Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 1994 - Volume 2 Number 1
Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb
Thomas Powers
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Those who contumaciously insist that knowledge is neutral, that science can equally be used by those who are good and by those who are evil, and that technology is somehow “value-free,” use a host of available moral clich?s to illustrate their point. One of the most common can be quickly labelled “Einstein and the Bomb.”

Had Albert Einstein not made his interesting discoveries in physics early in this century, so the story goes, we might not have experienced the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monstrous waste of the cold war, and the daft geopolitical strategy of mutually assured destruction (its acronym, MAD, suitably defining world politics throughout most of my lifetime).

Did Einstein, then, contribute to human good or evil? Neither, we are assured, for all he did was discover a scientific truth; the use to which that knowledge was put depended on the “values” of those who used it. This vacuous notion, apart from its epistemological absurdity, seldom contemplates another concrete possibility: what would have happened if the atomic bomb had been successfully developed in Nazi Germany, rather than in the United States?

Werner Heisenberg is most famous for his “principle of uncertainty.” Too simply put, it is the recognition that, at the sub-atomic level, normal science fails for it is impossible to ascertain simultaneously the position and velocity of any sub-atomic particle. The very act of observing, that is, alters the location and speed of the observed. Aside from its theoretical importance to physicists, the uncertainty principle helped undo Cartesian mechanism and taught scientists the sort of fine lesson in modesty that now makes all sensible physicists shy away from formal causality and embrace probabilities alone.

Heisenberg was one of this century's most brilliant physicists. He was put in charge of the German atom bomb project and Germany did not develop the bomb. Was this a result of inadequate funding? Or, a lack of material resources? Was it a consequence of incompetence on the part of Heisenberg and his team? Did Heisenberg deliberately obstruct his own project so as to ensure that Hitler could never use the bomb?

In working through the history of this crucial time in German science, Thomas Powers presents a thorough, methodical and fascinating treatment of the issues, the times and the personalities. As a proven baseball fan and an aspirant intellectual, I am chuffed that one of the leading characters in the drama was Moe Berg: [a] a catcher with a lifetime .243 batting average with the Brooklyn Dodgers plus four American League teams from 1923 to 1939; [b] a Princeton philologist and etymologist with a decent knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German and Sanskrit; and, [c] one of the U.S.A.'s most brilliant spies. Moe Berg and others, including many of our century's greatest scientific minds, were at the centre of the most esoteric scientific questions and the most visceral political struggles of that or any other era.

In unraveling the complex history of the Nazi bomb, Heisenberg's War appeals at many levels. It is an astonishingly good read for scholarly detectives. Clandestine travels and obscure messages are there in abundance for those who would like to discover the answer to the question of why Hitler's atom bomb project failed. There are intriguing issues for historians of World War II, for physicists who may try to piece together the scientific dilemmas exposed in Powers' narrative, and for moral philosophers who may choose to grapple with the very different choices made by Heisenberg and by his mentor, the Danish physicist, Neils Bohr.

Bohr wound up in the United States and, like many veterans of Los Alamos, came afoul of the more malevolent forces in the U.S. “security state.” He paid for his open opposition to the Nazis by being labelled, along with Manhattan Project colleagues such as Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and J. Robert Oppenheimer, as nothing less than a Russian spy. Even today, the dispute continues as ex-Time reporter Jerrold Schecter and his mate, Leona Schecter, continue to make spurious accusations that, as Powers himself has elsewhere correctly noted, are taken seriously by no competent historian. The slurs made by Americans against their own scientists caused tragedy in their day and their day, apparently, is not yet over.

About the German scientists, rather less is said. Powers' volume, then, is much needed. It allows us, if nothing else, to view already terrifying ethical questions in the even more horrific context of Nazi Germany. Such a perspective renders our na•ve and puerile debates about “values” merely comic. Witnessing the events of World War II with 20/20 hindsight and from the perspective of the “winners” is one thing, but being led through the shadows of a tyrannical regime that, it seems, some of its leading scientists knew would not succeed, is another.

It is precisely this effort to see ethics in political and historical context that can and must make our emerging discussions of the moral dimensions of science and technology more than a pre-programmed clash of stereotypes. Too much that we do seems intended to reduce debate about humanity and technology to a consumer's guide to costs and benefits, a dichotomized (lobotomized?) world in which good and evil are re-worded as “positive” and “negative” impacts and the only remaining task of ethicists is to “clarify” values so that they may be apportioned to easily defined categories, given their proper weighting and factored into what passes for public discourse.

Such thinking would surely have appalled all the physicists who worked (or, just maybe, didn't work) on the bomb. Each one was involved in science and each one was involved in life. Even Klaus Fuchs, who (despite the self-serving “reminiscences” of retired Russian intelligence officer, Pavel Sudoplatov) was probably the only actual Russian spy at Los Alamos, dedicated his life to something both academic and political. The instrumental moral calculus available today makes such dedication-whether on the part of Bohr, Oppenheimer, even Fuchs and perhaps Heisenberg-seem remote. Imaginatively recreating that world and forcing ourselves-and encouraging our students-to think what we might have done then and there is no small exercise. It compels us to consider ethics in specific situations, and that does not necessarily mean “situation ethics”.

Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.