Did Werner Heisenberg Sabotage the Nazi Atomic Weapons Program?

A few months ago I ran across a story on some news site about the discovery of documents that might clear up the controversy over Werner Heisenberg’s role in Nazi Germany’s atomic weapons program. Now the documents have been analyzed, and they do not offer much in the way of vindication for Heisenberg.

There has long been speculation — exemplified in Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen” — that since the Nazi atomic weapons program failed, a likely explanation is that Heisenberg either actively sabotaged the program or perhaps did not help as much as he could have. In Frayn’s play, there is a scene depicting a 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Heisenberg in Nazi-occupied Denmark. In the play, and in several historical accounts of the meeting, Heisenberg expresses doubts about the morality of helping the Nazis build an atomic bomb, and hints that he would be willing to sabotage efforts at building the bomb provided that the Allies do not build an atomic weapon either.

According to the Associated Press, however, those depictions of the meeting are not accurate. In a letter that Bohr wrote — but never sent — describing the meeting, he describes Heisenberg saying that the war might won by one side or another with atomic weapons, but expressed no qualms, moral or otherwise, about developing atomic weapons for Adolf Hitler.

This letter, along with 10 other documents written or dictated by Bohr before his death in 1962, are scheduled to be placed on the web site of the Neils Bohr Institute in February.


Secrets of the Nazi A-bomb effort. Associated Press, January 7, 2002.

3 thoughts on “Did Werner Heisenberg Sabotage the Nazi Atomic Weapons Program?”

  1. I haven’t fully understand whether Heisenberg was pro-Hitler or anti-Hitler. And how could Gestapo tolerate such an ambivalent man who was like his Theory. What version is right? One should explain the thing to the end. Adieu!

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