Uncertainty about Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The true nature of Heisenberg’s role in the Nazi atomic bomb effort is a fascinating question, and dramatic enough to have inspired a well-received 1998 theatrical play, “Copenhagen.”  The real story, however, may never be completely unraveled. Heisenberg was the scientific leader of the German bomb program up until its cancellation in 1942, when the German military decided that it was too ambitious a project to undertake in wartime, and too unlikely to produce results.

Some historians believe that Heisenberg intentionally delayed and obstructed the project because he secretly did not want the Nazis to
get the bomb. Heisenberg’s apologists point out that he never joined the Nazi party, and was not anti-Semitic. He actively resisted the government’s Deutsche-Physik policy of eliminating supposed Jewish in-fluences from physics, and as a result was denounced by the S.S. as a traitor, escaping punishment only because Himmler personally declared him innocent. One strong piece of evidence is a secret message carried to the U.S. in 1941, by one of the last Jews to escape from Berlin, and eventually delivered to the chairman of the Uranium Committee, which was then studying the feasibility of a bomb. The message stated “…that a large number of German physicists are working intensively on the problem of the uranium bomb under the direction of Heisenberg,  that Heisenberg himself tries to delay the work as much as possible, fearing the catastrophic results of success. But he cannot help fulfill-ing the orders given to him, and if the problem can be solved, it will be solved probably in the near future. So he gave the advice to us to hurry
up if U.S.A. will not come too late.” The message supports the view that Heisenberg intentionally misled his government about the bomb’s tech-nical feasibility; German Minister of Armaments Albert Speer wrote that he was convinced to drop the project after a 1942 meeting with Heisen-berg because “the physicists themselves didn’t want to put too much into it.” Heisenberg also may have warned Danish physicist Niels Bohr personally in September 1941 about the existence of the Nazi bomb effort.

On the other side of the debate, critics of Heisenberg say that he clearly wanted Germany to win the war, that he visited German-occupied territories in a semi-official role, and that he simply may not have been very good at his job directing the bomb project. On a visit to the occupied Netherlands in 1943, he told a colleague, “Democracy cannot develop sufficient energy to rule Europe. There are, therefore, only two alternatives: Germany and Russia. And then a Europe under German leadership would be the lesser evil.” Some historians argue that the real point of Heisenberg’s meeting with Bohr was to try to convince the U.S. not to try to build a bomb, so that Germany, possessing a nuclear monopoly, would defeat the Soviets — this was after the June 1941 entry of the U.S.S.R. into the war, but before the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack brought the U.S. in. Bohr apparently considered Heisen-berg’s account of the meeting, published after the war was over, to be inaccurate. The secret 1941 message also has a curious moral passivity to it, as if Heisenberg was saying “I hope you stop me before I do something bad,” but we should also consider the great risk Heisenberg
would have been running if he actually originated the message.

Story from physicist Szilard said that, Bohr carried out information from Germany to U.S. that Heisenberg was able to make a controlled fission. General Spears has been providing underground lab for Heisenberg. But Heisenberg declared that creating atomic bombs had not been possible. It is said that Heisenberg had hell to Nazi moral reason not to use the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the Manhattan project succeeded. But before using it, Germany lost the war trigger. Heisenberg, Hahn, etc., held captive in England. When finally the atomic bomb detonated at Hiroshima, Heisenberg showed disbelief. He showed that the bomb was to Hahnshould have radius critically half a meter, so the volume is half a cubic meter, and a hundred pounds of mass. And U-238 heavy as it could have been produced in recent years, with the purification of the U-235. But Heisenberg miscalculated. Bombs droppedon Hiroshima, U-238 mass was only 1 kg. Weight of 1 kg can be produced in a matter of days in America.

In the end, we have 2 conclusions. Whether the Germany atomic bomb failed because of Heisenberg’s moral reason or miscalculation. Uncertain. And the murder plans against Heisenberg? It is still uncertain why Borg or Bethe didn’t kill him.  It is all about Heisenberg, and it must be uncertain.



A Historical Perspective on Copenhagen, David C. Cassidy, Physics Today,July 2000, p. 28, http://www.aip.org/pt/vol-53/iss-7/p28.html

Bohr drafted several replies, but never published them for fear of hurting Heisenberg and his family. Bohr’s papers were to be sealed for 50 years after his death, but his family released them early, in February 2002.


17 thoughts on “Uncertainty about Werner Heisenberg

  1. How poor me. I left my modem stick.
    I’m at my office now, and cannot see your “Game Theory” post because the using of “Sexiest” word as a title.
    Well, it must be a great post. Hik…!

    • Ahahahaha! You can read it at home 😛 ..I think the title will gain more attraction from the reader. Who knows that it will be labeled as a porn, sorry ..LOL

  2. This speculative piece is very intriguing. I wonder why so little concrete evidence of Heisenberg’s actual position on the bomb did not survive. Someone should have known precisely what the thought and said so after the war. That was a confused time. I suppose a lot of information was lost of neglected. There are many things we will never know. This is an interesting post.

  3. As a child I grew up among post-war German emigres in New York. They were freshly-arrived and didn’t speak much English in the early ’50s, but gradually became Americanized. Based on my experience of them and listening to my parents (my father was a German-speaking Canadian), my hunch about Heisenberg is that he was probably as complex a human being as most of us. He was probably ‘all of the above’.

    Its highly likely he was like many fellow Germans: hopeful at first that Hitler would bring about a greater Germany, then gradually more disillusioned, and eventually embarrassed and finally ashamed that he ever supported him–yet unable to get himself disentangled.

    In those days, there was no quitting being a Nazi–you were either deemed to be all in, or willing to be shot. So one learned to keep one’s cards very close to the chest and not disturb the waters.

    This is quite a post. It raises many complicated and unresolvable issues, which is why many from those days don’t want them resurrected. However, the more we put ourselves in the shoes of one like Heisenberg, the more we see into our own souls.

    • Just like the old quote: “Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” 🙂 However he is still my greatest idol in quantum physics

  4. Very interesting post – the principal thing is that it will always remain uncertain…get it… 😉 Sorry bad jokes tonight….

    But I think maybe the personal ego of Heisenberg may have played a big part in this story? There was probaly fighting in bureaucracies for money and power also which might have delayed their work (luckliy).

    I suppose it will always remain a mystery why he failed to make the bomb.

    But what about the morality of being involved in a Nazi atomic bomb project in the first place? Surely he must be guilty of even saying to Hitler that he could make a bomb and encouraging them to research it. The fact that it failed was just a combination of things that came together.

    Is he culpable for just working on a bomb for Hitler??????

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  6. If one examines Heisenberg’s so called mis-calculation in detail you will see that his ten tons of uranium 235 is shown to be equivalent to 1000 tons of TNT. The numbers have been carefully chosen to yield the desired result. It is a master piece of a grant application which even the most numerically dim military general could follow.

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