American and British nuclear research was initially propelled by fears that Nazi Germany might develop nuclear weapons and put them to use. This concern was realistic: German physicists enjoyed worldwide renown for their groundbreaking experimental and theoretical work on splitting uranium to release of bursts of energy. But some famous Jewish scientists (such as physicist Lise Meitner, who, together with Otto Hahn, discovered nuclear fission) had to leave the country because of Nazi persecution; others were handicapped when officials encouraged the discrediting of certain scientific theories (such as Einstein’s). Nonetheless, there were still enough top-notch physicists in Germany to make the development of nuclear weapons possible. In the end, however, this goal was never attained, partly because the regime and the scientists alike failed to recognize the military significance of nuclear research early on.
Controversy still surrounds the intentions of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), who later claimed that he and his colleagues did not want Nazi Germany to succeed in building a nuclear bomb. Among evidence to the contrary is the transcript of surreptitiously taped-recorded conversations among German nuclear physicists who were captured at the end of the war and detained in comfortable surroundings at Farm Hall, an English country estate. The British initiative to secretly record these German “guests” was called Operation Epsilon. An English translation of their comments was sent to General Leslie Groves, the American director of the Manhattan Project.
The Farm Hall group included Heisenberg, Hahn, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (the elder brother of Richard von Weizsäcker, who served as president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 1994). On the whole, their comments, and those of others in the group, suggest that they had simply failed to find the right methods to set off a chain reaction or to press for the kinds of resources they would have needed to accomplish more during the war (39). The Farm Hall conversations, which occurred on August 6-7, 1945, included the interlocutors’ stunned response to news that America had just dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
The Nazi regime encouraged some perversions of science and engaged in some outright quackery, but it also manage to mobilize legitimate science for its own purposes, just as it harnessed the state apparatus to the Nazi Party and the SS. Its nuclear research failed, but other scientists and engineers developed sophisticated weapons, such as the V-2 rocket, which inflicted casualties and terror in London in 1944, and then served as the direct predecessor of both intercontinental ballistic missiles and space rockets (40). Its archaic and inefficient elements notwithstanding, Nazi Germany came close to dominating Europe. That twentieth-century legacy is still troubling in the twenty-first.
(39) This is the conclusion of Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
(40) Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era (New York: Free Press, 1994).