is the representative of some supposed cultural influence on the way German scientists morally behaved, the same pattern should have been observed in Göttingen, for instance, which was the center of German Science then (Quantum Mechanics and Abstract Algebra were born there). But with the sole exceptions of Teichmüller (a mathematical genius and fanatic Nazi) and Hilbert (who was already very old and sick), all the leading mathematicians and physicists of Göttingen fled the country because of their opposition to the Nazi regime. This simple historical counterfactual renders the main "culturalist" thesis of the book untenable.
2) The author clearly lacks proper training in physics, and the technical details he describes is intended mainly to impress the non-scientific reader - the pitfall is that for a trained physicist it is almost nonsensical to imagine that someone of Heisenberg's stature would make the silly mistakes ascribed to him by the author. The point is that he draws too much on information given by Hans Bethe, a less than reliable source on Heisenberg as anyone who knew both men were aware (but not the author, it seems).
3) Heisenberg read ancient Greek fluently and in fact he read the Greek philosophers in order to reflect upon his scientific activity. It was this broad and humanistic vision of physics that attracted Ettore Majorana to Heisenberg at Leipzig and estranged him from Fermi and his group in Rome (it should be remembered that for Majorana a proper ethical stance was always more important than scientific achievements). It seems to defy our common sense to mantain that a man with this backgroud would be the morally silly character portrayed in the book. In fact, impartial accounts given by other scientists who knew Heisenberg (Weisskopf, for example) shows a different picture.
The mixture of void grand metaphysical speculation and scientific and historical ignorance is a common feature of much that today is published in France as "cultural" studies of science. If it were not for the interesting historical material dug by the author, his book would neatly fall into this category - cheap French journalism.