World War II: NAZI Atomic Program

"Our national policies will not be revoked or modified. Even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years!" -- Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, 1933

It is widely assumed that the Germans did not produce an atomic bomb because they lacked the resources to devote to the project during the War. That was part of the reason, but the full story is much more complicated. Actually tremendous resources were available to the NAZIs who had conquered much of Europe. It is true that they did not have the resources of the United States, but is also true that if the bomb had been made a priority, there is every reason to believe tht the Germans could have suceeded. Available resource were poorly utilized by the NAZIs. Many resources were simply waisted. Huge resources were used to develop technological marvels, but had no measurable impact in the Wat, like the V-2. Some authors claim that the leading German scientists led the research down a fruitless path on purpose. There is little evidence to substantiate this claim other than his word. We do know that other factors affected the NAZI bomb program. Driving out leading physicists because they were Jews or sympathetic to the Jews deprived the NAZIs of some of the greatest minds in physics. The failure to use the resources of captive narions and the view of nuclear physics as 'Jewish physics' were other factors. Quite a number of nuclear pysicists lost their draft examptions and were drafted for military service. As unbelieveavle as it may seem, the NAZI actually drafted nuclear phyicists for front-line service. Also Hitler was uninterested in long-term projects. There is, however, reason to believe that the Germans made more progress than commonly assumed. They seem to have made considerable progress in nuclear enrichment. The Germans could have made deadly dirty bombs which the V-2 could have delivered. It is one of the great ironies of history that Hitler, who launched a massive arament proram, unilaterally disarmed Germany in the one area that Germany held a substantial lead which could have insured victoty.

NAZI Science

Germany in the early 20th century had the strongest scientific establishment in Europe. German scientists rotinely received the largest number of Nobel prices in scientific fields. This did ot chnge until the NAZI's seized power in 1933. After the NAZI seizure, Jewish scientists as well as anti-NAZIs their position. After 1933, America became increasingly dominate in Nobel scientific awards. Despite a decline in German scientific dominance, the NAZIs still had access to a huge scientific establishment for their weapons and armament program.

Max Planck (1933)

Max Planck was along with Albert Einstein one of the best known and most respected physicists of the 20th century. He is considered to be the father of quantum theory. And it was Planck who first recognized Einstein's work. Plank correctly accessed the consequences of National Socialist policies on German science. Jews were a very small part of the German population, less than 1 percent or about 0.5 million. The consequences of expelling Jews from Germany, as a result, were not emense. There would be some loss of creativity in the arts and film industry, but artistic creativity was not of great interest to Hitler and in any case he would have denined there would be any real loss. And there would be a political dividencd, many Germans would advance into the positions and businesses Jews were forced to vacate, creating suppport for the Party. Replacing educators would be more difficult, but Hitler was also not very interested in education. He suspected the schools as harboring anti-NAZIs. Scientists were a different matter, but Germany had a sizeable and talented scientists establishment which could fill many of the positions vacated, with one exception--nuclear physics. Plank who was president of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute) understood this. He was a moderate German nationalist who expected Hitler to become more moderate after becoming Reichchancellor. Distressed with the plight of his Jewish colleaues, he met with the new German Reichchancelor to discuss German science (May 1933). He told Hitler during the meeting that forcing Jewish scientists to emigrate would 'mutilate' German science. And the benefits of their work would go to foreign countries not necessarily favorably disposed towad Germany. What followed shocked Planck. Hitler was obstinate and refused to accept any of Planck's points. Towards the end of the meeting Hitler started to fidget around and mumbled 'You know what people say about me? They say I suffer from weak nerves.' A tirade followed. Hitler then started shouting, 'Slander!' He finally launched into one of his trade-mark rants against Jews and the Jewish menace. , "Our national policies will not be revoked or modified. Even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years!" This essentially ended any semblence of a discussion. Planck saw there was no point in continuing the meeting and left the room. Planck's shock must be put in the context that he was not only elderly at the time, but as a phyicists he was know to promote discussion and exchnges of views. Planck understood that you could replace film directors and novelists, but replaing nuclear phsicists was a very different matter. And not only was Hitler driving these irreplaceable individuals out of Germany, but he wss driving them into the hands of Germnany's rivals. Hitler would use the term 'Jewish physics' to describe atomic or theoretical science with no real understanding of the life nad death matter he was toying with. Germany would lose an estimared 25 percent of its theoretical physicists and the actual impact was even larger because many of those lost were among the most imporant. Albert Speer, Hitler intimate and Armaments Minister, wrote after the War that Hitler referred to atomic physics as 'Jewish physics'. It was one reason that the NAZI atomic bomb project never got the priority it needed, but as Plank had forseen, he provided the British and Americas many of the key scientiss they needed to build one. Johannes Stark, prominent exponent of 'Deutsche Physik' (German Physics) and hopful of becomong Germany's Science Führer, attacked Planck as well as Sommerfeld and Heisenberg for continuing to teach Einstein's theories, labeling then 'white Jews'. The NAZI Hauptamt Wissenschaft" (Government Office for Science) initiated an investigation of Planck's ancestry to determine if he had any Jewish ancestry. {Heilborn] It is one of the great irinies of history that Hitler, who launched a massive arament proram, unilaterally disarmed Germany in the ome area that Germany held a substntial lead and could have insured victoty.

