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Copenhagen, cont’d.

To the Editors:

At the recent Smithsonian symposium on Copenhagen, my projection of original German and Farm Hall documents on the screen caused one questioner to inquire angrily why Mr. Powers had not included such evidence in his lengthy book [“‘Copenhagen’ Revisited,” NYR, March 28].

Among the documents drawn from my book Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project and shown that day were the 1940 official reports of Heisenberg’s team analyzing an exploding reactor-bomb, the Army Weapons Office 135-page report of 1942 explaining this reactor-bomb (for which Heisenberg’s team took out a secret patent), and the Farm Hall transcripts of 1945. In that document Heisenberg explains three times his original calculation of 1940 which uses a random walk analysis to calculate a critical mass of many tons of U-235 for a uranium bomb. This is the “calculation” of critical mass that Mr. Frayn continues to assert was never made! I really don’t know how anything more can be done to reason Mr. Frayn and Mr. Powers out of their flat-earther mentality of denial.

To correct Mr. Powers on a historical point: Mr. Powers is wrong to say that the critical mass calculation stated by the Germans in their 1942 report was “10–100 kg” as if that is meant to apply to U-235. In fact, it refers only and explicitly to plutonium, as I demonstrated in my book and explained to Mr. Powers when I showed him my copy of this document.

In his new comments, Mr. Frayn affects innocence of the meaning of my charge that his play reeks of subtle revisionism. For one, there is his denigration of Niels Bohr as an almost callously indifferent figure (even to his own family), and the exalting of Heisenberg as an honorable and moral character. Frayn now argues that Bohr contributed to the deaths of many people while “Heisenberg never killed anyone.” This is not true; Heisenberg was well aware of the use of women concentration camp slave laborers to prepare the uranium plates he needed for his experiments. This was known to be extremely hazardous and toxic work, and assuredly prisoners died. As to Heisenberg’s “honor,” he himself declared to Himmler (!) that it consisted in obtaining a Munich professorship and the right to publish an article in the official SS science journal. Such was the moral and scientific integrity of Heisenberg.

Finally, there is the question of implicit anti-Semitism—not of Mr. Frayn, of course, but of Heisenberg and others. At page 83 of his US edition, Mr. Frayn has Heisenberg state that the crucial calculation for a bomb was done by Frisch and Peierls in England, instead of “for us” in Germany. Then:

Margrethe: Because they were Jews.

Heisenberg: There’s something almost mathematically elegant about that.

Whatever his faults as a historian, Mr. Frayn is too experienced a playwright to be unaware of the impact this implication has on audiences, whether Jewish or not.

Paul Lawrence Rose
Department of History
Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania

Thomas Powers replies:

I despair of living long enough to sort out my many disagreements with Rose about what Heisenberg did or did not understand about the physics of atomic bombs, but I would like to comment on his remark about slave laborers whose lives werejeopardized by the preparation of uranium plates for reactor experiments in Nazi Germany. When Rose made the same point at the recent symposium in Washington a kind of shocked silence followed, so marked that Rose actually apologized for raising such a painful subject. But he insisted it ought to be faced, and I agree.

Nazi crimes were so pervasive during the Third Reich that few Germans, whatever their station in life or their role in the war, could entirely escape the collective mantle of guilt and failed responsibility. There is no evidence that Heisenberg caused or willed or casually disregarded any of the terrible crimes committed by the Nazis, but like most other Germans who survived the war he was somehow compromised by their enormity.

But even if most Germans were touched by the war’s shadow, it does not follow that most of them responded in the same way, or that the differences between one person’s response and another’s were insignificant. I have written a fat book to argue that Heisenberg did not want to build a bomb for Hitler, and ran the program down a blind alley. Most of Rose’s points are dealt with there. My point now is a different one. In recent decades scholars, especially in the United States, have identified and described the ways in which many professional groups passively and sometimes actively contributed to the crimes of the Nazis—doctors who performed inhuman medical experiments; lawyers, prosecutors, and judges who conspired to conceal judicial murder under the color of law; banks that willingly accepted deposits of stolen money and even gold melted down from the teeth of concentration camp victims; insurance company officials who confiscated paid-up life policies; art dealers who agreed to sell looted paintings—the list is long, and the names on it are far from exclusively German.

But these same scholars have not been equally diligent in noticing and describing the many forms or examples of resistance to the Nazi regime by Germans as well as by others. On the contrary, claims of opposition or resistance generally meet with extreme skepticism, and, far from being welcomed, receive harsh scrutiny and grudging judgment. In my view this tendency distorts our understanding of how people respond to evil, blinds us to the wide range of ways in which people can and do resist, and encourages a uniformly dark pessimism about human nature. It also, and not least, does an injustice to those who struggled against circumstances as they found them, and did what they could to uphold human values.

I know that for Rose this is not a question, but for me it is still hard to decide which aspect of Heisenberg’s wartime role is the more remarkable—the ample evidence of his distress over the bomb project, or the fact that so few people have chosen to notice.

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