Serving the Reich
A new book from Philip Ball is always an eagerly anticipated event, but this one exceeds expectations. This is partly because his writing reaches ever-higher standards; but also because the passage of time now makes it possible to take a dispassionate historian’s view of his subject matter, the behaviour of scientists in Hitler’s Germany. Were they ideological Nazis, active supporters of the regime? Or self-serving cowards, out to save their own skin? Or something in between?
The answer, of course, is something in between; but Ball’s triumph it to tease out the shades of grey and leave us with some sympathy for even the most deluded, while elevating our appreciation of some of those who were perhaps less cowardly than some historians have suggested. His focus is on three key players. Max Planck, the elderly representative of the old school, overtaken by events that he did not fully understand; Peter Debye, a Dutch national who was head of Germany’s top research institute until he left for America (in ambiguous circumstances) in 1940; and Werner Heisenberg, the key figure in Nazi Germany’s nuclear fission research effort. A central dilemma, confronting all of them, was what Alan Beyerchen, quoted by Ball, has referred to as the concept of “the illegality of [bad] law, a concept which might make sense in Anglo-Saxon countries but did not in Germany.”
Much of the story is familiar, but set in an overall context which explains many events that seem puzzling in isolation. The true hero of the time, it emerges, was not, in fact, any of the three major figures in the story, but Max Laue, who had won the Nobel Prize for his work on X-ray crystallography. Openly contemptuous of the Nazis, as well as being actively involved in opposing the concept of anti-Jewish “Aryan physics” it was said that he never went out without carrying a parcel under each arm, because that gave him an excuse not to give the obligatory Hitler salute.
Peter Debye’s position in history is less clearcut. He was the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics at the time war broke out, in September 1939, and was given clear indications that the the research effort of the Institute should be diverted into war-related projects, and specifically research into obtaining energy from uranium fission. This was hardly something that could be entrusted to a foreigner, so he was also instructed to renounce his Dutch citizenship and become a German. Debye refused, and the upshot was that he left for the United States, not, as Ball makes clear, through moral scruples but simply because he was proud of being Dutch. Indeed, he bemoaned the primitive state of high energy physics in the US, and spoke wistfully of the beautiful laboratories he had left behind. This is a clear example of the stupidity of the Nazi regime; had Debye stayed, the uranium work would almost certainly have progressed more rapidly, while the reason for his leaving was among the factors that alerted the Allies to the need for their own research along the same lines.
Which brings us to Werner Heisenberg, for many years the most ambiguous figure in the story of Nazi Germany’s fission research (not least thanks to his own obfuscation), but as time passes emerging more clearly as villain rather than hero. “One of the crucial questions,” says Ball, “is whether these scientists were prepared and able to make a nuclear bomb.” The evidence that he presents suggests persuasively that they were willing to do so, but unable, partly through misunderstanding details of the science involved and partly through lack of funding. Although, as he points out, the cost of the rocket research at Peenemünde was comparable to that of the Manhattan Project, so a nuclear bomb project could have been funded, if the Nazis had believed in it the way they believed in rocketry, with all the dreadful possibilities that implies. Startlingly, Ball also refers to recently declassified material, from Soviet sources, that a German reactor experiment may have produced, either by accident or design, a nuclear explosion in Thuringia in March 1945. If so, it pre-dated the Trinity test by four months, but it was not a deliverable weapon.
Heisenberg’s later claims that he had deliberately slowed down the German fission research effort are shown to be hogwash by Ball’s detailed analysis, including highlighting a lecture by Heisenberg in 1943 when he said that it would be possible to develop a bomb with “hitherto unknown explosive and destructive power” in one or two years. But he unintentionally slowed down the research by being the wrong man for the job — although a theorist, he had taken over the Directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1942, and he lacked the experimental nous of a Debye. And although in later life Heisenberg became a pacifist, he was prone to refer to “the bad side of Nazism”, which implies there might have been a good side as well.
The best insight into the thinking of the top German scientists comes from analysis of transcripts of the conversations between them recorded, without their knowledge, when they were held in some comfort at Farm Hall immediately after the war. As Ball deliciously describes, this shows them concocting the myth that they had deliberately delayed the production of a Nazi nuclear bomb, going over the story until they probably believed it themselves. Ball also quotes an unsent letter which Niels Bohr wrote to Heisenberg after the war, referring to their famous meeting in Copenhagen: “you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons.” And that, indeed, is the impression one gets from this fine book.
A version of this review originally appeared in The Literary review.