Philipp Lenard: Deutsche Phisik (1935)

Dr. Philip Lenard who won the Nobel Prize in 1920 was an early adherent to the NAZI Party. He rejected Einstein's theories, attacking 'relativity theories produced by alien minds'. He became a prominent of what had come to be called 'Deutsche Physik' (German physics). This was a movement began during World War I as part of a conflictween British (who accepted Einstein) and German phyisicists (who did not). After the War, Lenard added the anti-Semetic aspect to the actual scientific debate. Lenard because he was an early-NAZI supporter and vehemently anti-Semetic became very influential after the NAZIs seized power. Lenard instilled the idea that Jews were corupting physics with the relativity theory. Hitler thus came to see nuclear physics as 'Jewish physics'. He wrote, that physics needed to be 'cleansed of the outgrowth which the by now well-known findings of race research have shown to be exclusive products of the Jewish mind and which the German Volk must shun as racially incompatible with itself.' [Lenard] Lenard was hopeful of becoming the NAZI Physics Führer. Jews were expelled from the universities at an early point. And most university physicists were bullied from teaching relativity. Planck and Heiselberg were exceptions. And their reputations were too great for Lenard to impeach, although he tried. Heisenberg was called a 'white Jew' and attacked in various publications, including SS publications. And then in a kind of stranger than fiction development, of all people, SS-Reich Führer Himmler entered the picture to defend Heisenberg, which meant the teaching of what had been labeled as Jewish Physics. We do not know for sure why Himmler intervened, but we do know two facts. First by a fluke of history, the SS Reichführer and Heisenberg had gone to school together as boys. Second, Heisenberg's mother even called Himmler's mother to complain. We suspect that Himmler also contacted SS scientific advisers who probably told them after driving some of Germany's most preeminent scientists from the country, it was not wise to do the same to non-Jewish scientists. At any rate, Himmler not only prohibited further criticism of Heisenberg, but aso promised Him that after Germany won the war, the SS would finance a physics institute that he would direct. [Padfield] By the time of the War, Lenard's influence had begun to wain, but it had made an indelible impact on Hitler who had made the connection between of atomic physics with Jewish physics. And this not only affected his assessment of a nuclear weapon and funding for it. Interestingly, Hitler in every other area was adicted to gigantism--the largest cannons and tanks. In this area, however, he rejected the one giant weapn that really mattered.

Figure 1.--Werner Heisenberg was after the expulsion of Jews, NAZI Germany's top theoretical pysicist and was chosen to lead the NAZI bomb project. He was by all accounts a cultured man and mentiored many young physicists, includuing Jews and foreigners. Here he is about 1930 with some of the young phyicists he mentored. Incredibly, because of Hitler's race obsession, he virtually single handely disarmed German physics. This essentially made it impossible for Germany to win the War after the Panzers were stopped at the Channel. Click on the image to see how few of these men joined Heisenberg in the NAZI atomic program and how many would join the Allied Manhattan Project.

Refugees from the NAZIs

The NAZI campaign against the Jews began almost as soon as Hitler seized power in Germany. Even respected sientists were quickly dismissed from positions at universites and research institutes. Many of these individuals were able to emmigrte and take up their carrers America, France, and Britain. This significantly increased the pool of talented sientists available tothe American atomic bomb program. Some of the best known were Hans Bethe (Alsatian-German Jew), Albert Einstein (German Jew), Enrico Fermi (Italian with Jewish wife), Lise Meitner (Austrian Jew), Leo Szilard (Hungarian Jew working in Germany), Edward Teller (Hungarian Jew working in Germany), and Eugene Wigner (Hungarian Jew working in Germany). Some like Bethe did not look on himself as a Jew. Some authors believe that the dismissal of competent scientists and appointment of Party hacks was a major reason in the failure of the German bomb program. [Walker] Many of these nuclear scientists emmigrated early in the NAZI era when the NAZIs were primarily concerned with dismissing Jews from universities and other official positions. Fremi came much later and managed to escape with his wife when he was allowed to go to Sweden to accept a Nobel Prize. Lise Meitner (1878-1968), escaped to Sweden just before the War with the help of Niels Bohr (another Nobel laureate). She later continued to work in the United States. History is full of unintended conseuences. The Jews were essentially an easy target for Hitler and his NAZI thugs. Few expected retribution for their actions against the Jews. There were indeed few adverse domestic consequences. In fact the NAZIs probably gained upport for these actions from anti-Semites as well as those who benefitted from the jobs opened up and the property seized. The NAZI anti-Semetic campaign not only helped President Roosevelt build support for his policies opposing the NAZIs, but help with providing the United States scientific talent which help build the atomic bomb. If the NAZIs had not surrendered in May 1945, the atomic bomb could have been used on Germany.

The Jews and Science

One can not help but be struck by the numbr of Jews involved at the top level of German science. And the same was the case in other European countries. And this was he case despite the fact that for many years there were limits on the number of Jews admitted to the universities in many countries. This was not the case in Germany by the time of the Weimar Republic, but still was the case in other countries and even America. This can be measured in mny ways. The easiest is just looking at the Nobel prize laurelates, even thought some scienctists like Lisa Meitner did not receive theaward because they were Jewish. The number of German Jewish scientists is remarable becauseofthe very small part of the population and most came from relatively recent immigrant families from Eastern Europe whose ancesters did not have academic backgrounds. Many were assimilated Jews, some did not even think of themselves as Jews. At thectime the NAZIs seized power there wee about 0.5 million Jews on Germany, something like 0.75 of the overll German population. Yet many of the top phyicists were Jews, and even more so in the rarified field of theoretical/nuclear physics. This leads to two questions. First why were so many Jews attracted to this field and second why were they so good at it. We note an interesting discussion board. Two enties are particularly intresting. One commentor writes, "The best thing that ever happened to Jewish intellectual culture was the Diaspora. Jews became a coherent people spread out and intermingled within other cultures. A nation with no natural resources to exploit but with exposure to a wide variety of different ideas. Often prohibited from dealing with anything but ideas. With ideas as the only resource to deal in, and with circumstances such that they had exposure to a wide variety of them, Jews became traders in intellectual property, transporting them around the world, transforming and translating them to different needs in different domains. A culture that fostered and prized intellectualism was created out of need and opportunity. An over-representation of world class scientists is part of that tradition. Jewish culture is the mirror image of current Arab culture: lots of natural resources to exploit and somewhat insular, consequently with a current culture that is poor in intellectual life." [Seid] nother commentor writes, "There's a large emphasis in Judaism on education and learning. As a matter of fact, for very religious Jews the ideal activity for any Jew is learning (the Talmud and other works, of course). In a religion that prizes learning and education so much, it's natural to see many of its adherents rise in areas where learning is required. Also, unlike Christianity and moreso Islam, Judaism has drifted away from a "one people, one truth" attitude. The proliferation of synagogues and denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservadox, Humanist, etc.) shows that although certain groups may believe their group has a monopoly on what Judaism really is and is about, differences of opinions are tolerated to a large degree. As such, it's possible to hold somewhat heretical views and yet live comfortably with Jewish beliefs and customs. That also brings us to another point: Judaism while being a religion is not exclusively so. One can be an atheist and still be a Jew. Not so with Christianity, Islam, or almost any other religion. So, it's easier for Jews to believe whatever they have come to believe without having to abandon or be thrown out of their religion." [Sauron} We note subsequwnt postsquestioning these insights say thing most of thecJewish scientists were assimilated seclar Jews, a number of who who had even converted. This is true, but what continued in thesefamilies was aespect and love of learning and an openess to new ideas.

