There are many kinds of hero. Werner Heisenberg was a man of heroic thought: a physicist of the first water, inventor of quantum mechanics and of the Uncertainty Principle that bears his name, 1932 Nobel laureate—and the one man in Hitler’s Germany who could conceivably have put together a project to build a German atomic bomb.
Hitler himself, in his utterly perverse way, was another kind of hero to those who adored him: an intensely charismatic leader with an uncanny knack for saying and doing whatever would feed on the deepest hatreds and unspeakable fears of the German people, a Wotan-clone preaching his own Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods.
Morris “Moe” Berg-Princeton-educated cum laude, attorney, fluent speaker of a fistful of languages including Japanese, catcher for the Boston Red Sox, and spy for the United States as an agent of the wartime Office of Strategic Services-was yet another kind of hero.
The grand sweep of the story of Heisenberg’s war has to do with the question of whether Heisenberg actually tried to build a bomb for Hitler; if so, why he failed; and if not, why not. But this story becomes most personal and thus most fascinating in the meeting between Heisenberg and Berg in neutral Switzerland in 1944. According to Powers’ account, which has been skeptically received in some quarters—see, for example, the review by Arnold Kramish, American Scientist 81 (September-October 1993): 479- 48O—Heisenberg was lecturing on physics in Zurich, and Berg was in his audience, with a loaded pistol in his pocket. Berg, not to put too fine a point on it, had been authorized to assassinate the physicist if he caught even a hint that Heisenberg was on the way to building Hitler a bomb.
David Cassidy’s Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (1992) and David Irving’s The German Atomic Bomb (1967) explore aspects of the story, and Moe Berg has two biographies: Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald, and Tom Sewell’s Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy (1974) and Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg(1994). But it is to Thomas Powers’ massive book, Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb that one must turn for the fullest account of a pivotal point in history—the German quest for a bomb.
Germany was the birthplace of modern physics, the place where the breakthrough in physics that made the atomic fission bomb possible had occurred just before the outbreak of war-and Hitler was boasting of possessing a secret weapon. It was the Allies’ justifiable fear of a Nazi bomb that prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to authorize the creation of the massive Manhattan Project that led first to the successful test at Alamogordo (July, 1945) and then to the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August, 1945). Yet at war’s end, it was clear that Germany had no bomb, and was not even close to getting one. What had happened? And in particular, what had happened to Heisenberg?
These are not easy questions to answer; because the collapse of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich at the end of World War II created a special kind of intellectual and moral backlash: Many Nazi sympathizers were happy to remain silent about their participation in the Nazi regime, glossing it over or denying it outright; many more German patriots who had hoped for their country’s military success while despising (and in some cases even attempting to assassinate) Hitler found themselves holding opinions that their non-German colleagues could hardly understand; and even those who had worked consciously against the regime had of necessity often done so under cover, and in some cases had little or no documentation to prove their stories.
The tide of the world’s judgment on Hitler swept aside all subtleties in its path, and personal histories were frequently rewritten to ensure survival in the postwar world-even in some instances by the Allies themselves, eager to convert Nazi scientists into British, French, Russian, or American wizards. Wernher von Braun, director of Hitler’s Peenemunde rocket research program and builder of the V-2 rockets that Hitler finally launched against Britain, was thus remade into Wernher von Braun, director of the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency and later chief architect of the 1958 launching of the first American scientific satellite. So what had happened to Heisenberg? What kind of a hero was he?
Heisenberg was in America on a lecture tour in 1939, and never brought up the topic of war with his host in Berkeley, J. Robert Oppenheimer. At the University of Rochester, however, he told physicists Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf that he “believed” Nazi Germany would win the coming war. Pressed by his many friends to remain in America, he declined, saying there were few enough positions available to Jewish physicists who were forced to emigrate from Germany, and he did not wish to take a job away from one of them. He also told Victor Weisskopf that he still...
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