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Transcript of Surreptitiously Taped Conversations among German Nuclear Physicists at Farm Hall (August 6-7, 1945)

At the beginning of the war, Germany’s leading nuclear physicists were called to the army weapons department. There, as part of the “uranium project” under the direction of Werner Heisenberg, they were charged with determining the extent to which nuclear fission could aid in the war effort. (Nuclear fission had been discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1938.) Unlike their American colleagues in the Manhattan Project, German physicists did not succeed in building their own nuclear weapon. In June 1942, the researchers informed Albert Speer that they were in no position to build an atomic bomb with the resources at hand in less than 3-5 years, at which point the project was scrapped.

After the end of the war, both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union tried to recruit the German scientists for their own purposes. From July 3, 1945, to January 3, 1946, the Allies incarcerated ten German nuclear physicists at the English country estate of Farm Hall, their goal being to obtain information about the German nuclear research project by way of surreptitiously taped conversations. The following transcript includes the scientists’ reactions to reports that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The scientists also discuss their relationship to the Nazi regime and offer some prognoses for Germany’s future. As the transcript shows, Otto Hahn was especially shaken by the dropping of the bomb; later, he campaigned against the misuse of nuclear energy for military purposes.

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I. Preamble.

1. This report covers the first reactions of the guests to the news that an atomic bomb had been perfected and used by the Allies.

2. The guests were completely staggered by the news. At first they refused to believe it and felt that it was bluff on our part, to induce the Japanese to surrender. After hearing the official announcement they realized that it was a fact. Their first reaction, which I believe was genuine, was an expression of horror that we should have used this invention for destruction.

[ . . . ]

II. 6th August, 1945.

1. Shortly before dinner on the 6th August I informed Professor HAHN that an announcement had been made by the B.B.C. that an atomic bomb had been dropped. HAHN was completely shattered by the news and said that he felt personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it was his original discovery which had made the bomb possible. He told me that he had originally contemplated suicide when he realized the terrible potentialities of his discovery and he felt that now these had been realized and he was to blame. With the help of considerable alcoholic stimulant he was calmed down and we went down to dinner where he announced the news to the assembled guests.

2. As was to be expected, the announcement was greeted with incredulity. The following is a transcription of the conversation during dinner.

[ . . . ]

HEISENBERG: I don't believe a word of the whole thing. They must have spent the whole of their £500,000,000 in separating isotopes; and then it's possible.

WEIZSÄCKER: If it's easy and the Allies know it’s easy, then they know that we will soon find out how to do it if we go on working.

HAHN: I didn't think it would be possible for another twenty years.

WEIZSÄCKER: I don't think it has anything to do with uranium.

[ . . . ]

DIEBNER: We always thought we would need two years for one bomb.

HAHN: If they have really got it, they have been very clever in keeping it secret.

WIRTZ: I'm glad we didn't have it.

WEIZSÄCKER: That's another matter. How surprised BENZER(?) would have been. They always looked upon it as a conjuring trick.

WIRTZ: DOEPEL, BENZER(?) and Company.

HAHN: DOEPEL was the first to discover the increase in neutrons.

HARTECK: Who is to blame?

(?) VOICE: HAHN is to blame.

WEIZSÄCKER: I think it's dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

HEISENBERG: One can't say that. One could equally well say "That's the quickest way of ending the war.”

HAHN: That's what consoles me.

[ . . . ]

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