Kristallnacht (November 1938)

The NAZI campaign against Jews culminated in Kristallnacht, a brutal explosion of violence against Jews in Germany. Before Kristallnacht, the NAZIs had killed Jews in concetration camps and prisons behind closed doors. On Kristalnacht Jews were attacked and killed openly on the street or in their homes. There intentions cold no longer be doubted. The consequences for the atomic bomb project that among leading pysicists were many Jews or anti-NAZIs. These men recognized the true nature of the NAZI regime more than others the potential danger of a NAZI atomic bomb. After Kristallnacht, even men who might have had moral quams about building an atomic bomb, were prepared to do virtually anything to stop the NAZIs.

Atomic Fission (December 1938)

German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) demonstrated the phenomenon of nuclear fission, although they were not at first sure what had transpired (December 1938). They sent a manuscript to Naturwissenschaften reporting they had detected the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons. They also informed their former colleague Lise Meitner of the results. Meitner was the last Jewish scientist working in Germany. She had delayed leaving Germany as she was so commited to her scientific work and attached to Hahn, but he was no longer able to protect her. It was increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Germany, but she managed to do so illegally (July 1938). At an incredible point of histoty, just as Hitler was preparing to launch, World War II, German physicists had achieved nuclear fission. And German scientists had alead on aotentially war winning weapon.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

A third scientist had worked with Hahn and Strassmann. Lise Meitner (1878-1968), a rare female scientist in a male world was involved in the neutron bombardment experiments. She was especially close to Hahn who had befriended her. Both Hahn and Strassmann got the Nobel prize for physics, while Meitner who was Jewish did not. Meitner remained in Germany with her work while other prominant Jewish scientientists were dismissed and fled the country. Hahn was able to protect her for a time, in part because she had a low profile. Finally she was dismissed from the Institute and the NAZIs made it difficult to emigrate because the potential of atomic energy was becoming increasingly apparent. She finally managed to get out with the help of friends just before it became virtually impossible. She was spirited across the border to the Netherlands (July 1938). And fortuntely she continued on to Sweden. Hahn and Strassmann had largely abandoned her. Paul Rosbaud was the key friend who helped her get out. (He would become the most importnt British spy in the Reich, relaying vital information through Switzerland.) Meitner for her part continued to correspond with Hahn about their work, poviding key insights. It was Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch that proved that the barrium the German researchers found was the product of nuclear fission. Frisch subsequentky confirmed this experimentally (January 13, 1939).

Anti-NAZI Warriors

The unfortunate image of World war II Jews is thAt they were passive victims of the NAZIs who made no ffort to resist. This is untrue, but as a small minority in a world awash with with anti-Semtism, opportinities to resist a totalitarian police state were limited. There was, however, one major exception--Jewish niclear pysicists. Many were German or until Hitler part of the wider German academic community. As Max Plank wrned, Hitler, he was disarming Germany in physics. Actually he was doing more than that. He was turning these individuals from pacifists like Einstein or largely wordly humanitarians into anti-NAZI warriors who decided to use their capabilities to build the atomoc bomb. This was a huge transition. Most conceived of nuclear physics as offering tremendous emense peaceful uses to aid human progress. Only Hitler's evil which each experienced and observed comvinced them to turn their 'beautiful' science to mlitary use. Lise Meitner was an exception. While narrowly missing the Holocaut, she refused to work on the bomb project. Even Einstein, a life-long pacifist, decided that America should build the bomb because not only of Hitler's evil, but because the Germans were ahead of the Allies and had the capabilities of building a bomb. Hungarian Jewish physicist Leo Szilard convinced Einstein to write to Presisent Roosevelt, in effect launching the Manhattan Project (1939). Szilard also worked with Italian phsicist Enrico Fermi (who had a Jewish wife) to build the first nuclear ractor (pile) and achieved the first chain reaction (1942). Paul Wigner was another Hungarian Jewish scienist close to Szilard. Other Jewish emigre scientusts included Felix Bloch (Swiss), Niels Bohr (Danish), Klaus Fuchs (who passed information to the KGB), James Franck, Otto Frisch, Rudolph Peierls, and Edward Teller (Hunarian). We should mention that many of these men were not religious Jews, some like Bohr were raised Christians. Bur the NAZI Nuremberg Race Laws defined Jews as having two Jewish grandparents, regardless of the individuals professed religion. Not all the Jewish pysicists working to build the bomb were emigre scienists. This included the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project--Robert Opejeimer. Other American Jews working on the project included David Bohm. As with non-Jewish scientists, Opeheimer and others would have resisted building an atomic bomb had it not been for Hitler's evil and liklihood that the Germans were building a bomb.


