Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle depicts a scenario in which an assassin’s bullet kills US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his first year in office in 1933. Vice President John Nance Garner takes over and establishes an isolationist policy that weakens the US militarily. Unprepared for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and unable to recover from the destruction of its entire fleet, by 1947 the US surrenders to the Germans and the Japanese. The country is eventually cut up into pieces which are controlled by the rulers in Berlin and Tokyo.
Counter-factuals ' more popularly known as ‘what-if’ histories ' are a favourite with the academicians and students who assess the role of single pivotal incidents in shaping the course of world events. Of all the alternatives explored, the most sought-after may be a victory for Adolf Hitler in the World War II, an outcome that certainly would have changed the world beyond all recognition today.
But was the Fuhrer’s victory so unlikely' Maybe not, if his scientists had succeeded in making him an atom bomb in time. The victory may be an illusory idea, but recently two experts have concluded that the scientists in the Third Reich did in fact succeed in building a bomb. Dr Rainer Karlsch, an independent historian based in Berlin and author of the recently-published German title Hitlers Bombe, and Dr Mark Walker, a professor of history at the Union College, Schenectady, US, and author of German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1949, published in 1989, have written a long article ' ‘New light on Hitler’s bomb’ ' in the June issue of Physics World, saying that German physicists had not only built, but also tested a nuclear device during the World War II.
This startling revelation lifts, at least for now, the veil of mystery over German nuclear research during the war. The uncertainty regarding the German scientists’ intention ' as well as their capability ' to build a bomb has been a fertile field of exploration for historians, journalists and playwrights for the last six decades. Why didn’t Hitler use the weapon to win the war' It would have suited his hysteric hankering for absolute supremacy over all nations. An atom bomb in the Nazi arsenal would be hardly surprising: splitting of the atomic nucleus (fission ' the main mechanism for such a bomb) had been discovered in Germany; Europe’s only uranium (chief ingredient for the bomb) mines were controlled by Hitler; and in 1940 his army seized the world’s only heavy-water (a rare variety of water that facilitates large-scale uranium fission) plant in Norway.
Faced with those facts Allied physicists, Albert Einstein included, feared that their German counterparts had had a head start in making the bomb, that they might be widening the gap each day, and that such a weapon would rescue the Nazis from defeat at the eleventh hour. The fear unleashed the Manhattan Project that employed thousands of scientists and engineers and spent billions of dollars to build the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago. The horror of the genocide put the Allied experts under a huge moral burden; it was they, not their worst enemy, who had a hand in killing thousands of innocent civilians.
What went wrong with the nuclear research under the Third Reich' Myths took over as no single answer was forthcoming. They took roots with the publication of Brighter than a Thousand Suns, the first major account of the building of the American atom bomb, published in 1956. Written by Robert Jungk, a left-leaning German journalist, the book upheld the thesis that the physicists of his own country had failed to build an atom bomb for Hitler not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t. This view was seeded in Jungk’s mind by Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, a very influential physicist in Nazi Germany because he was the son of a top diplomat. (He was also the brother of Richard von Weizsacker, West Germany’s president during the 1980s).
Jungk’s book became an instant bestseller, but his premise was challenged by Allied scientists, who said that incompetence, rather than high morals, was behind their counterparts’ failure to make the Fuhrer the bomb. Not an outlandish suggestion, for the same view transpired in the talks among top German scientists who were arrested just after the war and interned in an old country estate near Cambridge named Farm Hall. Among them was not only von Weizsacker, but also other top guns like Otto Hahn, Paul Harteck, Kurt Diebner, Walther Gerlach, Max von Laue and Karl Ritz. And then there was Werner Heisenberg, the most talented of German physicists at the time. They were, indeed, treated like guests and shown every courtesy. What they did not know was that all the bedrooms and living rooms had been bugged so that the British intelligence officers could eavesdrop their conversations.
| IN SEARCH OF THE NAZI BOMB: Dr Rainer Karlsch (top) and Prof. Mark Walker
The Farm Hall transcripts showed that the big shots of the German nuclear research were caught off guard by the radio bulletins announcing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Taken aback, they were about to trash it as a hoax. Then Heisenberg, the man Allied scientists believed would make the bomb for Hitler, was found incapable of even calculating the so-called ‘critical mass’ of uranium. It’s the minimum amount of the element that’s required to sustain a ‘chain system’ of splitting the nuclei of atoms ' a prerequisite for an atom bomb.
At Farm Hall, German scientists, however, tried hard to hide their incompetence behind a show of high moral standards. For example, at one point of time, von Weizsacker comme-nted, “In other words, the peaceful development of the uranium engine [a reactor to generate electricity] was made in Germany under the Hitler regime, whereas the Americans and the English developed this ghastly weapon of war.”
These two views ' either the German scientists’ incompetence or their pacifism ' found champions in authors like Paul Lawrence Rose or Thomas Powers, who propagated the rival theses in books like Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project and Heisenberg’s War respectively.
Powers’ view has been exploited to the hilt in the play Copenhagen, written by the British novelist and dramatist Michael Frayn. First staged in London in 1998, it was opened in New York in 2000. It won both the Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards for ‘Best New Play’ in the UK and the Tony Award for ‘Best Play’ in the US.
