The Atomic Bomb That Never Was:

Germany’s Atomic Bomb Project


Matt Easley


In August of 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, wrote, “It is possible that the German will have, by the end of this year, enough material accumulated to make a large number of gadgets [atomic bombs] which they will release at the same time on England, Russia, and this country” (Ford 212).  In fact, Oppenheimer was only involved in the Manhattan Project because of the idea that Germany would develop a bomb.  Thomas Powers describes the situation as, “A single lurid fear brought the American decision to undertake the vast effort and expense required to build the atomic bomb-the fear that Hitler’s Germany would do it first” (Powers VII).  However, history is clear on this point.  Germany did not produce any atomic bombs.  American scientists, not German, created the first atomic pile.  American scientists, not German, said after the first successful test,  “We have this day crossed a great milestone in human progress” (Ford 213).  American bombs, not German ones, destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and introduced the world to the power of atomic weapons.  Nevertheless, the success of the Allied war effort against Germany and the subsequent dropping of the atomic bombs were still in the future when Oppenheimer wrote the aforementioned words.  In the early years of the war the fear existed that Germany would develop a powerful new weapon.  One scientist fleeing from Germany said of the German Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, “If anybody in the world could make the atomic bomb, Heisenberg could” (Szasz 407).  The reason for the failure of Germany to develop a bomb is a question with a controversial answer.  Many people, including Heisenberg himself, argue that the German scientists were morally opposed to the atomic bomb and therefore secretly sabotaged the effort.  However, whether or not German scientists prevented the successful completion of the atomic bomb is irrelevant.  Germany during World War II was unable to marshal the necessary resources to undertake the project.

            One of the opening episodes in the controversy over the failure of the German project and Heisenberg’s role in that failure occurred in September 1941, at a meeting in Copenhagen between Hesienberg and Niels Bohr.  First discussing the upcoming meeting with other scientists involved in nuclear research, including Carl von Weizsacker and Karl Wirtz, he went to see Bohr in order to discuss German research.  Two different versions of the proceedings of this meeting exist.  Bohr recounted after the war that he heard “an effort on Heisenberg’s part to halt development specifically of an Allied bomb” (Powers 125).  Understandably Bohr wanted nothing to do with this appeal.  Although Heisenberg was vague after the war in discussing his purpose, the other version states that he apparently went with the hope of convincing Bohr that a bomb would require enormous amounts of resources for either side, too enormous in fact.  As Heisenberg’s wife describes it in her memoir:

The truth was that Heisenberg saw himself confronted with the specter of the atomic bomb, and he wanted to signal to Bohr that Germany neither would nor could build a bomb.  That was his central motive.  He hoped that the Americans, if Bohr could tell them this, would perhaps abandon their own incredibly expensive development. (Powers 117-118)

Regardless of the motive, the meeting was unsuccessful, as Bohr walked out, angry at Heisenberg.  Nevertheless, this meeting did succeed in confirming to the Americans that Germany was involved in research into an atomic bomb, and after the war, it succeeded in sparking controversy over what Heisenberg was trying to do.

            The debate over the German scientists role in the development of the bomb intensified after the war.  During the closing days of the conflict, American and British intelligence officials decided to inter many of Germany’s leading scientists at a place known as Farm Hall, in England.  Their purpose was simple.  By secretly placing microphones in the German quarters, they hoped to learn the extent of the German atomic bomb project from conversations between the detainees.  These recorded conversations provide insight into their reaction to the news of the dropping of the atomic bombs on August 6th and August 9th.  Heisenberg’s meeting with Bohr during the war, coupled with these recordings and later statements, led many historians to conclude that Germany could have produced the bomb, but that German scientists managed to delay these efforts.  This conclusion has become known as the “Heisenberg Version.”

At Farm Hall, immediately following the news of the first bomb, Weizzsacker said to his colleagues, “I believe that 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” (Frank 76-77).  Later in the day, Otto Hahn remarked, “I must honestly say that I would have sabotaged the war if I had been in a position to do so” (Frank 82).  Finally, Heisenberg himself told Hahn that if the Germans had been in the same 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” (Frank 83).  Each of these statements lends credence to the belief that German scientists did not want the Nazis to win the war and that they therefore did not pursue research on the bomb to the fullest extent possible.

