The most nightmarish of World War II alternative history scenarios is the one in which Nazi Germany acquires atomic weapons. In fact, by the spring of 1945, when America’s massive nuclear program was reaching its culmination, the Nazi atomic program consisted of one experimental reactor in a cave in southern Germany, operated by scientists who lacked a clear conception of how to build an atomic weapon.
Even if the German scientists had known what they were doing, they still lacked suitable radioactive material to produce a weapon. One of World War II’s most remarkable and controversial stories is just how the Nazi atomic program came to this sorry pass.
The potential power of atomic energy is a corollary of Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity equation, E = MC2. Simply put, the equation means that all matter is energy. To determine the energy contained in any bit of matter, one need only multiply its mass times the square of the speed of light. As the speed of light is somewhere in excess of 186,000 miles per second, the resulting number is correspondingly huge.
Early in the 20th century, physicists realized that if it was possible to release the atomic energy in a piece of matter, say a brick, they could create a doomsday weapon. Fortunately, the atoms in bricks, and in almost all ordinary matter, are quite stable and not likely to erupt in an atomic chain reaction. However, by the mid-1930s, experiments with the unstable element uranium revealed the potential to tap into its store of nuclear energy and create machines of awesome power.
Nazi Germany’s Rejection of “Jewish Physics”
Theoretically, by the 1930s Germany had a jump on the rest of the world in atomic research. Many of the world’s top nuclear physicists were German or Austrian, or worked closely with German or Austrian colleagues. It was a German scientist, Otto Hahn, who first split the atom in 1938. Although Hahn later tried to claim all the credit for his experiment, at the time he did not actually know what he had done.
It was Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish colleague, who realized the significance of Hahn’s discovery and described the processes involved. Meitner realized that Hahn, by bombarding a small sample of uranium with neutrons, had literally broken some uranium atoms apart, releasing powerful atomic energy. Incredibly, in accord with Nazi policy, Hahn and other “German” academics had recently driven Meitner from her post at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry near Berlin to refuge in Sweden. Meitner was a brilliant scientist, but evidently socially and politically inept enough that she continued to assist Hahn despite his treatment of her and Nazi Germany’s policies toward Jews in general.
Although Meitner continued to assist her former colleagues in Nazi Germany for a time, most Jewish scientists were not so lucky or naïve. By the late 1930s almost all of Germany and Austria’s Jewish physicists, along with many others who rejected Nazism, had fled, mostly to Britain or America. Einstein was by far the most famous among them, but only one of a great many.
Nazi academics began to take over Germany’s great educational institutions, hungrily seizing positions and offices previously held by Jews, foreigners, or anti-Nazi German academics. Some of these newcomers were marginal teachers and scientists, envious of successes by those they considered racially or ideologically inferior. Many disdained theoretical physics and Einstein’s relativity theories.
These men and the Nazi hierarchy regarded Einstein’s relativity theories and their progeny as “Jewish physics.” For them, the only valid physics was “ Deutsche” or “ Volkish” physics, by which they apparently meant a classical experimental physics that could somehow ignore the realities Einstein described. Nonetheless, not all of Germany’s scientists disdained “Jewish physics,” and as war loomed and then broke out, even high-ranking Nazis came to appreciate the tantalizing prospect of an atomic super weapon.
Werner Heisenberg: Germany’s Top Physicist
In the late 1930s, the most famous physicist in Germany (Einstein having left Germany for New Jersey) was Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was internationally renowned for his work in quantum mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle that usually bore his name. He was a brilliant theorist and mathematician and prided himself on his practical abilities as a physicist, although in fact these were suspect. For a time he was Germany’s youngest full professor.
In 1932, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the Uncertainty Principle, although the prize committee slighted several other physicists who arguably deserved as much credit as the charismatic Heisenberg. In 1937, Heisenberg was appointed to a senior professorship at Leipzig University.
While not a card-carrying Nazi, Heisenberg was a loyal and patriotic German. Like many German academics and professional soldiers of his time, he considered himself above politics, and so was willing to serve whatever government ruled Germany, even Hitler’s. He was the logical choice to lead the country’s atomic weapons program.