How Nazi Germany lost the nuclear plot
By Gordon Fraser
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, neither the Atomic Bomb nor the Holocaust were on anybody’s agenda. Instead, the Nazi’s top aim was to rid German culture of perceived pollution. A priority was science, where paradoxically Germany already led the world. To safeguard this position, loud Nazi voices, such as Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, complained about a ‘massive infiltration of the Jews into universities’.
The first enactments of a new regime are highly symbolic. The cynically-named Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service, published in April 1933, targeted those who had non-Aryan, ‘particularly Jewish’, parents or grandparents. Having a single Jewish grandparent was enough to lose one’s job. Thousands of Jewish university teachers, together with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were sacked. Some found more modest jobs, some retired, some left the country. Germany was throwing away its hard-won scientific supremacy. When warned of this, Hitler retorted ‘If the dismissal of [Jews] means the end of German science, then we will do without science for a few years’.
Why did the Jewish people have such a significant influence on German science? They had a long tradition of religious study, but assimilated Jews had begun to look instead to a radiant new role-model. Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist the world had ever known. As well as an icon for ambitious young students, he was also a prominent political target. Aware of this, he left Germany for the USA in 1932, before the Nazis came to power.
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The talented nuclear scientist Leo Szilard appeared to be able to foresee the future. He exploited this by carefully cultivating people with influence. In Berlin, he sought out Einstein.
Like Einstein, Szilard anticipated the Civil Service Law. He also saw the need for a scheme to assist the refugee German academics who did not. First in Vienna, then in London, he found influential people who could help.
Just as the Nazis moved into power, nuclear physics was revolutionized by the discovery of a new nuclear component, the neutron. One of the main centres of neutron research was Berlin, where scientists saw a mysterious effect when uranium was irradiated. They asked their former Jewish colleagues, now in exile, for an explanation.
The answer was ‘nuclear fission’. As the Jewish scientists who had fled Germany settled into new jobs, they realized how fission was the key to a new source of energy. It could also be a weapon of unimaginable power, the Atomic Bomb. It was not a great intellectual leap, so the exiled scientists were convinced that their former colleagues in Germany had come to the same conclusion. So, when war looked imminent, they wanted to get to the Atomic Bomb first. One wrote of ‘the fear of the Nazis beating us to it’.
Szilard, by now in the US, saw it was time to act again. He knew that President Roosevelt would not listen to him, but would listen to Einstein, and wrote to Roosevelt over Einstein’s signature.
When a delegation finally managed to see him on 11 October 1939, Roosevelt said “what you’re after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up”. But nobody knew exactly what to do. The letter had mentioned bombs ‘too heavy for transportation by air’. Such a vague threat did not appear urgent.
But in 1940, German Jewish exiles in Britain realized that if the small amount of the isotope 235 in natural uranium could be separated, it could produce an explosion equivalent to several thousand tons of dynamite. Only a few kilograms would be needed, and could be carried by air. The logistics of nuclear weapons suddenly changed. Via Einstein, Szilard wrote another Presidential letter. On 19 January 1942, Roosevelt ordered a rapid programme for the development of the Atomic Bomb, the ‘Manhattan Project’.
Across the Atlantic, the Germans indeed had seen the implications of nuclear fission. But its scientific message had been muffled. Key scientists had gone. Germany had no one left with the prescience of Szilard, nor the political clout of Einstein. The Nazis also had another priority. On 20 January, one day after Roosevelt had given the go-ahead for the Atomic Bomb, a top-level meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee outlined a “final solution of the Jewish Problem”. Nazi Germany had its own crash programme.
As such, two huge projects, unknown to each other, emerged simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The dreadful schemes forged ahead, and each in turn became reality. On two counts, what had been unimaginable no longer was.
Gordon Fraser was for many years the in-house editor at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. His books on popular science and scientists include Cosmic Anger, a biography of Abdus Salam, the first Muslim Nobel scientist, Antimatter: The Ultimate Mirror, and The Quantum Exodus. He is also the editor of The New Physics for the 21st Century and The Particle Century.
Image credits: Atomic Bomb tested in the New Mexico desert. Photograph courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Auschwitz-Birkenau, alte Frau und Kinder, Bundesarchiv Bild, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.