Werner Heisenberg was only twelve years old at the outbreak of the Great War, but he always remembered the feelings of patriotism and ‘selfless exhilaration’ that the war aroused in the German people. Another man would write, “Germany was fighting for her existence, the German nation for life or death, freedom and future.” Werner’s father, an army reservist, was called for duty and sent home due to his wounds in 1916. It was a sense of duty and patriotism that would later prevent Werner Heisenberg from leaving Germany in the days before the Second World War.
Heisenberg’s many Jewish colleagues asked him why he didn’t leave Germany. Edward Teller, one of his Jewish doctoral students, prodded him with this question. Heisenberg replied, “Do you abandon your brother because he stole a silver spoon?” According to some, such as I. I. Rabi, Heisenberg didn’t believe that Germany would win the coming war. But when asked to emigrate abroad he always replied that he must share Germany’s fate and help rebuild science after the war.
Heisenberg’s close friend Niels Bohr could not understand his dilemma. To him, the patriotism that Heisenberg described was merely “the primitive flocking of birds.” The selfless exhilaration was pure “war fever.” Once again Heisenberg had been misunderstood.
Bohr’s inability to understand Heisenberg’s dilemma may have stemmed from the fact that Bohr was Jewish. His mother had been a Jew and this, by Jewish law, made Bohr a Jew as well. In fact, the majority of theoretical physicists around Heisenberg were Jewish. This included individuals like Victor Weisskopf, Edward Teller, I. I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, Samuel Goudsmit, Lise Meitner, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, and Fritz Reiche. And let’s not forget the two most famous: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Even the Italian Enrico Fermi was intimately connected to the Jews — his wife Laura was Jewish. When trouble came to Europe they simply packed up their things and moved abroad — anyone who stayed behind in Germany was labeled a “Nazi collaborator.”[4, 5]
While Heisenberg may have been a patriot, he was definitely not a Nazi. He helped secure positions overseas for various Jewish colleagues who were beginning to feel pressure inside the German scientific community. One such Jewish physicist was I. I. Rabi, who owed his appointment to Columbia University solely to Heisenberg’s recommendation.
Nonetheless, many of these Jewish friends made an irrevocable break with Heisenberg for his refusal to abandon Germany. They took this not as a sign of patriotism, which they didn’t comprehend, but rather as indicating a pro-Nazi outlook on the part of Heisenberg. They conveniently forgot his acts of kindness, and began organizing themselves in the United States for a war. A war against Germany — but also against Heisenberg.
One of the Jews who emigrated from Germany at that time was Leo Szilard. It was Szilard who, taking the idea from an H. G. Wells novel, patented the design of a nuclear chain reaction. Upon relocating to the United States he immediately, perhaps obsessively, began spreading the word that Germany was working towards building atomic weapons. In truth, even world-renowned physicists such as Niels Bohr denied that a bomb could even be constructed.
In July 1939 Szilard and Eugene Wigner paid a visit to Albert Einstein to discuss the possibility of German atomic weapons. At first they planned to contact the Belgians in an effort to keep Belgian-controlled uranium ore from falling into German hands. Eventually they settled on another approach. Szilard’s friend Alexander Sachs was a Russian-born Jewish financier with access to President Roosevelt. “In America,” said Sachs, “it’s the presidents who get things done.”
Thus the letter was written in which Albert Einstein famously warns President Roosevelt of the possibility of creating atomic bombs and the likelihood that Germany is exploiting Czechoslovakian uranium mines for this exact purpose. In October Alexander Sachs himself would deliver this letter to President Roosevelt. It was this letter that was the catalyst for the American effort to create nuclear weapons. That effort, therefore. was a reaction to the “threat” posed by German atomic weapons: a “threat” that never existed.
