The success of the NAZI atomic bomb program can inspire us today

Summary: Why did NAZI Germany not build an atomic bomb, despite their long head start? This is a powerful story of individuals under intense pressure, with conflicting moral obligations and facing great personal risk, deciding to do what’s bestt for America. It is one of the great success stories of WWII, and can inspire us today. Perhaps future historians will ask why America’s scientists built the bomb, unleashing the horrors of the atomic age (with its several close encounters with WWIII).

Atomic bomb explosion

One of the mysteries of WWII is why Germany did not build the atomic bomb. By summer 1939 they had two development programs running. In September they combined under the leadership of Werner Heisenberg, perhaps the world’s most qualified scientist to lead the program in terms of reputation, experience, and skill. Germany had the industrial resources, uranium ore (in Czechoslovakia), scientific talent, and financial resources (see the last section) to build the bomb. But they didn’t.

The US shifted the Manhattan Project into high gear two years after the German program began, on 9 October 1941 when FDR decided to build the bomb. We had an operational reactor in December 1942, which the NAZI’s never accomplished. We exploded the first bomb in July 1945, after three years and nine months of work.

Most of the senior scientists in the NAZI bomb program shared five goals, which produced this disparity of results between their results and ours. First, to not build a bomb. Second, to avoid questions from the Gestapo about treason. Third, to keep their younger scientists out of the army (their enlistment would follow the program’s end). Fourth, to continue their atomic research. Fifth, to avoid persecution by the German people after the war for failing to build the bomb. They accomplished all five goals, one of the rare moral successes of WWII. This demonstration of what individuals can do should inspire us today.

Heisenberg's War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb
Available at Amazon.

The program to not build a  NAZI bomb

In Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, the late Paul Lawrence Rose (Prof History, Penn State) explained that the German scientist were on the wrong track — one which could not produce a bomb before WWII ended. Perhaps so (I am skeptical), but the evidence shows that many German scientists, including Heisenberg, had no intention of building a bomb for Hitler. Some were unwilling to build a bomb for anyone. The world would be a better place if America’s scientists had shown the same moral awareness of their work.

In Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb journalist Thomas Powers shows that the NAZIs choose a leader for the program who actively sabotaged it. In every respect he did the opposite of Leslie Grove and Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the Manhattan Project. He kept the project unfocused and dilatory (much of their effort went to building a reactor for power generation after the war), and encouraged NAZI leaders to give the program a low priority.

Most of German’s atomic scientists agreed. Heisenberg said that Otto Hahn (Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission) was ”loud in his warnings and counsels against any attempts to use atomic energy in war.”  In Irene Heisenberg’s book of letters between her parents, My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937-1946, we see scientists explanations of their actions.

“You have probably been asked about our supposed work on the atomic bomb. …As far as our work during the war is concerned: we were spared the difficult moral decision whether we should build an atomic bomb. The technical and organizational means available to us in Germany would not have permitted at all the effort America had to put forth in regard to the problem. We confined ourselves to the preliminary work on the lesser effort of building a machine capable of producing heat …”

Heisenberg wrote to his wife “{my} British and American colleagues have my sympathy, because their names are now tied to this atrocity.” Similar views are obvious in the “Farm Hall” secret taping of Germany’s atomic scientists’ conversations on 6-7 August 1945 after they learned about the bombing of Hiroshima.

“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…”

Karl Wittz: “I’m glad we didn’t have it. …I think it characteristic that the Germans made the discovery and didn’t use it, whereas the Americans have used it. “

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker: “I think it’s dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part. …I believe the reason we didn’t do it was because all the physicists didn’t want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded.”

Heisenberg: “…from the bottom of my heart I am really glad that {we built} an engine {reactor} and not a bomb.” He said that had they been in the same moral position as the Americans and had said to themselves that nothing mattered except that Hitler should win the war, they might have succeeded, whereas in fact they did not want him to win.

An epitaph for the successful NAZI bomb program

McGeorge Bundy summarized the NAZI bomb program in the NY Times (Bundy was National Security Advisor 1961-1966 and Prof History at NYU).

