The Nazis and The Atomic Bomb

“I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”

-Albert Einstein1

The entire history of the atomic bomb program is aptly encapsulated in this quote from Albert Einstein. One of the great motivating factors in the Allied program to develop atomic weapons, culminating in the Manhattan Project, was the fear that Nazi Germany would develop these weapons first. Eventually the world came to realize that while some strides had been made in Germany towards the development of an atomic bomb, they were unsuccessful and significantly lagging behind the Allies in the pursuit. Having fled Berlin to escape Allied bombing, German scientists were laboring around the clock in southern Germany near the War’s end to build a self-sustaining nuclear reactor. However, they were unaware the Allies had managed the feat more than two years previously.

The question is:  Why was this the case? What were the factors that caused the nation with a significant advance on the rest of the world – nuclear fission was first achieved by Germans Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, who published their findings in 1939 – to eventually fall short of the goal?


That Germany had the scientific prowess to achieve such a lofty aim seems beyond dispute. Germany was a scientific “superpower” in the decades leading up to the Second World War.  Of the one hundred Nobel prizes in science awarded from the first one in 1901 until 1932, thirty-three went to Germans or scientists in Germany; Britain had eighteen and the United States, six. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was world-renowned as a scientific institution. Germany had many of the world’s best scientific universities, including those at Munich and Berlin.

While all of the factors leading to Nazi Germany’s failure to develop an atomic bomb intertwine and overlap, some significant, overarching considerations can be found in the lives and work of two men: Einstein, as a paradigm of the Jewish scientists expelled or forced to flee the virulently racist Third Reich, and Werner Heisenberg, a scientist left to toil in the anti-intellectual, party-hack-dominated scientific community left behind.

Einstein came to represent all that the Nazis hated about “Jewish science.” By the time of the appointment to the presidency of the “Physikalish-Technishe Reichsanstalt” in 1933 of Johannes Stark, a fascist who dismissed Jews and insisted science be developed along “German lines,” Einstein’s theories were “already falling to pieces, which is the due fate of unnatural products” according to Phillip Lenard, author of the four-volume work, German Physics.2

Both Stark and Lenard mounted a fierce opposition to Heisenberg’s appointment as Physics Chair at Munich University, Stark condemning his work as “an aberration of the Jewish mind” (referencing Heisenberg’s support of Einstein), labeling him as a “white Jew,” and calling him the “Ossietzki of physics” which refers to Carl von Ossietzki, the 1936 recipient of the Noble Peace Prize. At that time, Ossietzki was being tortured and starved to death in Dachau. It is considered to Heisenberg’s credit that he continued to work amid the violent political construct of the era.

The extent of the decimation of German scientific advancement based on anti-Semitism was significant. After the exodus of dismissed Jews from the old and respected Göttingen university, a German government minister asked the great mathematician David Hilbert about the state of mathematics in Göttingen “now that it is free of Jews.” “Mathematics in Göttingen?” Hilbert retorted, “There is really none any more.”2

Another key factor was the anti-intellectualissm of the Nazi regime, as evidenced by the appointments of Stark and Lenard to key administrative positions. Sciences which could conceivably advance Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority and racial purity – such as anthropology and medicine – met with some favor.

Physics, however, seemed beyond the ken of Hitler and his immediate subordinates. In his memoirs Albert Speer recounted discussions in 1942 of the possibility of an atomic bomb with Hitler. Speer noted that the Führer was “unable to grasp the revolutionary nature of nuclear physics” and was “anti-modern in decisions on armaments.”3 More to Hitler’s liking were such bizarre programs as the one designed to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, talk and write, and serve alongside German troops. Hitler actually gave the go-ahead for a “Tier-Sprechschule” (Animal Talking School). Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s Interior Minister and architect of the “Final Solution,” was firmly convinced that the moon and planets were encased in ice, that the Earth once had two moons, one of which had crashed into the Earth, causing the Great Flood of Noah’s Ark fame, and that the existing moon was about to repeat the event. Given this environment, it is not difficult to imagine the challenges in advancing academic science.

The second significant idea encapsulated by Einstein is that the ultimate tragedy of the development of the atomic bomb is perhaps not contained in who developed it first, but that it was developed at all.  As Einstein later pointed out, “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”4

Ronald W. Clark: Einstein: The Life and Times; Avon Books, 1971.

Medewar Jean and Pyke David: Hitler’s Gift: Scientists Who Fled Nazi Germany; Richard Cohen Books, 2000.

3. Cornwall, John: Science War and The Devil’s Pact; Viking Penguin, 2003.

4. As quoted in an interview with Alfred Werner, published in Liberal Judaism 16 (April-May 1949), 12. Einstein Archive 30-1104.