The source of some of the information given in the Einstein-Szilard letter was taken, perhaps not directly, from Peter Debye. A Dutchman and winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Debye worked mostly in Germany. Ironically, although the information that Szilard was using to implicate Germany in a nuclear arms race came from him, Debye told another person in 1940 that the scientists working for Germany did not intend to create nuclear weapons, but would use their funds to continue researching nuclear physics. It would be “a good joke on the German army,” he said.
Still, some still believed that Germany was developing atomic weapons. Although Max von Laue played no role in Germany’s wartime atomic research, he nevertheless had reasons to believe that a bomb would never be created. In 1940 von Laue, head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, reassured an anxious physicist that “My dear colleague, no one ever invents anything he doesn’t really want to invent.” In the fall of 1940 Carl Friedrich Weizsacker, one of Germany’s leading men in atomic research, assured this same physicist that “the Uranverein [German nuclear research group] was concentrating its research on a power producing machine.” The only ones talking about bombs were the Jewish physicists abroad.
A Scientific Peace?
In 1941 Heisenberg paid a visit to his friend Niels Bohr in Denmark. There are differing accounts of what was said during this meeting, but Heisenberg himself claimed to have put forward the idea that the few physicists in the world who might possibly create atomic bombs ought to deliberately hold back from such an undertaking. Bohr interpreted this as merely an attempt on the part of Heisenberg to undermine the Allied countries’ bomb efforts. The most certain thing is that Heisenberg had betrayed Germany’s nuclear secrets to a man who supported the Allied cause. In Heisenberg’s War, author Thomas Powers wrote, “it’s fair to say that Heisenberg himself was the single most important source of true information about the German bomb program picked up by the Allies, although it was not always believed.”
At the same time that Heisenberg was attempting to create an international bloc against a nuclear arms race, his Jewish former colleagues were going into a frenzy insisting on the necessity of an American atomic bomb project. In late 1941 Eugene Wigner was urging Americans like Arthur Compton to “get the atomic program rolling.” By 1942 Wigner and Szilard were more shrill and insistent than ever.
Indeed, by 1942, the German government was interested in atomic bombs. Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and war production, asked Heisenberg directly if an atomic bomb could be produced. Heisenberg’s answer was the same as usual: An atomic bomb could theoretically be produced but it would be so costly and require so many years that it would not be of any use during the war. Speer offered Heisenberg whatever resources he would need, but still Heisenberg said it would not be practical. The German atomic bomb program was thus never even started.
The American Bomb Effort
Ironically, just as Germany was officially putting an end to any bomb program, the Americans were consolidating their own. The leading scientific director of this effort would be Robert Oppenheimer. The son of a wealthy textiles importer, Oppenheimer was a Harvard-educated Jew who typified the “Jewish Physics” that German science had attempted to rid itself of. Oppenheimer was primarily a theoretical physicist whose attempts at the experimental side of his science were not successful. He met Niels Bohr in 1925 while working at Cavendish Laboratory. Oppenheimer told Bohr he was having difficulties. “Are the difficulties mathematical or physical?” asked Bohr. “I don’t know,” said Oppenheimer. “That’s bad,” concluded Bohr.
In the late twenties Oppenheimer worked in Germany with other Jewish theoreticians such as I. I. Rabi and Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli himself was supposedly so terrible in a laboratory setting that the “Pauli Effect” was named after him. The “Pauli Effect” described the mysterious breakdown of equipment whenever Pauli was nearby.
Although Oppenheimer had not written a single article on nuclear fission before 1940, he was recommended to work on the American bomb effort by Rudolf Peierls who had co-written a paper on the feasibility of constructing an atomic bomb with a few kilograms or less of uranium. Peierls was a former student of Heisenberg who now worked for the Allies in England. After his superior resigned his post, Oppenheimer was moved up in the project. Oppenheimer impressed others mostly with his ability to summarize complex science so that everyone in a meeting could understand it. Eventually he would become the scientific director of the American effort to build an atomic bomb, called the Manhattan Project.
