Why didn’t Germany build an atom bomb? In 5698/1938, Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewess, discovered the principles of nuclear fission. At the time, she had been thrown out of Germany, and her German colleagues stole credit for the discovery.
“She worked out that the two nuclei formed by the division of a uranium nucleus would be lighter than the original uranium nucleus by about one-fifth the mass of a proton,” her nephew explained. “Now, whenever mass disappears, energy is created according to Einsteins’s formula E=mc2 (energy produced equals mass times the speed of light squared).”
Since the speed of light is 186,000 miles a second, that means converting mass into energy at a ration of 450,000,000,000,000,000:1. The atom bomb had thus been conceived. The only question was – who would build the first one and put it to use?
Five years earlier, in 5693/1933, Albert Einstein fled Germany to America, where he received a prestigious position at the new Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. Einstein, who had been a pacifist all his life, protested violently against Germany’s aggression in World War I and, even in 5689/1929, he publicly declared that, if a war broke out, he would “unconditionally refuse to do war service, direct or indirect… regardless of how the cause of the war should be judged.”
Nevertheless now, in the shadow of Nazi Germany, physicists in America were anxious that Germany might develop an atom bomb first. In 5699/1939 they sent the following warning to the White House, with Einstein’s signature: “F.D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, White House, Washington D.C.
“Sir: “Some recent work… which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to suspect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which have arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. “The new phenomenon would… lead to the construction of bombs and it is conceivable, though much less certain, that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. Asingle bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory… “Yours very truly, Albert Einstein.
Thus, through his discovery of Relativity and his encouragement of the White House, Einstein the pacifist unintentionally unleashed one of the most destructive forces in history.
THE VIRUS HOUSE
Back in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the “uncertainty principle” of quantum physics, delivered the first part of a comprehensive paper on how to construct a workable atom bomb to the German military. By February 5700/1940 he had finished his report and began building an experimental nuclear reactor in Berlin. To warn curious people away, the structure was named “The Virus House.” It took America a little longer to get started, but once things got rolling, everything was done on a truly gigantic scale. Starting in mid 5702/1942, two massive factories were set up, employing over 100,000 people. The “Manhattan Project,” as it was called, was headed by Robert Oppenheimer, a Jew who is generally known as “the father of the atom bomb.” Money was no object. At one stage when it was suggested that the bomb might work better with a solid gold casing to help bounce escaping neutrons back into an exploding bomb, a small package was sent in from Fort Knox. Inside was a six inch sphere of solid gold.
After three years of unremitting labor, the first plutonium bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 5705/1945, releasing energy equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.
“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer said afterwards. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.”
According to his brother, all Oppenheimer said at the time was, “It worked!”
Ironically, Einstein barely participated in the project at all, and only contributed two days towards solving a certain problem in December 5702/1941. Apparently, he was not trusted to keep things under wraps. As one project coordinator wrote at the time, “I am not at all sure… (Einstein) would not discuss it in a way that it should not be discussed.”
Five years before his death in 5714/1954, Einstein expressed his regret that the bomb had ever been constructed: “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made. But there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.
A FORTUNATE MISCALCULATION
How close were the Germans to making a bomb? Although the Allies were concerned that Germany was on the verge of making a bomb, Germany never got close to it. It has been claimed that the Allies spent as much money trying to prevent Germany from producing a bomb as Germany spent trying to make one.
There were two theories why Germany made so little progress. First of all, unlike the Allies, Germany split her energies and had two rival teams working on the bomb, one working for the military, and a second team coordinated by the German Post Office. In addition, after the war, Werner Heisenberg, the mastermind behind the German efforts cultivated a story that he could have built a bomb all along if he wanted to, and that he deliberately held up the project because of his anti-Nazi sentiments.
This version was repudiated in 5752/1992 when Britain declassified secret tape recordings produced soon after the war.
After the war, fifteen German scientists, including Heisenberg, had been captured by the Allies and kept under surveillance in Farm Hall, England. Their secretly recorded conversations strongly indicate that Heisenberg did not have the requisite knowledge to build a bomb. For example, upon hearing about the Hiroshima blast he blurted out that such a bomb was impossible. One of his greatest blunders was his calculation that it would require 13,000 kilograms of uranium to construct a bomb. This was more than a thousand times larger than the true figure of about ten kilograms. Heisenberg’s estimate discouraged the German High Command and held them back from throwing everything they had into bomb-building. Heisenberg more or less admitted this in a 5727/1967 interview:
“The official slogan of the government was: ‘We must make use of physics for warfare.’ We turned it around for our slogan: ‘We must make use of warfare for physics…’We felt already in the beginning that if it were possible at all to actually make explosives, it would take such a long time and require such an enormous effort that there was a very good chance the war would be over before that could be accomplished…
“Now let’s talk seriously about this: If we wanted to make the necessary heavy water it would take one to three years to get a sufficient amount. To make enough plutonium would also take another three years. So with the best conscience in the world, we could tell our government, ‘It will not be possible to make a bomb within five years or so.’ We knew already that they would forbid any new developments which couldn’t be used within the next year or so. It was then quite clear that they would say, ‘No, no! No effort for the atomic bomb.’ That was what happened…”
Heisenberg went on to quote Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister who said in an interview, ‘We listened when they told us that, in principle, atomic bombs could be made, but they also emphasized that it would take a number of years; certainly not before five years or so… Therefore, I didn’t report the whole thing to the Fuehrer until two weeks later or so, and then in a very casual way because I did not want the Fuehrer to get so interested that he would order great efforts immediately to make the atomic bomb.’ “Speer felt it was better that the whole thing should be dropped,” Heisenberg concluded, “and the Fuehrer also reacted that way.”
The Allies knew nothing of this during the war and made desperate attempts to ensure that Germany lost the race for the bomb.
For example, in February 5704/1944, the Norwegian resistance reported that Germany was planning to move Norway’s entire stock of heavy water (a special water used to produce atomic isotopes) back to Germany.
The Allies had to make an agonized decision. Should they sink the train carrying the heavy water as it was being ferried across a deep lake, even though there were civilians aboard? And what about Germans reprisals? Nonetheless, a decision was made and London radioed the Norway command:
“Matter has been considered stop It is thought very important that the heavy water shall be destroyed stop Hope it can be done without too disastrous results stop.” Two Norwegian saboteurs smuggled explosives on board the ferry and the explosives erupted at 10:45 a.m. Heavy water, as its name suggest, is heavier than normal water, so the barrels containing the precious substance sank in 1,300 feet of water, together with over a dozen passengers.
In the end, the Allies’ efforts turned out to be unnecessary. Germany was nowhere near to making an atom bomb and, as time goes on, it becomes more evident that Japan, too, could have been conclusively defeated without the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. However, the longer time needed to defeat the Japanese would have cost the allies many more deaths.