As physicists around the learned of the German achievement, they began to consider the implications--the theoretical possibility of a bomb of unimaginable destructive power. NAZI Germany had an aggressive military weapons. This discovery by German physicists raised the possibility of a NAZI German nuclear weapons program. This terrified the European scientists that knew Fascism first hand. The Luftwaffe was already the being used to terrify Europe. The consequences of a NAZI Germany armed with nuclear weapons was too terrifying to imagine. One of the ironies of history was that militarily, Hiltler was obsessed with giantism, he wanted the largest tanks, battleships, artillery, and other weapons that could be built. Yet he rejected a major effort to build the largest bomb, in part because he considered nuclear physics "Jewish science" and drove from Germany the very people that could have built him the ultimate weapon.

Uranium Clubs: Uranvereinen

The German atomic research effort became known as the Uranium Club. There were two interations of the Uranium Club. NAZI officials took the scientific assessment seriously. Officials approved a serious atomic research program. The lead scientist was Werner Heisenberg. Considerable historical debate swirls around Heisenberg. Niels Bohr did not trust him. Some scientists believe his claims to sabatoging the German weapons program by misleading technology assessments. [Powers]

First Club (April-August 1939)

The concern of foreign scientists was not without foundation. Two groups began the first investigation of potential military applications of nuclear fission, almost at the sane time. First Wilhelm Hanle presented a colloquium pape on the use of uranium fission in a Uranmaschine (uranium machine that we would now call a nuclear reactor). Georg Joos who listened to the presentation convinced Hanle to bring this to the attention tgo the Government. They notified Wilhelm Dames, at the Reichserziehungsministerium (Reich Ministry of Education-REM) of the potential military applications of nuclear energy (April 22, 1939). At virtually the same time, Professor Paul Harteck was director of the physical chemistry department at the University of Hamburg and an advisor to the Heereswaffenamt (Army Ordnance Office--HWA). After reading about the Hahn-Strassmann fission work at the KWI, Harteck and his teaching assistant, Dr. Wilhelm Groth, informed the Reichskriegsministerium (Reich Ministry of War-RKM) of the potential military potential of nuclear fission (April 24, 1939). Tgey dramatically informed the HWA that the country which first exercised the use of atomic energy "has an unsurpassed advantage over the others." The Hanle-Joos letter was passed on Abraham Esau, head of the physics section of the Reichsforschungsrat (Reich Research Council--RFR) at the REM. Esau proceeded to arrange a meeting at thr REM to discuss the possibility of achieving a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The men invited came to be called the Uranium Club. The scientists invited included the physicists Walther Bothe, Robert Döpel, Hans Geiger, Wolfgang Gentner (apparently sent by Walther Bothe), Wilhelm Hanle, Gerhard Hoffmann and Georg Joos. Peter Debye was invited, but did not attend. As a result of this meeting, work was begun at the Georg-August University of Göttingen by Joos, Hanle and their colleague Reinhold Mannfopff. The group of physicists became known informally as the first Uranverein (Uranium Club) and formally as the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Kernphysik. The group's work did not get very far. Work was discontinued when the three reserarchers were called up for military training (August 1938).

Second Club

The Heisenberg Affair (June-July 1939)

Wener Heisenberg with the departure of Jewish phyicists emerged as Germany's leading buclear pysicits. Even without the Jwish pysicists, Germany would develop a lead in developing nucleat technology. Thi was actually vital if Germany was going to win the new world war Hitler was planning. This was because of the country's major military weaknesses. Hitler was totally uninterested. As mentioned above, driving Jews from Germany was his priority. And he explained to Germany's leading scientist, Max Planck, he was prepared fir Germany to do without science if necessary. And he opened the way without knowing it for scientific hacks to rise in Germany. Scintists of varying abilities soon ralized that if they couched research oroposals in anti-Semetic terms that they were more likely to win approval. So NAZI and non-NZI scientists intensified their attack on 'Jewish physics', meaning nuclear physics. One result was that Heisenberg began to be attacked. He was labeled a 'White Jew'. The one group that had the techb=nology to win the coming war becamea NAZI target. The attackers were the NAZI scientists promoting the Deutsche Physik (German Physics) movement. Heisenbrg continued to teach nuclear physics including tge work of Jewish scuntusts. It quickly went beyond a debate between scinenists. It emerged in the newspapers and Himmler's SS would eventually took an interest. Deutsche Physik supporters launched vicious attacks against leading theoretical physicists, including Arnold Sommerfeld and Heisenberg. A NAZI Party newspaper published an eitorial attacking Heisenberg (Jne 29, 1936). Heisenberg was attacked in a SS journal (July 15, 1937). This began what came to be called the Heisenberg Affair. [Cassidy] These attacks were the reason that Hesinberg was not chosen to replace Arnold Sommerfeld at the University of Munich (1938). Himmler was personally involved in the decision. Heisenberg was not supressed, but the debate affected his career and almost certainly affected the mileu which would detrmine NAZI decisions on giving any priority to devloping nuclear weapons. Through all this Heisenberg continued his work. He presented his theory of cosmic-ray showers (1936). He published four more papers (1937-38). Heisenberg bought a summer home for his family in Urfeld am Walchensee (1939). As soon as that was finalized he traveled to United States on the eve of World War II (June-July 1939). He must hve had some inkling that Hitler was about to launch anothr war. But particularly notable is that the Government allowed him to so. It shows how little interest the military has in nuclear weaponry, despite the fact that other German resarchers split the atom (January 1939). He visited with nuclear researchers, including Samuel Abraham Goudsmit, at the University of Michigan, a Dutch scientist of Jewish origins. He also met with Enrico Fermi who used his Nobel Prize award to escape Fascist Italy. (He had a Jewish wife.) Fermi tried to pesuade Heisenberg to resign. "If you go back to Germny, you'll be required to work on nuclear weapon for the NAZIs and that would be terible." He replied, "I owe my patriotic duty to my country. I'm not going to defect to the United States." [Shwartz] Fermi who in many ways is seen as theFather of thevNuclear Age was shaken. It was at this time he decided that the United States must build a nuclear weapon. It wold be a Fermi aasociate, Leo Szilard, who had a strong reltionship with Albert Einstein and convince the higly respected pacifist scientist to sign a letter he had written to President Roosevlt about building the most destrictive weapon at all time.