While the Jewish physicists believed that the Allies should develop their own nuclear weapons, they also believed that the German “threat” should be stopped by any means necessary. Heisenberg’s former student Victor Weisskopf would send a letter to Oppenheimer suggesting that Heisenberg be kidnapped. Oppenheimer assured Weisskopf that his letter would get the attention it deserved. The kidnapping plan would ultimately be abandoned but the broader suggestion to eliminate Heisenberg would be pursued later.
By 1943 this plan had gone from kidnapping to outright murder. The plan was simple. No German scientists — no German bomb. Heisenberg and his colleagues would have to be killed. Bombing raids would be sent to destroy targets in Germany where the scientists were known to work. The Americans decided that “the killing of scientific personnel employed therein would be particularly advantageous.” On Friday, December 3, 1943 the British sent waves of bombers to destroy the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Leipzig. Meanwhile, bombs rained down upon the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft in Dahlem. The chemist Otto Hahn, one of the targets of the bombing raids, lost a lifetime of papers and scientific correspondence. None of the leading scientists were killed, however.[16, 17]
But this was not the only murderous plan that the Jewish physicists dreamed up. In the summer of 1943, Oppenheimer and Fermi were discussing other ways of killing Germans. Oppenheimer told General Groves, the military director of the Manhattan Project, that he and Enrico Fermi had been discussing a plan to use “beta-strontium, a highly toxic radioactive by-product of fission” to poison German foodstuffs. Oppenheimer decided that it would only be worth the effort if they could “poison food sufficient to kill half a million men.”
By 1944 the Allies had failed to kill Heisenberg by bombing raids, so the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) drew up another plan to eliminate Heisenberg. They recruited former Red Sox catcher and Princeton University graduate Moe Berg for the job. The Jewish polymath could speak multiple languages but was, perhaps, not the ideal secret agent. After boarding a plane in May 1944, he leaned over and a pistol fell out of his jacket. “They gave me this as I came aboard,” he told fellow passenger George Shine.
In late 1944 Berg was sent to Zurich, Switzerland to intercept Heisenberg while he was attending a seminar. Berg was instructed to gather information about the German bomb project — and to shoot and kill Heisenberg if the Germans appeared to be close to success. Fortunately for Heisenberg, the truth was that the Germans had given up all hopes of a bomb and Heisenberg said nothing to suggest otherwise. Later Berg attended a party with Heisenberg and clumsily tried to extract information from him. “Oh it’s so boring here in Switzerland,” Berg said. He then added he would rather be fighting in Germany. Heisenberg politely disagreed.
After the Battle of the Bulge the Americans pushed into Germany and launched Operation Alsos. The operation consisted mostly of the kidnapping of German scientists who had been involved with nuclear research. The operation had no legal basis, since the German scientists were not members of the military and had not committed any crimes. The scientific leader of this mission was Samuel Goudsmit, a Jew and former colleague of Heisenberg.[20, 21]
On May 3, 1945 Heisenberg was captured by the Allies. He and the other scientists involved with nuclear research were detained in England for a number of months so that information could be gathered from them. The war against Heisenberg was over.
(Another excellent essay on Jewish/German physics is available here.)
1. Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s War, 29
2. Heisenberg’s War, 7
3. Heisenberg’s War, .29
5. Gino Segre, Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, 34.
6. Heisenberg’s War, 6
7. Heisenberg’s War, 65
8. Heisenberg’s War, 97
9. Heisenberg’s War, 322
10. Heisenberg’s War, 163
11. Heisenberg’s War, 147
12. Heisenberg’s War, 170
13. Of Matter and Spirit: Selected Essays by Charles P. Enz, 152
14. Heisenberg’s War, 175
15. Heisenberg’s War, 168
16. Heisenberg’s War, 210
17. Heisenberg’s War, 336
18. Heisenberg’s War, 354
19. Heisenberg’s War, 403
20. Heisenberg’s War, 428
21. Heisenberg’s War, 403