Wednesday, February 06, 2002

My instant outrage button gets very reliably pushed whenever the subject of Nazis come up. In the interest of full disclosure, why, yes, I am a Jew, a yekke in fact. My family fled from Hitler in '35, '39, and '40; both of my grandfathers were interned at Dachau for months after Reichskristallnacht. But that's not what gets me roused right this second - it's always a fresh source of bilirubin when absolutely nothing else will do.

What really jerks my chain is historical revisionism. Okay, all analysis is revisionist to some degree or another. Leaving aside po-mo assertions of the social construction of reality, for the moment, it's when people confabulate to hide guilt that sends me screaming off into Outrage Gulch, six-guns shootin', a sheriff in m'sights.

As an amateur (uncertificated - yet wannabe) historian, I get double and triple word score pissed off when it comes to Nazi revisionism.

So now we come to the crux of the matter.

Werner 'bunnypants' Heisenberg
Avuncular, ain't he?
Yeah, the guy responsible for the Heisenberg compensators under the bridge of the does-not-meet-code-wired Enterprise. Fzap! Him. Uncertainty principle, one of the Young Physics Turks who changed the world in 1927, where he matched Niels Bohr's complementarity principle and raised him one of the critical insights of quantum mechanics, the one where you can't arbitrarily determine both simultaneous vector and position of a particle. He was also, hrm a loyal German. He pimped for Hitler. There's been an award-winning Broadway play based on the famous collision of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen in 1941, where Heisenberg tried to pump Bohr for the state of fission knowledge in the non-Nazi-controlled scientific community. It depicts an ambivalent Heisenberg. There's a book, 'Heisenberg's War' (no, I won't link to it because I think it's a worthless piece of apologetic crap, only useful for toilet paper and historiographical forensics.) which lays out a thesis about how Heisenberg was this reluctant warrior who sabotaged the German nuclear program because he had the attacks of guilt. scree... scree.... The sound you hear is the world's smallest out-of-tune violin playing my sympathy for Wernie's shade.

Imagine the depths of my surprise this evening when I see the following headline on the NYT website:

New Twist on Physicist's Role in Nazi Bomb
The leader of Hitler's atomic bomb program, Werner Heisenberg, portrayed himself after World War II as a kind of scientific resistance hero who sabotaged Hitler's efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

But in a series of letters and other documents made public yesterday, his friend and onetime mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, said that is not so.

Bohr, who died 40 years ago, said that under his beloved protégé, "everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons."

In particular, the documents describe a meeting that Heisenberg initiated between the two men in occupied Denmark in September 1941.

After the war, Heisenberg said he traveled to Copenhagen to share his qualms about nuclear weapons. But the papers, released by the Bohr family and posted on the Niels Bohr Web site,, which is maintained by the Niels Bohr Archive, tell a different story.

Heisenberg did not travel to Copenhagen for the 1941 meeting to express moral qualms about building an atomic weapon in wartime or to suggest that physicists on both sides of the conflict should refuse to do so, according to a passage in a letter Bohr wrote to Heisenberg, but never sent.

He was moved to write his letter, the authenticity of which seems beyond doubt, in 1957 when he read "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns," a history of the atomic bomb, in which Heisenberg is quoted offering his defense of his wartime role.

"You said that there was no need to talk about details," Bohr said, "since you were completely familiar with them and had spent the past two years working more or less exclusively on such preparations."

Astounding. Amazing. Imagine: Heisenberg was full of soup.

The letters the article mentions are linked - here, at the Niels Bohr Archive . They are in Danish. I was hoping they were in German, so I could check the translation - but they're in Danish. I am struck by one of these letters - Bohr was a courtly man:

However, what I am thinking of in particular is the conversation we had in my office at the Institute, during which, because of the subject you raised, I carefully fixed in my mind every word that was uttered. It had to make a very strong impression on me that at the very outset you stated that you felt certain that the war, if it lasted sufficiently long, would be decided with atomic weapons. I had at that time no knowledge at all of the preparations that were under way in England and America. You added, when I perhaps looked doubtful, that I had to understand that in recent years you had occupied yourself almost exclusively with this question and did not doubt that it could be done. It is therefore quite incomprehensible to me that you should think that you hinted to me that the German physicists would do all they could to prevent such an application of atomic science. During the conversation, which was only very brief, I was naturally very cautious but nevertheless thought a lot about its content, and my alarm was not lessened by hearing from the others at the Institute that Weizsäcker had stated how fortunate it would be for the position of science in Germany after the victory that you could help so significantly towards this end.
Bohr recognized that Heisenberg was lying. He never sent the letters. Well, I think it's great that Heisenberg's early greed and later cowardice are now irrefutably obvious.

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