World War II (September 1939)

NAZI Führer Adolf Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1, 1939). NAZI Germany in the first years of the War seemed unstopable. Hitler launches World War II with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The initial operations were dazzling successes for the Whermacht and Luftwaffe. Poland was smashed in a few weeks (1939). After Denmark, Norway was seized in a daring operation (1940), providing the Germany Kriegsmarine bases that greatly enhanced their operations. Then the stunning offensive in the West seized not only the low countries--but France. The French Army was the bulwark of the Allies war effot and was desimated by the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht in weeks (1940). The Wehrmacht next lauched a stunning attack on Yugoslavia and Greece (1941). Then Hitler launched the operation he had dreamed of for years, the invasiobn of the Soviet Union which at first appeared to be a huge success. World War I had been fought largely with 19th century weapons with a few modern innovations. Physicists had played a role, but were not critical to the war effort. World War II was very different. Scientists played a central role in many camopaigns and little understood at the time was in sharp contrast to the massive NAZI armament program. Hitler had virtually unilaterallyb disarmed Germany in one critical area--atomic physics.

The Manhattan Project (1942)

The American Manhattan Program was the largest weapons development program in history. General Leslie R. Groves (1896-1970), Deputy Chief of Construction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned to oversee the project. The Manhattan Project us named after the New York borough where the first office headquarters was located and began June 1942. Groves had just completed another rush project, the construction of the Pentagon. He considered himself an astute judge of men and chose Robert J. Oppenheimer (1904-1967) to lead the scientific team. Oppenhimer was a respected, but reatively unknown theoretical physicist. Oppenhimer's politics are a matter of extensive debate. It is know that as a Jew, he despised the NAZIs and the attrocities against European Jews.

German Potential

The Germans initially had some advantages in the race to build an atomic bomb and through 1941 led in the race. Germany was the most scientifically (but not industrially) advance country in the wirld. Germany produced more Nobel prise winners in science than any other country. And German science was particularly string in both pysics and chemistry, the two disciplines needed to build a nuclear device. The first major steps taken before the War were made by Germans. The seizure of Czechoslovakia gave them possession of a uranium mine and ore (March 1939). And as the War developed, German military successes brought additional advantages to the Germans. The invasion of Norway gave them possession to heavy water plants (April-May 1940). The invasion of Belgium and France suceeded in obtaining supplies of uranium (May-June 1940). They had access to uranium ore. The Germans also posessed a nearly completed cyclotron. Germany despite 10 years of NAZI rule still possessed capable scientists and engineers and what many believed was the world's most important chemical engineering industry. What Germany did not have, however, was the spare industrial capacity necessary to actually build a bomb given the requirements of the War which Hitler had launched. Nor did Germany have the political leadership capable of disapastionately listening to scientific advisers and making informed judgements.


Building an atomic bomb involves solving two difficult problems. First is designing the bomb. Second is obtaining sufficent quantities of "weapons grade" material. This was by far the most difficult problem. Desisning the nomb was much more complicated, but obtaining weapons grade material involved an enormous industrial effort. The U235 isotope is found only in minute quantities in nature. Extracting it from natural ore was an enormous undertaking requiring among other matters, massive quantities of electricity. The other option was to "breed" plutonium in a nuclear reactor.

Plutonium and Uranium Bomb Programs

German scientists after the War claimed that they had no intention of building a bomb and that there was no major effort to do so. This is stll unlear. And to our knowledge , no one has yet written a definitive assessment of the German nuclear program. It is thus difficult to know just what the intentions of the German researchers were. And of course a number of different people were involved. We do know that the NAZIs during the War showed considerable interest in resources needed to build a bomb. So the scientists must have to a degree alerted officials as to the potential resources that would be useful in building a bomb. As with the American nuclear bomb program, the Gerans also identified a plutonium and uranium bomb option program. The plutonium option explains their interest in heavy water. The Germans made some progress in uranium enrichment. And there is reason to believe that they did considerable work aimed at metalizing uranium--one of several difficult undertakings involved in developing a fision weapon.


There were many factors that doomed the German atomic bomb program. The major factor was that building an atomic was an enormous undertaking requiring the massive allocation of resources. Germany never allocated the needed resources. There were several reasons for this. And most involved Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was persnly responsible for denying Gmany the one eapn tht coukd have brought victory. Perhaps the two greatest were the success in the early years of the War which led the Germans to believe that they were going to win the War without major economic sacrifices or expensive new weapon systems. Also Hitler was never convinced that the atomic bomb was a practical weapon. An important NAZI scientist (Lenard) argued that nuclear/Einsteinian theory was degenerate Jewish pstsics' which helped to deny nucear science the huge allocation of reources that would havevbeen needed to build a bomb. Jews were an especially important component of the German physics community. In fact Auto Hahn who won a Nobel Prize had a Jewish woman as a colleague, but because of the NAZIs down played her role. She eventually had to flee the country. The NAZIs thus seriously weakened Germany's abiliy to build a bomb. There were as was common in NAZI Germany, serious internal beaureaucratic struggles. Hitler then made sure that Germany would not have a bomb. His abhorance of Jewish physics ensured that the project would not be a priority. And given the challenge invlve, the project could not suceed without Hitler's personal itervention. And if driving Jewish scientists was not enough, he moved to cancel ordown gradeprojects that did not show immedate cances of success with in a year or two. And then unbelievanly the lack of priority accorded to the project by Hitler meant that many of the the scientists involved began losig their draft examtinand the German militry began drafting them. It seems virtually incoceivable that the German Army would draft nuclear phyicists, but that is exacty what they did.

