Did The Nazis Build A Nuclear Bomb?

In September 1941 Nazi Germany was in its third year of Blitzkrieg, or ‘Lightning War’, engulfing Europe as it moved from one victory to the next At this time, Nobel Laureate physicist, Niels Bohr—a Danish Jew who would go on to work for the Manhattan Project – was visited by his former pupil, Werner Heisenberg, in Copenhagen

Heisenberg was the head of the Nazi nuclear-fission project in Germany The two scientists met in private and the contents of their conversation remain largely speculative We know that Niels Bohr left their meeting in a state of shock—and that their correspondence subsequently stopped—but why? What did Heisenberg say to Bohr regarding a nuclear weapon? Does it indicate that the Nazis did, in fact, have an atomic bomb? 70 years after the fall of Nazi Germany, there is little evidence to suggest that the Third Reich developed an atomic bomb on par with those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Allies But how close did they actually get? Historians Mark Walker and Rainer Karlsch have recently claimed that the Nazi scientists did in fact build, and test, a small nuclear device in the final days of WWII This bomb was part of a secret program being run by physicist Kurt Diebner—and would have been much smaller than those dropped on Japan

However, a significant amount of the ‘evidence’ for a small Nazi nuclear weapon has been discredited due to Karlsch’s ‘misunderstanding of physics’ and the unreliability of his first-hand accounts A team led by Karlsch is currently trying to excavate an area in the Austrian town of St [Sankt] Georgen an der Gusen—because they believe this to be the site of the largest Nazi ‘secret weapons facility’ – all underground However, their efforts have been put on hold Heisenberg himself claimed that the Nazis didn’t want the bomb as badly as the Allies, and didn't have the time or resources to properly develop it

While the Allies had 125,000 people working on the bomb, the Nazis had around 60 After the war, Heisenberg even suggested that it was morally wrong to build and detonate an atomic bomb on behalf of anybody, least of all Hitler But the Germans could have built the bomb if they had wanted to Historian Thomas Powers argued that Heisenberg was actually consciously sabotaging the Nazi effort towards an atomic bomb—deliberately slowing their progress to keep it out of Hitler’s grasp Powers says Heisenberg had been pushed into the program on pain of death, that he was withholding information and even trying to covertly pass on his own knowledge to the Allies

He says that Heisenberg’s meeting with Bohr in Copenhagen was evidence of Heisenberg’s attempts to sabotage the Nazi effort An alternative explanation is that their failure was not by choice Starting in 1933, when Hitler came into office, the Nazi regime depleted the number of German scientists in its academic institutions There were, therefore, less brilliant physicists able to work on the atom bomb on behalf of the Nazis It’s also hard to understand why, if Heisenberg was in fact coerced into working for the Nazis, he never tried to escape—despite a number of chances

It’s much more likely that Heisenberg was supporting German victory At the end of the war, Heisenberg and 8 other prominent German nuclear scientists were captured and held at Farm Hall in England Their conversations were secretly recorded without their knowledge and reveal their ignorance concerning exactly how to make an atom bomb Historian Paul Lawrence Rose argues first and foremost that Heisenberg didn't actually know how to make the bomb—regardless of his intent—but instead told clever half-truths after Hiroshima so that he implied he knew more than he did After the War, when asked about his meeting with Niels Bohr, Heisenberg tried to imply that atomic bombs were the most significant moral issue—not Heisenberg’s role within the Nazi party

But in 2002 a letter written by Bohr in 1957 was finally opened It says that Heisenberg was actively pursuing the atomic bomb and advocating German victory Heisenberg may even have visited Bohr as an act of espionage on behalf of the Third Reich Technically speaking, there is little evidence to suggest that the Nazis really were close to developing an atom bomb Instead, Heisenberg seems to have made a series of errors in his calculations and had insufficient support and supplies

But Heisenberg’s attempt to rewrite his wartime intentions, while trying to morally absolve his legacy—has muddied our knowledge of the Nazi effort for the atom bomb

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