Themes and Meanings
The characters in Copenhagen are real historical figures, and the play dramatizes an actual meeting. Bohr and Heisenberg revolutionized atomic physics in the 1920’s, and the atomic bomb would never have been created had it not been for their discoveries. They had been close friends and colleagues but found their countries on opposite sides in World War II. In September of 1941, with Denmark occupied by the Germans, Heisenberg’s trip to Copenhagen was a dangerous and embarrassing visit and ended in the apparent destruction of the relationship between the two men. The reasons Heisenberg journeyed to Denmark and what he wished to discuss with Bohr have vexed historians for many decades. Arguably, the issue of creating an atomic bomb could not have been avoided in their discussions. The burning question of the time, regardless of whether the outcome of such destruction was morally defensible, was whether it was ethical to use theoretical knowledge of physics to destroy great masses of people in a war. As Heisenberg points out, Germany is his country, the land of his ancestors, his wife and his children. Bohr, it turns out, not Heisenberg, is the one who finally aids in the making of an atomic bomb. However, there is also the possibility that Heisenberg was aiding the Germans in constructing a bomb and that the Americans simply won the race. However, throughout his later life Heisenberg let stand the assumption made by some that he deliberately miscalculated the critical mass of uranium needed for atomic fission in order to prevent German development of an atomic weapon.
These questions and speculations are the central issues of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. The play examines these issues without coming to an answer. Indeed, the use of atomic weapons in any war, no matter how ethical the conflict, continues to be a great issue of modern civilization, an issue that vexes the moral systems of all the world’s nations. The question of who is on the moral high ground in any kind of conflict is often difficult to decide, and, as Frayn suggests, morality in a postmodern world is a kind of quantum condition, lacking a clear-cut definition and fraught with uncertainty. Morality is frequently decided only by those measuring it within their own particular context.