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David Irving is author of the first history of the Nazi atomic bomb project: UK edition The Virus House (Wm. Kimber Ltd., London, 1967); USA edition, The German Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, New York); Soviet edition Viruzny Haz (Atomizdat, Moscow), also published in Germany, France, Japan, Poland and elsewhere.



Anthony De Vere Tyndall of Basle, Switzerland, has questions about the Nazi atomic bomb project in a letter of Wednesday, October 11, 2000



Questions and answers on Hitler's atomic bomb project

I am an International Bacchalaureate Student in Basel and must accomplish a history assessment of 3000 words. I am doing it on the Nazi Bomb project. I was wondering if you could give me some guidelines on the following essay plan: "Was the German Atomic Bomb Project a Failure?"

Anthony De Vere Tyndall

Question: Explanation of criteria: what would constitute a failure? what we are looking for? what is the standard we should use.

David Irving answers: Both the Allied and the Nazi atomic projects saw two end products, a military weapon and a cheap source of energy. There are of course a third and a fourth spin-off by-product from any such project: the first is the specific advancement of science and technology in the area of uranium research; the second the psy-war benefit (mysterious rumours of enemy "secret weapons"). In the first two areas, the Nazi project was a failure, because although great theoretical progress was achieved, their scientists ran out of time. The lessons that they would have learned by the time of their soourn in Farm Hall, Cambridgeshire, in August 1945 was that in military science you cannot afford to rest on your laurels and be complacent.

Question: What did these German scientists actually do during the war? (as if you do not know what happens after the war, i.e., Hiroshima, and as if I do not know about the post-war controversies surrounding "resistance" or "collaboration" with National Socialism.)

Answer: I do not believe for one moment that there was any element of resistance by the Nazi scientists. That is a fiction developed particularly by von Weizsäcker. When I asked him how he could reconcile his pacifist (post-war) beliefs with having proposed to the Heereswaffenamt in a paper of July 1940 the development of [plutonium] explosives as well as uranium-235, he said: "I was under an army contract. If I had failed to deliver the goods, I would have had my reserved status removed and I would have been sent to the front." (A strange equation: One von Weizsäcker less, but also one plutonium weapon in the hands of the Nazis less!)

Question: How does this compare to the relevant portions of the American Manhattan Project? (And if possible, also to the relevant portions of the Soviet atomic bomb project.)

Answer: I know nothing about the Soviet project other than that Lavrenti Beria personally interviewed a number of the German uranium project scientists and slotted them into the Russian project, e.g. the father of a friend of mine, a professor, who lived after his repatriation in Berlin-Köpenick. The Manhattan project benefited from (a) essentially limitless financial resources; (b) the availability of the bullion of Fort Knox, which provided low-resistance electric wiring for the magnetic separation plants! (c) the dynamism and drive of Lieut.-General Leslie Groves, US Army, builder of the Pentagon; you will recall that in The Virus House I compare him with SS General Hans Kammler in that respect. (He incidentally gave my book high marks in a review in his private papers, which are now in the US National Archives' Manhattan Project files; he recognised many of the same areas of jealousy and dispute in my account of the German project as he had experienced, with frustration, in his own); (d) the unqualified support of the scientific, military, and political leaders at the highest level. As you know, Albert Speer showed little enthusiasm for atomic research, and he left Adolf Hitler in the dark about the backward status of the project, if not actually misleading him as to the progress. In February 1945 Hitler appears to have believed his atomic scientists were on the brink of delivering their "baby".

Question: What do the Farm Hall transcripts tell us about (1) what these German scientists did during the war; and (2) how they would portray their wartime work after the war.

Answer: I am going to publish a new book based on these and other transcripts of overheard conversations. They reveal much of the complacency and arrogance of the German scientists to which I referred above.

Question: (Very briefly) Examine how various authors (Goudsmit, Jungk, Irving, Walker, Powers, Brooks, Rose) have addressed this question, that is, what criteria they used for "failure" or "success," and how they judged it.

Answer: The late Sam Goudsmit is good, based on primary sources (which he also made available in 1965 to me at Brokhaven National Laboratory); Robert Jungk is a tyro, with little or no access to the records of the Nazi project; Irving's (i.e., mine) is a pioneering work, the first and only author to have interviewed at length the principals -- like Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, Erich Bagge, Harteck, Edward Teller, Walter Gerlach, and Kurt Diebner (who lived after the war in East Germany); I also obtained Gerlach's Kernphysikalische Forschungsberichte (which I donated to the Deutsche Museum in Munich via the Institut für Zeitgeschichte). Heisenberg complimented my work in a half page review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the most glowing terms; incidentally, my knowledge of physics was taught to me by Prof. P M S Blackett himself, who lectured at Imperial College in London; the work of Thomas Powers complements and partly supersedes my own (he would probably say wholly supersedes, and I would not begrudge him that). Walker's book is charged with spleen, the other two I do not know much of, though I did provide Prof. Lawrence Rose with complete access to all my papers when he was at the University of Tel Aviv.

Question: Own analysis and conclusion with regard to "Was the German Atomic Bomb Project a Failure?" If you could give me some "answers" to these questions, or guidelines (I don't expect anyone to write the thing for me) I would be more than grateful.

Answer: As you say, don't expect me to write your paper for you! I lived in southern England during the blitz (unlike the Martin Gilberts of this world, whose wealthy parents shipped them to safety in Canada). I don't recall the Nazis having dropped an atomic bomb on us, but there was one useful by-product from their point of view: we believed they were building one, or at least preparing to spray us with radioactive poisons. This generated a small scare and defensive effort in 1944. The negative by-product was of course that it was used by the Allies to justify the construction of their own atomic weapons, which might very well have been used against Berlin (as the scientists originally intended) and not the Japanese.

© Focal Point 2000 David Irving