After the war was over and the German scientists returned to their homes, Weizsacker wrote several letters pertaining to the war research, which he later published.  Among these comments was one that stated, “Through research [German physicists] had to make sure that America developed no atomic bombs” (Rose 43).  He goes on to say that they did not want to tell the German authorities that a bomb was possible for fear that they would be ordered to produce one themselves.  Allowing for the fact that some research was done on an atomic bomb, Weizsacker offers the caveat that the research was done for defensive purposes.  Years later, in 1966, Heisenberg wrote, “Since we knew that [Manfred von Ardenne] was interested in the atomic bomb question, we feared that he would get something big going on the matter…Naturally we wanted to block this at any price” (Rose 48).  Here Heisenberg explicitly states that he wanted to prevent any major research into the atomic bomb.  Four years later, he is even clearer about his efforts to sabotage the bomb project when he wrote a letter to his editor that said, “Dr. Hahn, Dr. von Laue and I falsified the mathematics in order to avoid the development of the atom bomb by German scientists” (Rose 60).  The idea that Heisenberg and the other German scientist were morally opposed to the bomb and thence sabotaged its research gained strength from comments such as these. 

Although the “Heisenberg Version” appeals to many people, the simple fact of the matter is that Germany, irregardless of the efforts of its scientists, would have been unable to produce an atomic bomb during World War II.  Even some of the scientists at Farm Hall were aware of this fact.  On August 6th, Paul Harteck said quite clearly, “We could not have produced the bomb” (Frank 80).  Later that day, Erich Bagge said, “I think it is absurd for Weizsacker to say he did not want the [bomb project] to succeed” (Frank 90).  He goes on to clarify this statement by remarking that, “It was impossible,” to separate the isotopes necessary for making an atomic bomb in Germany (Frank 90).  For Bagge, whether they wanted to build a bomb was beside the point because they would have been unable to succeed.  Both Bagge and Harteck recognized this fact and were under no illusions that they could have been successful.

As mentioned earlier, Bagge knew that they would be unable to separate the isotopes necessary for creating an atomic bomb.  Earlier that same day, Harteck commented on the reason for that impossibility, “We were quite clear in our minds as to how it should be done.  That would have meant employing a hundred people and that was impossible” (Frank 74).  Although these scientists never mention the flight of Jewish scientists openly, it was this flight that limited the number of scientists available to work on the atomic bomb project.  The policies of Hitler’s Nazi Germany alienated not only the Jewish community but also many others who feared the rise of fascism in both Germany and Italy.  Just a few examples of those who fled include such notable scientists as Nobel Laureates Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi.  What this obviously meant is that many leading scientists contributed not to the German effort but rather to the American effort to develop the bomb.  Germany was now not only missing many brilliant minds who could have worked on the project, but also many other scientists who could have conducted experiments to contribute information.  The sheer number of people involved in each project aptly demonstrates this fact.  The Manhattan Project involved roughly 250,000 people working on various aspects of the project while the German effort involved only around 100 people.  Although not everyone who worked on the projects was a Nobel caliber scientist, the huge disparity in numbers provides a glimpse into the difference in the number of scientists who worked for each side.  It was this disparity that Hartek referred to when he said it was impossible to employ a hundred workers.

            The number of people working on the project was not the only reason the bomb project in Germany failed compared to the American effort.  Germany only spent an estimated one million dollars in their efforts.  In contrast, the Americans spent over two billion dollars.  In a memorandum written and signed by the German scientists as Farm Hall, they wrote “On the whole the funds made available by the German authorities for uranium were extremely small compared to those employed by the Allies” (Frank 106).  Money was not the only aspect in which the German effort was lacking.  Even in laboratory and engineering space, the Germans facilities were inadequate.  The research was carried out in common university labs.  No specialized lab or plant was built.  During the course of the war, the research was moved to small towns in the Black Forest to avoid Allied bombing raids.  Whereas the Americans utilized dedicated university sites, such as the celebrated lab underneath the football stadium at the University of Chicago where the first self-sustained nuclear reaction occurred, and then enormous processing plants and a vast testing complex at Los Alamos, in total some thirty seven different sites, German scientists had to make do with small houses and even caves towards the end of the war.  No scientist, whether a Nobel laureate or not, could make the necessary breakthroughs under these conditions.  As Peter Rose points out in his book, “The bomb project was bound to fail because it need massive industrial resources that were beyond Germany’s capability” (Rose 46). 