“{Heisenberg and his German colleagues were} the only scientists of standing, in any country, to try to explore the possibility during the war that scientists of all countries might hold back from the bomb.

“…{In June 1942 Heisenberg and his team told Albert Speer that} ‘the only goal attainable was the development of a uranium pile producing energy as a prime mover – in fact, future work was directed entirely towards this one aim. ‘

“…Speer {wrote that he} asked the scientists to make a list of what they needed for further research and was ”rather put out” by the modesty of their requests. He suggested that they take ‘one or two million marks’ – they had asked for some hundreds of thousands – ”but apparently more could not be utilized for the present, and in any case I had been given the impression that the atom bomb could no longer have any bearing on the course of the war.”’

More nations with bombs. New weapons lie in our future.

The atomic age is not over. In “Which Countries Will Get the Bomb?” Jeremy Bernstein in the New York Review of Books discusses what makes a nation able to build nukes. It’s an important question, since Trump’s speeches suggest he will void the nuclear deal with Iran and encourage our allies in Asia and the Middle East to build their own nukes.

Looking further ahead, scientists and engineers will face similar challenges to those in WWII as technology makes possible new horrible weapons. What will they decide to do? No need to guess. America has built the next generation of world-wrecking weapons — for cyberwar — and used them. We are the first, as with nukes. Perhaps this time we will not be the last to use them.

Postscript: did NAZI German have the resources to build the bomb?

Yes. They lavishly funded development of of “Wunderwaffe” (wonder weapons): aircraft carriers, super-battleships, super-tanks, advanced submarines, helicopters, jet engines, the Vergeltungswaffe (“Retribution Weapon 2”), and more — plus two aircraft carriers (both scrapped before launch).

Some of these were revolutionary. The Type XXI submarine (“Elektroboote”) was the model for post-WWII submarine development. They build the first jet fighters and bombers, and did research in the variable wing aircraft. Germany began work on liquid fueled rockets in 1930 (work was centralized at the Kummersdorf test range in 1931. Work began on the V-2 cruise missile in 1942. But Germany could not fund all of these sufficiently to build any of them into weapons systems to influence WWII.

Consider just the V-weapons, as described by Steven J. Zaloga in V-2 Ballistic Missile 1942-52.

“The cost of the development and manufacture of the V-2 was staggering, estimated by a post-war US study as about $2 billion, or about the same amount as was spent on the Allied atomic bomb program. Yet the entire seven-month V-2 missile campaign delivered less high explosive on all the targeted cities than a single large RAF raid on Germany. While such a massive expenditure might have been justified if it had had a military impact, the V-2 accomplished nothing of significant military value.”

For More Information

For a summary of why the NAZI bomb project failed see “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb” by Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books.

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Two fascinating books about the head NAZI atomic bomb program.

My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937-1946
Available at Amazon.
Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project
Available at Amazon.

5 thoughts on “The success of the NAZI atomic bomb program can inspire us today

    1. Whoops I’m sorry I missed that you had linked to it in the post. Halfway through I recalled reading this transcripts a few months ago and was eager to share!


    2. Sflicht,

      I’m impressed. Of the hundreds of comments pointing to cites of things already in the post, yours is the first the acknowledge that with a correction.

      During the 13 years I’ve written on the internet I’ve often wondered how many people read the articles before posting comments. My guess is less than 50%. In some, such as those about climate, it’s probably far less.


    3. Editor, what can I say? I’m embarrassed for having jumped the gun, but as a human I can certainly understand why it’s common to post a comment before reading the whole blog entry. Sadly, most content on the internet isn’t worth reading, so to the extent people get utility from commenting, doing so before making it through the entire OP is a strategy of rational ignorance. (Commenters like me derive pleasure from posting a response to what we *assume* the content of the original blog post is, regardless of what the full content is in actuality.) I won’t go so far as to apologize for this specific instance, but I do think this state of affairs is regrettable.


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