By Tom Morrow
If Adolf Hitler had listened to his top nuclear scientist and would have given him enough priority and money for development, World War II could have ended differently with Germany being first with the Atomic Bomb.
Werner Karl Heisenberg was well on his way to developing an atomic weapon early in World War II, but after Hitler grabbed control of his armed forces, thinking he was smarter than his generals, the dictator didn’t have Heisenberg’s research high on his list of weapon development. The atomic program was certainly far behind in priority to Werhner von Braun’s rocket program.
But that’s a rather simplistic explanation.
Heisenberg, a Jew, was born Dec. 5, 1901, in Wurzburg. He was a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics. He published his work in 1925 in a breakthrough paper.
Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.” While visiting a conference in the U.S., he was offered an opportunity of asylum like Albert Einstein and other German scientists had done, but he declined.
He also made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles, and he was instrumental in planning the first West German nuclear reactor.
Considerable controversy surrounds his work on atomic research during World War II. In 1939, shortly after the discovery of nuclear fission, the German nuclear energy project, also known as the “Uranium Club,” had begun. Heisenberg was the principal scientist leading research and development in the project. Heinrich Himmler, the notorious head of the Nazi SS, had a family connection with Heisenberg, (their mothers knew each other). Because of his value as a scientist, Heisenberg was declared a “White Jew,” and escaped the concentration camps. In the letter to Nazi SS Col. Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler said Germany could not afford to lose or silence Heisenberg, as he would be useful for teaching a generation of scientists. Writing to Heisenberg, Himmler said his letter came on recommendation of the scientist’s family and he cautioned Heisenberg to make a distinction between professional physics research results and the personal and political attitudes of the involved scientists.
In September 1941, Heisenberg traveled to German-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark to lecture and discuss nuclear research and theoretical physics. The meeting, and specifically what it might reveal about Heisenberg’s intentions concerning developing nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime, was made clear.
Because of his Nobel Prize for Physics, Heisenberg was well-known to American scientists, especially Einstein, who was a former colleague and a German refugee from the Nazis. Heisenberg’s capabilities and Germany’s likely intentions were made clear by Einstein in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, which resulted in the Manhattan Project being formed – the U.S. development of the atomic bomb.
The scientists working feverishly for the U.S. effort, were constantly looking over their shoulders, fearing the German progress they were sure Heisenberg was making. It wasn’t until well into the Second World War that it was revealed the Germany had all but given up developing an atomic weapon. Ironically, this fact was revealed by a Major League baseball player, who also was a spy.
In a previous column, I told you about Moe Berg. The U.S. Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) sent baseball catcher and OSS agent Berg to attend a lecture in Switzerland carrying along a pistol with orders to shoot Heisenberg if his lecture indicated Germany was close to completing an atomic bomb. But, there was no such indication
After the lecture, Berg found the scientist walking back to his hotel. Berg engaged him in conversation and, referring to Heisenberg’s lecture’s subject on atomic energy, asked if Germany was making headway on a weapon. Heisenberg admitted the idea was all but scraped. Berg decided not to shoot Heisenberg, a decision the baseball player later described as his own “uncertainty principle.”
When Berg’s information was leaked to the scientists at Las Alamos, America’s secret New Mexico research facility, a sigh of relief was felt. Some of the scientists wanted to quit the project, realizing such a weapon would change the world – maybe even destroy it.
On May 3, 1945, Heisenberg was captured by Allied forces with Germany surrendered just two days later. He did not see his family again for eight months. Heisenberg was flown to England on July 3, 1945.
In July 1946, as West Germany was rebuilding, Heisenberg was named director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Heisenberg was its director until 1958. That year the institute was moved to Munich, expanded, and renamed Max-Planck Institute of Nuclear and Astrophysics. In 1970, Heisenberg also became a professor at the University of Munich. He died in 1976, with his name and role during World War II nearly forgotten to history.
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