            One last material aspect hindered the Germans.  Unlike the American effort, in which scientists had discovered the use of graphite to moderate the speed of the reaction, the Germans still used heavy-water for this task.  Ironically in 1940, basing his conclusions on an erroneous experiment by Walther Bothe, Heisenberg wrote that “pure graphite was less suitable as the moderator in a uranium pile then had at first seemed” (Irving 59).  This report meant that Germany would continue to rely on heavy-water, which they obtained from a plant located in Norway.  In February of 1943, a team of saboteurs destroyed the facility, and after the Germans rebuilt the plant, an Allied bombing raid forced the Germans to move the equipment to a safer location.  During that move, Norwegian resistance fighters sank the ferry transporting the equipment.  The loss of heavy-water production convinced many of the German scientists that it would be impossible for them to achieve any advances in nuclear research.  They only had two and one half tons of heavy-water to use for further experiments.  They had no hope of obtaining it from any other source.  One of the German scientists working on the atomic bomb project, Kurt Diebner, said later, “It was the elimination of German heavy-water production in Norway that was the main factor in our failure to achieve a self-sustaining atomic reaction before the war ended” (Kurzman 378).

            Beyond the tangible reasons that the German effort never succeeded, the personalities of the German scientists inhibited their efforts.  A simple example of this is the fact that in the first years of the war, when everyone in Germany believed that the war would be over by 1942, no scientist seriously considered the idea of developing an atomic weapon.  Such a weapon would take years to develop and the war would be over before then.  However, a much more important example is the conflicting personalities of the scientists themselves.  Heisenberg later described the situation as each scientist being more concerned with increasing their own importance and funding then with successfully creating a self-sustained atomic reaction.  What this meant is that German scientists often did not work together.  At Farm Hall, Horst Korsching remarked, “[The atomic bomb] shows at any rate that the Americans are capable of real cooperation on a tremendous scale.  That would have been impossible in Germany.  Each one said that the other was unimportant” (Frank 75-76).  Just one instance of this conflict occurred between Gerlach and Abraham Esau when both wanted to control the use of heavy water.  The end of this conflict saw Gerlach in control of all atomic research and Esau refusing to work with him.  This kind of lack of cooperation further damaged the German effort.

            Finally, even if Germany had the necessary resources for the project and was able to coordinate the effort, the likely Allied response would have prevented the completion of the project.  Even Weizsacker, who seemed to believe that they could have been successful, commented, “If we had put the same energy into it as the Americans and had wanted it as they did, it is quite certain that we would not have succeeded as they would have smashed up the factories” (Frank 78).  In destroying the heavy-water plant in Norway, the Allies first sent a sabotage team in 1942, every member of which was executed by the Germans.  This did not deter the Allies.  The second team was successful.  Furthermore, the Allies were willing to destroy a ferry, with full knowledge of the civilian casualties that would ensue, in order to destroy the shipment of equipment and heavy water.  If the Germans had progressed beyond the testing stage and developed a nuclear reactor, then undoubtedly the Allies would have launched determined attacks on the plant.  In an analogous situation, the Allies viewed ball bearing plants in Nuremberg as a vital target and launched an air strike against these targets.  108 American bombers, over a third of the attacking force, were destroyed.  Considering the fact that the German atomic bomb project was given higher priority as a target, the Allies would immediately have attempted to destroy any plant or factory involved in that research.

             Simply put, Germany was incapable of developing an atomic bomb during World War II.  They did not have the people.  They did not have the cooperation among the people they did have.  They did not have the money.  They did not have the laboratory or factory space.  Lastly, late in the war, they did not have the power to prevent the Allies from destroying what they did have.  Whether Heisenberg or Weizsacker or whomever secretly sabotaged the atomic bomb is immaterial.  The industrial and scientific capability of Germany was insufficient for the scope of this project.  Thus America dropped the atomic bomb on August 6th, not Germany.

Works Cited


Ford, Nancy Gentile.  Issues of War and Peace.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.


Frank, Sir Charles, OBE, FRS.  Operation Epsilon: The Farm Hall Transcripts.  Berkley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993.


Irving, David.  The German Atomic Bomb: The history of nuclear research in Nazi Germany.  New York, Simon and Schuster: 1967.


Kurzman, Dan.  “Sabotaging Hitler’s Bomb.”  No End Save Victory:  Perspectives on World War II.  Ed. by Robert Cowley.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Son., 2001.  Pgs. 362-378.


Powers, Thomas.  Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993.


Rose, Paul Lawrence.  Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture.  Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.


Szasz, Ferenc M.  “Peppermint and Alsos”  No End Save Victory: Perspectives on World War II.  Ed. by Robert Cowley.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons., 2001.  Pgs. 406-418.