Copenhagen is based on one of the most enigmatic events during the World War II ' an encounter between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former assistant Heisenberg at Copenhagen in September 1941. Heisenberg came to meet Bohr at the capital of Denmark, then under occupation of Hitler’s army. With the war raging full-scale, why did Heisenberg take the trip to meet his mentor, who at that time belonged to an enemy country' After the war, both Heisenberg and von Weizsacker (who accompanied the former in his trip to Copenhagen) claimed that they were there to warn Bohr of the dangers of pursuing bomb technology and to seek his help in dissuading the Allies from the exercise. Bohr, however, read Heisenberg’s motives differently. He flew into a rage at one point, and cut short the discussions.
What went wrong' Impossible to decide, Frayn’s Copenhagen seemed to say, drawing a parallel between the complexity of untangling the threads of human thoughts and the celebrated Uncertainty Principle of the quantum mechanics discovered by Heisenberg, which states that the position and velocity of a particle at a particular instant cannot be accurately detected simultaneously.
Expectedly, the play evoked strong feelings in several quarters, and Frayn was accused of invoking weird quantum laws to paint Heisenberg as a saintly scientist, much less culpable than Bohr who had worked for the Manhattan Project. To redress this ‘injustice’, the Bohr family in 2002 relea-sed a series of letters that Bohr wrote, but never managed to mail, to Heisenberg in 1957. In the letters Bohr recalled that Heisenberg had told him during their meeting that a Nazi victory was not only desirable, but also inevitable, and so it was only logical that Bohr work for the Nazis. Bohr’s unwritten conclusion: Heisenberg and his colleagues in Hitler’s Germany were as keen as the Manhattan Project scientists for an atom bomb.
According to Karlsch and Walker, the discovery of a number of new documents have now provided the “extra twist” to this ongoing saga. “There are four particularly notable items among this material,” writes the duo in the Physics World. They are: an official report written by von Weizsacker after a visit to Copenhagen; a draft patent application for an atom bomb written by him in 1941; a revised patent application for the same; and the text of a popular lecture delivered by Heisenberg in 1942. In addition, Karlsch, who has been tirelessly investigating German atomic research ever since he started working in the depths of uranium ore mines in mid-1990s, has discovered that a group of German physicists had carried out “a hitherto-unknown nuclear reactor experiment and tested some sort of a nuclear device in Thuringia, eastern Germany, in March 1985.” The test, assert Karlsch and Walker, killed several hundred prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates. It is yet to be ascertained if the device worked as per plans, but it was designed to use both fission and fusion (joining of nuclei) techniques ' a clear indication that it was a nuclear weapon.
Curiously, von Weizsacker’s report after his visit to Copenhagen in March 1941 ' earlier than his trip to the city along with Heisenberg ' has been unearthed from a Russian archive. In the report von Weizsacker assured the Nazi bosses that power production by splitting uranium atoms was not being explored by Bohr and his associates. “Obviously, Prof. Bohr does not know that we are wor-king on these questions,” von Weizsacker noted in the report. “Of course, I encouraged him in this belief.”
Von Weizsacker’s two patent applications for atom bomb have also been gathered from Russian archives. Filed in 1941, both the applications had the same title: ‘Technical extraction of energy, production of neutrons, and manufacture of new elements by fission of uranium or related heavier elements’. According to Karlsch and Walker, von Weizsacker made it amply clear in the patent application that plutonium also could be used in an atom bomb. “With regard to energy per unit weight this explosive would be around 10 million times greater than any other [existing explosive] and comparable only to uranium 235 [which is suitable for use in an atom bomb],” he wrote. Heisenberg’s popular lecture in June 1942 also supported this idea.
The Physics World article by Karlsch and Walker also contains a schematic diagram of a nuclear weapon, discovered by Karlsch earlier this year. It’s part of a classified report written just after the World War II by an unnamed German or Austrian scientist. The diagram is that of an atom bomb based on plutonium, but the report makes it clear that German experts had been exploring the theoretical possibility of a hydrogen bomb also.
What to make of the Farm Hall transcripts in the light of these revelations' Why did the German scientists hide facts in their deliberations when they had no knowledge of the British eavesdropping' In an e-mail interview Walker dispelled the confusion. “Ten of the 12 scientists at Farm Hall did not know about the nuclear device test,” he said. “The two that did, Diebner and Gerlach, made no mention of this at Farm Hall. This does explain something that had been confusing: it was Gerlach who was hardest hit by the news of Hiroshima, he was the one who was described as acting like a ‘defeated general,’ and who others feared might commit suicide. This makes sense if he had been supporting the development of a nuclear device [the Physics World article says that he was involved in the project] at the very end of the war, work that the news of Hiroshima made appear insignificant.”
So is the chapter on Hitler’s bomb closed' Hardly so. As Karlsch and Walker comment in their article, “It would be rash indeed to believe that this is the last word on the matter. The German atomic bomb is like a zombie: just when we think we know what happened, how and why, it rises again from the dead.”