Panel 6: World War What? The Obligatory World War II Panel

Location

Campus Center, Room 3545, University of Massachusetts Boston

Start Date

29-3-2014 10:45 AM

End Date

29-3-2014 12:00 PM

Description

Why was Nazi Germany unable to acquire an atomic bomb during World War II? An answer to this question necessarily involves an analysis of the wartime conduct of Werner Heisenberg. As the undisputed leader of German nuclear research, Heisenberg was integral to the successful production of a bomb. Heisenberg claimed after the war that the Nazis lacked the economic resources for this project. Moreover, Nazi military strategy ruled out such a sustained long-term commitment in armaments development. Heisenberg explained that he personally felt fortunate that these circumstances prevented Hitler from having a bomb. He argued that he merely “pretended” to pursue a bomb for the Nazis. Far from supporting a bomb, Heisenberg’s explanations reveal two wartime objectives: a) to preserve the German scientific enterprise from destruction by Nazi ideology, and b) to prevent the production of an atomic bomb.

Some historians believe Heisenberg’s post-war explanations of his conduct were a disingenuous effort to obscure his scientific shortcomings and Nazi support. But if Heisenberg’s explanations of his conduct were genuine, what should the historian expect to find in his wartime historical record? Assuming that Heisenberg was only “pretending” to support the Nazis, one can expect to find: 1) a mix of pro- and anti-Nazi actions, 2) no gratuitous pro-Nazi actions devoid of any strategic value for his objectives. This paper uses the above interpretive framework to analyze four key wartime actions of Heisenberg’s: 1) a 1941 conversation with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, 2) a February 1942 lecture for Nazi officials, 3) a similar lecture in June 1942, and 4) Heisenberg’s acceptance of the Nazi-appointed director position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. I conclude that while the historical evidence is not uniformly in his favor, Heisenberg’s explanation of his wartime conduct and objectives holds up under a closer examination.

Comments

PANEL 6 of the 2013 Graduate History Conference features presentations and papers under the topic of "World War What?: The Obligatory World War II Panel."

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

 
Mar 29th, 10:45 AM Mar 29th, 12:00 PM

'An Explosive of Quite Unimaginable Force': Did Werner Heisenberg Obstruct German Atomic Bomb Research?

Campus Center, Room 3545, University of Massachusetts Boston

Why was Nazi Germany unable to acquire an atomic bomb during World War II? An answer to this question necessarily involves an analysis of the wartime conduct of Werner Heisenberg. As the undisputed leader of German nuclear research, Heisenberg was integral to the successful production of a bomb. Heisenberg claimed after the war that the Nazis lacked the economic resources for this project. Moreover, Nazi military strategy ruled out such a sustained long-term commitment in armaments development. Heisenberg explained that he personally felt fortunate that these circumstances prevented Hitler from having a bomb. He argued that he merely “pretended” to pursue a bomb for the Nazis. Far from supporting a bomb, Heisenberg’s explanations reveal two wartime objectives: a) to preserve the German scientific enterprise from destruction by Nazi ideology, and b) to prevent the production of an atomic bomb.

Some historians believe Heisenberg’s post-war explanations of his conduct were a disingenuous effort to obscure his scientific shortcomings and Nazi support. But if Heisenberg’s explanations of his conduct were genuine, what should the historian expect to find in his wartime historical record? Assuming that Heisenberg was only “pretending” to support the Nazis, one can expect to find: 1) a mix of pro- and anti-Nazi actions, 2) no gratuitous pro-Nazi actions devoid of any strategic value for his objectives. This paper uses the above interpretive framework to analyze four key wartime actions of Heisenberg’s: 1) a 1941 conversation with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, 2) a February 1942 lecture for Nazi officials, 3) a similar lecture in June 1942, and 4) Heisenberg’s acceptance of the Nazi-appointed director position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. I conclude that while the historical evidence is not uniformly in his favor, Heisenberg’s explanation of his wartime conduct and objectives holds up under a closer examination.

 

To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.