The Griffin

The most fruitful British spy in NAZI Germany was Paul Rosbaud. He was throughout the War the best-placed British spy with access to both sciuentific and military information. His single most important contribution was the Oslo report. In it he describes the German tactics used in Blitzkrieg and U-boat warfare. It was Rosbaud, code name was “The Griffin”, who first report on the V-1 buzz bomb and V-2 rocket programs. He also provided early news of German consideration of an atomic weapon. And it was his reporting that evetually quited British fears of a NAZI atomic bomb. He reported that the German atomic program had made little real progress. [Kramish] Rosbaud is also notable for helping Jewish scientist Lise Mietner escape from the NAZIs when other colleagues had largely abandoned her. Rosbaud was considered so critical that the British did not share his reporting with the Americans until just before D-Day.

NAZI-Controlled Europe

It should be remembered that the American Manhatten Project was an international effort, including not only American and British scientists, but refugee scientists from countries overrun by the NAZIs. [Rhodes] The NAZIs at the peak of their power controlled almost all of Europe. This gave them a trenendous industrial and scientific base. The NAZIs failed, however, to not only use this potential, but did not fully use even Germany's potential until Speer took over control of the economy late in the War. The NAZIs did use Czechoslovakia (especially the Skoda armament complex), but while other occupied countries were exploited, they were not used anywhere near their full capacity. French factories run, for example at only a small fraction of their capacity. France had an aviation and armaments industry that was not fully exploited.) The same was true of the scietific community. In fact even more so for sciebtific research. Neils Bohrs institute in Denmark was not used in the nuclear program. There is, however, considerable differences of opinion concerninf a meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr before Bohr escaped to Sweden. Nor do we know of any effort to use French scientists, especially the Curie lab in Paris. Even scientists in Germany's ally Italy were not used. American agents and the Alsos group contacted Italian nuclear phusicists after the liberation of Rome. Edoardo Amaldi who had worked with Fermi before the War informed them that Heisenberg made no effort to contact him or other Italian pysicists. He said that he and his colleagues were determined not to work on nuclear fusion and went into hiding after Italy declared war (June 1940). They found , however, that neither the Italian police or the Gestapo were at all interested in them. It is unclear why the Germans did not attempt to conscript foreign scientists. It may have been Hitler's view of the nuclear project limited their resorces. We suspect that the NAZI mind-set did not appreciate the importance of foreign scientists. There may have also been security concerns. What ever the reasons, this significantly limited the German project, especially because the NAZIs had previously depleted Germany's scientific capability by ostricizing Jewish scientists.

German Resources

Many argue that NAZI Germany simply did not have the resources to wage World War II and build the atomic bomb. This is patently incorrect. The NAZIs devoted enormous resources to a variety of weapons projects. The V-weapon program was one such project. [Overy] It also had to be remembered that after the fall of France in 1940, the NAZIs had the resources of almost all of Western Europe at their disposal. The industrial resources rivaled those of the United States. It was not industrial resources that impaired the NAZIs, but rather the poor utilization of the Germany's industrial and scientific base> The scientific-industrial base available to the NAZIs was significantly expanded by their war-time agressons. The combined scientific and industrial capacity of Belgium, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands was substantial, especially when combined with that of the Reich and Italy. While the NAZIs did utilize the output of industries in those countries, there appears to have been no effort to utilize the scientic establishment in those countries. Here we are unsure as to why the Germans did bot more efficently utilize the potential. The NAZI belief in German superiority was one factor. The belieft that they had essentially won the War until the reverses in the East was another factor. The probably legitimate concern with loyalty was another factor. Not only were the industries of some countries like France poorly incorporated into the NAZI war effort, but the Germans made serious mistakes as to the weapons systems which were allocated resources. The NAZIs after their early successes did not believe that radically new weaoons were needed. When it became clear by 1943 that this was not the case, only projects which offered short term results were persued as German resources were shrinking.

Figure 2.- This is Werner Heisenberg as a boy (right) with his brother Erwin and their father, right before before he left home went to fight in World War I. Phyicists played a role in World War I, but a relatively small one. The War was primarily thought with 19th century weapons, but 20th century weapons like airplanes and submarines appeared. World War II would be very different. Phyicists would play a critical role in the War and helped develop deadly new weapons. And Heisenberg is surely the one mam who could have won the war for Hitler. Yet he was under attack by NAZIs, the very group he could have saved.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Karl Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics (1932). The award was for the creation of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg was one of the very few German pysicists that resisted the Detsche Pysick movement that tried to stamp out the teaching of relativity which was labeled Jewish Pysyick. He was the chief theoretical physicist in the German atomic project. Some claim that he deliberately pursued unproductive directions to prevent the NAZIs from building an atomic bomb. [Powers] This is intensely debated by historians. [Pais] It could be that Heisenberg and the German team simply mader errors. Heisenberg visited noted Danish phyicist Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark (September 1941). This is perhaps the most disputed scientific meeting in history. Bohr and Heisenberg have very different accounts of their meeting. Heisenberg after the War maintained his purpose was to broker a deal between scientists on both sides not to pursue an atomic bomb. Bohr strongly disputes this. And he seems to have concluded that the Germnns were making real progress. Given that the Germans were not making much progress, many contend that Heisenberg's purpose was espionage. [Corwell] Of course Heisenberg may have been exagerating German progress to improve Allied interest in a moritorium. The Danish resistance informed the British of the meeting. Bohr excaped from Denmark to Sweden (August 1943), and subsequently to London, and on to Los Alamos.


