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Paul Lawrence Rose: Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture. (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 345. $35.00.)

The author, Mitrani Professor of Jewish Studies and European History at Pennsylvania State University, describes the themes and purposes of this book in several ways within its first three pages: The German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg (1900-1976) is seen as "at once an emblem of twentieth-century physics and of the crisis of German culture and society during the Hitler period" (p. xv). Thus, he should be studied in both aspects, Rose argues, and the author's weighty subtitle to the book-- "A Study in German Culture"--propounds the same with curt emphasis.

Further, the book "attempts to penetrate Heisenberg's mask, to reconstruct his thinking and sensibility, and his conceptions of politics, morality and duty," writes Rose (p. xvi). The book "will enter into the German frame of mind, or mentality, or mind-set and sensibility that had evolved out of the German culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (p. xvi).

The author believes it has taken him "nearly fourteen years to resolve" the Heisenberg "case" and "its scientific and its moral obscurities," but that the present volume will show "the enduring nature of what one might call the 'deep culture' of Germany" (p. xvii), and that "only by understanding Heisenberg in his specifically German context" will one understand his politics, morals, and attitudes, no Less than his scientific work during the Nazi era, which he experienced firsthand from 1933 to 1945.

Following these ringing proclamations, the author regrets that he has not written "a graceful book" because he has been forced to be "tediously analytical"" in order to expose the nature and fallacies of much of this German thinking and feeling" (p. xvii). In the next 324 pages, Rose presents rather a melange of facts or alleged facts about Werner Heisenberg, about his participation in German nuclear projects, especially during the Nazi years, about those projects themselves--and, of course, about what one already knows from the first three introductory passages is the author's dominating interest in the stated problems of German culture.

One is not convinced that the weaknesses of this volume result from a tedious need to be "analytical" rather than from quite different causes. In any case, the reader is advised to have some other works on Heisenberg and German atomic science at hand while reading the Rose book. Among these might be the recent books by David C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (1992), Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949(1989), and the play (with postscript) by Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (1998), which premiered on the London stage in May 1998, and gives a composed version of the rather mysterious Heisenberg visit to his fellow nuclear physicist, the Dane Niels Bohr, in German-occupied Copenhagen in September 1941.

For Rose's arguments are nothing if not controversial and also seem to partake of the ambiguity which has surrounded Heisenberg's life and work in Nazi Germany, though Rose seems to think he has dispersed this fog. Certainly his book is not a final answer to those ambiguities, and its polemical cast often calls for comparison of some of his statements with comments on the same or related themes by other authors. It is impossible in this brief review to cite detailed examples.

One should note, however, that the somewhat popularized and perhaps even sensationalized tome by Thomas Powers (Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, 1993) is not among the books recommended above for companion reference alongside Rose's work, despite its length and apparent thoroughness. For Rose is not alone (though more sweeping) in objecting to doubtful scholarship in the book, reflected in an unconvincing defense of Heisenberg's relations to the Nazi regime.

It is the latter theme which is the common thread in all the named works, and in many other writings and discussions over the decades since the young Heisenberg leaped to prominence in the early thirties with the Nobel Prize, his enunciation of the principle of indeterminacy in the study of physical science, and the almost simultaneous emergence of National Socialism in Germany and fatefully developing nuclear research in several countries. The recent intensified reexamination of relationships among Heisenberg's personality, politics, moral sense or obtuseness, position in the Third Reich as an "inner emigre" from Hitler's regime, or loyal nationalist who conformed to it--or some combination of these two postures--reaches a sort of noisy but flawed crescendo in Rose's book. For, by demolishing Heisenberg's scientific competence in nuclear research on the atomic bomb, his moral and political ideas and judgment, and his straightforwardness after the Third Reich in explaining his role in Germany under Hitler, t he author wants to leave little of Heisenberg standing.

The author is less than successful, hampered as he is by a strong inclination to let his presuppositions about German culture and history far outpace or overshadow evidence, clarity of expression, and the establishment of convincing interconnections among various parts of his presentation. Perhaps most ironically, given Rose's insistence on placing Heisenberg's career in "the context" of German traditions and thinking, is that he is essentially silent on the context of the world of the thirties and forties in general, on the characteristics of Nazi totalitarianism, and on ongoing tensions between science and society in particular. The book's history of Heisenberg suffers by inadequate analysis of the history of the period, despite the author's claim to a new emphasis on the facts of Heisenberg's career.

For example, Rose spends many pages on the history of atomic research in various countries--interesting material in itself, but mainly wielded by the author to demonstrate that Werner Heisenberg in fact never understood decisive elements of the creation of an atomic bomb until after the August 1945 American detonation of one over Hiroshima, when he and other German nuclear scientists were already interned in England after the German surrender. It is important to Rose's deconstruction of Heisenberg to make this claim because if true it undermines the latter's assertion--and that of his "defenders"--that he purposely dragged his feet and those of colleagues (Heisenberg being the most prominent nuclear physicist in wartime Germany) on working towards atomic weapons for Hitler's regime. Yet Rose's evidence on this matter, while not to be ignored, is not overwhelming.

In this situation, Rose's machinery of condemnation of "self-delusion," "evasiveness," and inability to express moral outrage, said to be characteristic of Heisenberg and of Germans in general, comes into play as an intended reinforcement for the argument that Heisenberg did not understand the science of nuclear weapons and thus was in fact not motivated by outrage at the possibility of producing them for Hitler. He writes of Heisenberg being concerned most of all about his "honor" and reputation as a physicist, and about constructing or reconstructing his image in this regard during and after the Nazi regime. Aside from that, Rose writes in many variations, Heisenberg had a typically German "apolitical" concept of science as a refuge.

That there is probably something to these points by Rose should not be denied. Of concern is that Rose tries to make them exclusive explanations of Heisenberg's character and behavior as well as of "Germans" and "German history and culture." Without Daniel Goldhagen's name or recent best seller (Hitler's Willing Executioners, 1996) being mentioned anywhere by Rose, there are strong resemblances between the approaches of both authors. Goldhagen's illuminating points on a broader canvas than that of Rose tended also to be vitiated by the one-dimensional explanation of the Holocaust as a result of German history. In Rose's work, every ambiguity or shortcoming in Heisenberg's science, attitudes, and behavior seems to be given the most negative interpretation. This approach is not convincing for it not only ignores (as just one example) Heisenberg's justified suspicion that the famed reputation of physics in Germany had been eclipsed by Americans and should be recaptured, but the many ambiguities of the twentieth century, and of the Nazi period in particular, as an unexpected shock to civilization. That much about the rise of Hitler and his regime was entangled with the fateful history of the post-World War I peace settlement, and German humiliation is undeniable. Heisenberg and many others were no doubt involved in this scenario to a greater or lesser extent; and many did not grasp early on that Hitler and his henchmen would debase all sentiments of German patriotism and desire for vindication by erecting a machinery of oppression in the very name of such sentiments.

At the end of consideration of the Rose book and associated readings, one cannot ignore the possibility -- the possibility at least -- that Samuel A. Goudsmit, the Dutch nuclear physicist of Jewish ancestry who had first met Heisenberg in the mid-twenties in Germany, and who had profound differences with him after the war about his (according to Goudsmit) too pliant behavior toward the Nazi state, was accurate in his notation after Heisenberg's 1976 death: "In my opinion, he must be considered to have been in some respects a victim of the Nazi regime."

GEORGE K. ROMOSER is Director of the Technology, Society, and Values Program and Professor Emeritus of Political Science in the University of New Hampshire.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Romoser, George K.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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