Not only did Hitler allocate limited resources to the German atomic bomb project, but the program was not coordinated. Heisenberg's group was the principal but not the only group working on nuclear weapons. The German Post Office of all groups also has a nuclear project. This was because Post Office Minister Obnesorge was enthusiatic. The Post Office thus supported an independent research project under Manfred von Ardenne, a youthful physicist. The SS also had a small project. [Speer, p. 302.]

Albert Speer (1942)

Hitler appointed Albert Speer Armaments Minister (1942). In that position the subject of an atomic bomb came up. Knowing Hitler's tendency to fixate futurist projects, Speer only briefly mentioned the nuclear fission conference held on June 23, 1942 and the recomendations made. Other intimates pushed the idea more forcefully: Heirich Hoffman (photographer) who was close to Post Office Minister Obnesorge and probably Goebbels. Speer reports that in his various form breuefings of Hutler he raised 2,100 points. An atomic bomb came up only once, although Hitler in a few informal occassions did speak of it. Speer told him that that based on the reports of Heisenberg and other pysicists that it was not achievable within the time frame of the War. That seems to have disuaded him because he was alreadt frustrated by weapons priograns that were not producing immediate results. (This is why he closed down the jet program at a critical point in the War.)

Adolf Hitler

Armaments Minister Speer writes that Hitler showed little interest in an atomic bomb project. The re\arely discussed the subject. And he appears to sought information through indirect channels rather than Speer or competent scientists. His 1933 meeting with Max Planck may explain why. Speer says that these ininatives gave him a'sunday supplement' sexriptions and he did not have the basic scientific background to really understand the issue. [Speer, p. 302.] Hisenberg also never answered Speer's question as to wether a fission reaction once begun could be turned off. Speer writes, "Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earh under his rule would ve turned int a glowing star." [Speer, p. 303.] Hitler sometimes jocked after being told this that the scientists might some time set the globe on fire. Hitler was influeced by Dr. Philip Lenard who won the Nobel Prize in 1920. He ws an early adherent to the NAZI Party. Lenard instilled the idea that Jews were corupting physics with the relativity theory. Hitler thus cane to see nuclear physics as 'Jewish physics' thus turning him a way from any major commitment to an atomic bomb program even if the Heiselberg group have more supportive. [Speer pp. 303-04.] Lenard attackd relativity in his work and the few Germans physicists (Planck and Heiselberg) that continued to teach relativity. Hitler would used the term 'Jewish physics' in his conversations. Party ideologist Rosenberg also adopted the term. Thus the Ministry of Education in turn was not inclied to support nuclear research for ideological reasons.

Project Scuttled

The Germans decided against a major effort to build a bomb. Speer pressed the Heisenberg group about dead lines. And they responded that nothing could be expected for 3-4 years. As Speer believed that the war would have been decided long before this, the bomb project was 'scuttled' (autumn 1942). [Speer, p. 303.] Speerdid authorize the development of a sunmarine'engine' which intereted the Kriegsmarine. Research continued on a limited scale. Work on a clyclotron went on at the Krupp Works. Speer visited and asked if it was possible to build a larger one, but was told they lacked the technical expertise. He was later shown the first cyclotron at Heildelberg University (summer 1944). Prof. Walther Bothe told him that it would be useful for medical and biological research. [Speer, p. 304.]

War Developments

As the War began to turn against Germany, resources became more difficult to obtain and the bomb project required a massive industrial effort. In addition, the allied bombing campaign further complicating any important industrial project. The Allies after the War arrested nine leading German nuclear scientists.

German Assessment

Recordings made sureptitiously at Farm Hall in England reveal that the German had in fact made little progress in building an atomic bomb. They had achieved so little success that thy did not think that anyone else could build a nuclear device during the War. The NAZIs were aware that America was working on a bomb. One operative in America learned that the work was being spread out in different facilities. They were unable, however, to penertrate the program. Their basis attitude was that if German scientists could not build a bomb, there was no chance that the Americans could do it. There was liitle respect for American science among the Germans. That was a serious mistake, especially because the American scientific establishment was enriched by both refugee European scientists and the British. The belief that the Americans could not build a bomb was so strong that the German scienitists discredited the first reports of the United States dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nakasaki (August 1945). (Typical NAZI attitude.) The Germans never were able to build a self-sustaining nuclear reactor. They failed to appreciate the differece between an atomic explosion and a reactor. Nor were they able to calculate the critical mass needed for a bomb. They even believed that plutonium was element 91. [Klotz]

Dirty Bomb

Germany was no where near developing a fission weapon. This does not mean they they did not develop a nuclear weapon. The Germans do appear to have developed a dirty bomb which does not involve a sophisticated undertaking. Here we do not yet have complete details. The only difficult aspect of building a nuclear bomb is obtaining enriched uranium. And the Germans had enriched uranium. We know this because of the U-234, although it is not entirely cklear the level of enrichment. We do not know if a dirty bomb was actually assembled and if not why. Nor do we know why it was not used. We do know that the Germans had worked out the basic principle. The Germans after the War may have hidden their work on a dirty bomb. This we do not yet know. One of the many questions here is if Hitler was even told or understood the killing potential of a dirty bomb. Given Goebbels boasts and Hitler's mindset, it is not at all clear why the Germans did not use a dirty bomb. This is an area we are still exploring and would be interested in any insights readers may have. We suspect that this may be the same reason that chemical weapons were not used, the ability of the Allies to retaliate, especially because they had air superiority. Another factor may be the lack of awarness as to the the dangers of radioactivity.

The V-2

One of the nececessary components of a nuclear weapon is a delivery system. And the Germans even after the destruction of the Luftwaffe and losing air superority over Germny had a remarkable delivery system. The V-2 was one of the stunning scientific achievemnents of the War. The V-2 could have effectively delivered a dirty bomb, killing not a few thousands, but millions of people, While German armies were retreating when the German V-2 offensive was begun, London, other cities in southeastern England, Anwerp, Brussels, Paris and other cities were well within range of the Germans, especially after Market Garden failed and the Allies were stopped at the Rhine. Why the Germans did not do that is an unanswered question. While a scientific accomplishment of the highest order, the V-2 involved huge expenditures of monet, resources, and scientific talent, but had no real impact on the War.

Transfer of Atomic Technology to Japan

We know that the Japanese and Germans were cooperating on nuclear weapons because of Magic decrypts. These decrypts described efforts to share military technology and critical materials. The Japanese attached great priority to obtaining enriched uranium. Allied command of the sea severely limited contacts between Axis allies Germany and Japan. Several German and Japanese submarines were involved in this effort because by the time the Japanese requested the uranium, surface transport was no longer possible. Details on most of the submarine transports are hazy. Ee know a cgreat deal aviut the last one--the U-234. This is because the captain surrendered to the Americans who recovered 560 kg of enriched uranium aboard. We do not know if the Germans transg\ferred nuckear technology to Japan. The U-234 was a very large mine-laying U-boat. It had been adapted as an undersea freighter to carry a much larger cargo than a standard U-boat. Germany transferred considerable weapons technology to Japan. Once the War began because of the Royal Navy and later the U.S. Navy's control of the Atlantic this had to be done mostly by U-boat. The U-234 was dispacted to Japan with a cargo of German high-tech equipment (April 1945). The cargo included air defense radars and jet engine equioment as well as German technical experts. In addition there were 80 gold-lined cylinders containing 560 kilograms of uranium oxide marked "For the Japanese Army". There is very limited cargo space even aboard this cargo U-boat. Thus only items of the highest priority would have been loaded. The only pupose for the uranium oxide given the state of Japanese nuclear research would have been a dirty bomb. Also aboard were two Japanese officer--Air Force Colonel Genzo Shosi, an engineer, and Navy Captain Hideo Tomonaga. The U-234 was informed of Hitler's suicide (May 1). Naval Highcommand ordered all German submarines to observe a ceasefire (May 4). The order to surrender was then given (May 8). The captain of the U-234 at this time arrested the Japanese officers who subsequently attempted suiside with sleeping pills. The German officers then discussed if they should surrender or proceed to Japan. They decide to surrender and to kill the Japanese who had botched their suiside attempt. This meant that they could not talk to the Americans about the purpose of the uranium oxide. Their bodies were discaded at sea. The captain then contacted naval authjorities in Halifax to arrange a surrender. Finally he decided to surrender to the Americans. The USS Sumter escorted the U-234 to Portsmouth. The U-234 was interned at Portsmouth (May 19). There the Americans learned for the first time that radio-active uranium oxide was aboard. What the Americans did not know was if other U-boats had gotten through to Japan with uranium an nuclear technology. This may have influenced the subsequent American decession to use the bomb on Japan. The nature of the uranium and disposition by the U.S. Navy is shrouded in mystery. Using lead contianers with gold lining suggests it was very high grade enriched uranium, perhaps U235. [Hydrick, p.7.] As far as I know, the Government has never released the level of enrichment which would provide an insight into the German atomic program. It is generally accepted that the Los Alamos team was having trouble obtaining the amount of uranium needed for a bomb. [Goldberg] Some authots believe that the uranium on U-234 as used by the Americans to bomb Japan. Lt. Col. John Lansdale Jr. who worked with the Manhattan Project as a security officer an was responsible for tracking uranium. He says the German uranium was used to build the bombs dropped on Japoan. [Broad] Some authors also wonder about the "infrared proximity fuse" and wether it was actually a fuse connected with the atomic program. Many of these quetions are still unanswered. But the fact thsat the Germans had higrade enrched uranium strongly suggests thsat they had made more progress in building a bomb than is recognized by most authiors. And it raised the questions about the Japanese atmic bomb program and thextent of cooperation between the Axis allies. [Speer, p. 302.]

Operation Alsos (1943-45)

The Allies had virtually no information about the German nuclear program and how much progress they made. Given the early German achievements and the German competence in nuclear physics The Manhattan Project operated under the premise that they were in a race with the Germans even at the time of D-Day (June 1944). Hitler and Goebbels made a lot of claims about secret weapons. It was unclear what they meant. Major General Leslie M. Groves organized Operation Alsos (Greek for groves). The mission was to find the German nuclear scientists and their facilities as well as nuclear materials. They were particularly concerned about the uranium the NAZIs seized from the Belgans. Groves also wanted to keep German nuclear scientists out of Soviet hands. Alsos personnel wwre deployed with both the Italian and French (D-Day) invasion force. They were ordered to keep behinf advancing Allied lines to prevent capture by the Germans, but did not always do so. He chose Lt. Col. Boris Pash, a former Manhattan Project security officer, to command Alsos. Samuel Goudsmit, a German refugee who lost his parents at Auschwitz, was chosen as the technical/scientific leader of Alsos. Alsos was highly successful, in part because most of the scientists were not exited about being taken by the Soviets. Lt. Col. Pasch anf his men suceeded in arresting most of the important German scientists, including Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. They also found German nuclear facilities and records, although te Germans may have destroyed both faciities and records. The Germans clearly emriched some of te uranium they obtained in Belgium. Where this was dome we do not know with any certainty. They also seized some of the German stoicks of uranium. The German scientists were sequestered at Farm Hall in England for several months. This was Operation Epsilon. While there they were interogated, but perhaps more importantly the conversations among themselves were surepticiously recorded. Operation Alsos concluded that Germans made only a limited effort to build a bomb and that the Amerucan program had by 1942 advanced beyond the Germans.


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Created: January 29, 2004
Last updated: 1:46 AM 12/2/2017